White tea is one of the rarest and most prized of all teas. Light, delicate and subtle, this much-loved favourite is the perfect introduction to the world of fine Chinese teas.
The least processed of all types of tea, white tea is made by selecting the youngest leaves and silvery buds to create a sweet, dewy flavour. The leaves are simply picked, gently laid out to wither and then expertly dried. However, this simplicity takes great skill and subtlety from the tea master in order to create a truly balanced and nuanced tea.
White tea, like green tea, does contain caffeine, although on average less than black tea. It also undergoes the least amount of processing of all the teas. White tea is perfect for those who love delicate flavours as they offer a complex tasting experience.
The majority of most teas after they are picked, are left to oxidize. With white teas however, the tea leaves do not oxidize at all. Each leaf is simply plucked and dried, giving white tea its very pale colour and beautiful appearance.
The name ‘white tea’ is rather confusing. We would assume it refers to the light colour of the brewed tea, but actually it’s a nod to the fine silvery-white fluff found mostly on the underside of the tea plant’s youngest buds. To really appreciate the delicate flavours and the dazzling silver buds and leaves, this is a tea that needs to be drunk loose-leaf and the taste will benefit largely if the leaves are brewed with water only about 80C temperatures.
It is believed that white tea became popular during China’s Song Dynasty between 960-1279. The royal court enjoyed it, as it’s known for its delicacy. During this period, the Chinese discovered that the youngest buds would produce a milder tasting and refreshing tea. During the beginning of white tea history, it was known as the Emperor’s drink. Common people were not allowed to drink white tea and it was enjoyed by the Emperor and his court exclusively. In fact, one Emperor, Hui Zong, became so obsessed with white tea that it cost him most of his empire. Young tea buds were plucked in the spring, steamed, and stripped of their outer leaf. They were then rinsed in spring water, air dried, and ground into a silvery white powder. This powder was then whisked into hot water to create the finest and most expensive tea available- reserved only for the emperor.
Even after white tea became available to the commoners, it was still very rare and expensive. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that white tea history changed and certain tea bushes were cultivated to produce different varieties of white tea. Soon, white tea was exported to neighboring Asian countries and then to the western world.
HARVEST AND PRODUCTION
All tea, white, green, oolong and black all come from the same Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen bush indigenous to both China and India. Hundreds of mixes and fusions have evolved from the Camellia Sinensis plant over time, all thriving in diverse geographical areas across the world. Ultimately, it’s the variety of the tea plant and how the plants leaves are processed that defines the final type of tea that ends up in your teacup.
Oxidization plays a key part in how various teas are produced, how long tea leaves are exposed to oxygen, the darker the leaves, the deeper the flavor that’s developed. Tea masters have created many different methods to create and control oxidation such as rolling, crushing, steaming, firing and roasting.
White teas are produced from early to late spring. When the time is right, the workers carefully hand-pick the silver buds and select leaves. There is no picking on rainy days or when frost is on the ground. White tea can only be picked for a short time each year, making it rare and precious.
They are the subtlest of all the varieties of tea, using only the newest leaves from each bush with a minimal amount of processing. Most of the white tea in the world comes from China, there are some regions of India and Sri Lanka that product it now too. Since only the youngest buds and leaves go into its making, harvesting is time consuming and production is limited, as such white tea prices are higher compared to other teas.
The processing of white teas is very different to other teas. Unlike black or green tea, white tea is not rolled, and only slightly oxidized, making it the least processed tea. After picking, white tea producers utilize two critical steps that we usually associate with black tea manufacturing; withering and bake-drying. The freshly plucked leaved are spread put and allowed to wither until they are completely dry. If the weather is not good on the day of harvest, sometimes a dryer is set in a very low temperature to help the leaves wither faster.
TYPES OF WHITE TEA
White tea is produced almost exclusively in the Fujian province of China. There are three main types of white tea:
- Silver Needle – this tea is made from lustrous, silvery buds (unopened leaf shoots) that are covered in white downy fuzz. It has a subtle, mildly sweet flavour.
- White Peony (Pai Mu Tan) – this tea uses the bud along with the two youngest leaves, which contribute to a sweet, mildly grassy taste.
- Shou Mei – this tea is made with a non-uniform mix of buds and lower grade leaves; this tea sometimes goes through a light rolling process and light oxidation to deepen the flavor. It is floral and fruity to taste, similar to a green tea.
About: Silver Needle has to be one of the most beautiful teas. The regal silver spears produce a high quality white tea with stunning yet gentle floral notes. It is an enviably smooth and soothing cup. One of the most sought after and valuable teas worldwide.
How to brew: 1 heaped teaspoon of tea per cup, 85C water (leave boiling water to cool for 2-3 mins before infusing), 3-4 mins brewing time.
Price: £28.90 for a 100g bag
About: A superb white tea hand-picked during the Spring harvest. Only the young buds with silvery white downy fluff are harvested to create this exceptional tea. Tea leaves are processed in a similar way to green tea; withering, steaming, rolling, firing and cooling then gentle hand rolling of the leaves giving this tea a beautiful appearance.
How to brew: 1 heaped teaspoon of tea per cup, 85C water (leave boiling water to cool for 2-3 mins before infusing), 2-3 mins brewing time.
Price: £19.90 for a 100g bag
About: Fragrant, flowery and finely aromatic, this is a true classic amongst the white teas. The cup colour appears light, golden-yellow in colour. Only the youngest buds together with the first two fresh, velvety leaves are picked to achieve the quality of this top class Pai Mu Tan.
How to brew: 1 heaped teaspoon of tea per cup, 85C water (leave boiling water to cool for 2-3 mins before infusing), 2 mins brewing time.
Price: £9.90 for a 100g bag
HOW TO BREW WHITE TEA
The delicate character of white tea can easily be lost if the leaves are infused with water that is too hot. White tea should be treated like green tea and only be brewed with water that has boiled and cooled to around 85C.
Because of the fluffy, airy nature of modern white teas, a large heaped teaspoon of leaves per cup should be used. White tea is also suitable for repeat infusing of up to three times. The first infusion should be the shortest of around 90 seconds and can extend up to 2-3 minutes for the final steeping.
The standard process is as follows:
- Boil fresh water and leave to cool slightly.
- Place your white tea in a tea strainer or infuser
- Pour the freshly cooled hot water over the tea
- Steep the tea for the appropriate amount of time
- Strain the tea
- Sit back, relax and enjoy!