White Tea: Defined and Simplified

White tea in ginko leaf bowls, counter clockwise from top: Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Bai Mu Dan and Shou Mei. Yin Zhen Silver Needle wet leaf and liquor. (Midnight white on white leaf dish)

Myths and Vagaries

A few months ago I watched uncomfortably as a fellow tea sommelier asserted that the reason they had presented White Tea first was that “it was unoxidized”. I know this to be untrue, but I could understand how they might believe it. There is wide spread misunderstanding of White Tea with inaccurate information lounging everywhere on tea retail websites eg. “white tea contains almost no caffeine”. Another eg. “try our Anji Bai Cha White Tea”. Nope. It’s a Green Tea produced from a cultivar Bai Ye #1, whose leaves are pale due to lower chlorophyll production.

It may be perhaps that White Tea’s recent popularity has thrust itself on a consumer (or retailer) unaware. I’m encouraged however, that sound material can be gathered from trusted online sources and in published books, but not all of it simplified or in one place.

In the next few weeks we will see this year’s harvest of delicate White Tea appearing for sale. I believe that good knowledge of tea enhances one’s appreciation. Lately, I’ve been so frustrated about inconsistencies surrounding White Tea, that I decided to distill the knowledge I’ve gleaned into some clear information.  So here’s the dope on White Tea!

Facts

  • White tea is the least ‘processed’ of Camellia Sinensis sinensis. In other words it is not bruised or shaken or rolled or flattened.
  • It is the longest withered. In ideal weather conditions it will be spread out on bamboo trays immediately after plucking for at least 24 hours in the sunshine in order to reduce its moisture content. If the weather is damp, this process will be done indoors in a climate controlled space for approx. 24-48 hours. Because of the length of this wither, the tiny buds (and/or some leaves) will oxidize slightly. It is then baked at a relatively low temperature for about 12 hours, re-sorted and baked again. This process may vary according to the grade of tea and tea maker’s own methods.
  • White tea does contain caffeine, in fact quite a bit. Bud-style White Teas such as Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needles) are harvested from the first unopened budset to appear in the spring. These budsets are flush with nutrients, caffeine and polyphenols that protect them from insect attack. It is this high concentration of nutrients that allows White Tea the reputation of having enhanced health benefits.
  • It isn’t called ‘White’ because it is virginal, but rather the name-type “White” refers to the tiny white hairs or pekoe (rhymes with gecko) which cover the buds. This downy fuzz is another natural deterrent against insect attack.

Fine pekoe on the new buds of Bai Hao Yin Zhen. These tiny white hairs protect the new growth from insect attack and give the tea its name. You will notice some brown areas of oxidation

Pekoe of BHYZ as seen under microscope at 40x magnification

  • Most white teas originate from Fuding and ZhengHe in Fujian province, China and are plucked from the Da Bai Hao (Big White Bud) (大白毫) bush.
  • The 4 grades of white tea most commonly available (all from China):

1. Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needles, tender buds with lots of pekoe)

2. Bai Mu Dan (White Peony, mostly brownish leaves with some light buds)

3. Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow, mostly leaves with very few buds and no pekoe)

4. Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow, don’t let the name fool you – this is the lowest grade, but still tasty)

  • There is very good White tea being produced in Yunnan from the Jin gu (Pu er) ancient tree, not the Da Bai Hao bush, so it is quite different in flavour. One of these Whites is called White Moonlight and claims to be withered in the moonlight. It resembles a good-looking Bai Mu Dan grade in appearance.
  • White tea is being produced in other regions of the world. Ceylon and Darjeeling are producing good Whites as is Malawi. I’m not sure if the Da Bai Hao cultivar is used.
  • White tea has been produced since the Tang and Song Dynasties in China, but the current methods of production have only been used for the past century.
  • Grading for lower grades is often done after the pick, with the bud and 2 tender leaves plucked. The bud is then separated from the leaves.
  • Freshness matters: If you have had a White tea that was a little too nuanced and subtle, it was probably not fresh. White tea should be enjoyed in the year it is harvested at the very least and optimally just the weeks or months after it is produced. This certainly applies to the highest grade bud-type Whites.

Tasting and Appreciation:

Pale yellow liquor of Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needles)

Buds of BHYZ, Silver Needles stay tightly closed through multiple steeps

 

  • When preparing a high grade Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Silver Needles, you’ll get better results if you make the tea in small quantities. i.e. using 2.5 grams of dry leaf in a gaiwan, for mulitple short steeps (1 – 2 minutes)
  • Ideally, use spring water with low mineral count (around 55 ppm dissolved mineral solids), but filtered water will do. The water temp. should be around 80- 85°C, warmer than for green tea.
  • Lower grades such as Bai Mu Dan or Shou Mei could be prepared in a porcelain or Yixing tea pot and steeped for approx. 2 minutes. This is not exact as the freshness of the leaf and one’s individual preference will come into play.
  • Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needles) is best appreciated on its own rather than paired with food. It’s liquor is pale yellow with sweetness and no astringency.
  • Lower grade Whites eg. Shou Mei pair well with light fruits such as melon or lychee and Mochi (a sweet made with rice flour). The infused liquor of this tea has stone fruit flavours and some pine notes and has a darker liquor.
  • Multiple steeps are possible with all grades if the tea is fresh.

Okay there you have it. I hope there are no inaccuracies in this post. You know – the kind that frustrated me in the first place! If there are, I would be relieved if you’d let me know. I’ve purposely left out some of the refinements of processing as they vary depending on the producer. One thing is certain – there will always be more to learn about this elegant tea.

 

Related posts:
  1. The Top Ten: #8 Junshan Yin Zhen, Silver Needle Yellow
  2. The Top Ten: #10 Tie Guan Yin Oolong “Iron Goddess of Mercy”
  3. The Top Ten: #9 Wuyi Rock Oolong
  4. Man on the Ground for Min River Tea
  5. Traditionals: Fragrance Enhanced Tea OSMANTHUS

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Comments

  • Jameel Lalani, Lalani & Co

    Nice piece. I’d add something about ageing white teas; can have a wonderful impact on the flavour.

  • theteastylist

    That’s something I’d like to look into Jameel. Thanks for leading me in that direction! Do you know where I could read more about aged White Tea?

  • Tea-umentary

    I have some 26 year old White Tea from Fujian that is absolutely the best! Wonderfully sweet aroma and taste. But, at $3000/lb availability is limited. After initial rinse, I steep for about 10 seconds. Good article, though I disagree about steeping times. Here in China, I’ve never seen more than 30 seconds, and that’s for pu’er. I also have a laboratory chart showing caffeine content, and White Tea is the lowest in content.

  • theteastylist

    Thanks for your comments Tea-umentary. At $3,000/ lb, I will probably never get to try that White Tea, but the aging sounds impressive. Do you know what special conditions were provided for the aging? Is it a Yin Zhen or another grade?
    I understand what you are saying about the steep times. I tend to favour a shorter steep personally, but have found that so often upon trying a new tea I need to make adjustments for my own tastes. 1 – 2mins would be considered short compared to some suggestions I’ve read. The caffeine issue is an interesting one.
    Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal, Canada has done an independent scientific lab study on caffeine content in tea, published in their book Tea, History Terroirs Varieties. The chart indicates that BHYZ (5g leaf in 500 g 75C water for 6 minute steep) produced 15 mg. concentration of caffeine and sat just below an Autumnal flush Darjeeling (3.5 min. steep in 95C water), which contained 16mg caff. One of the conclusions made was that there were many factors determining caffeine content and that terroir came into play. So some harvest years could be higher or lower.
    I would very much like to learn more about aging white tea. Any material you could point me to would be appreciated. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!

  • Tea-umentary

    Come to China, I’ll share a cup or two with you! As for your questions, I will talk to the grower, though I need to do it through an interpreter. I have an excellent book about White Tea that was written by the grower..in Chinese. This tea is great at 10 or so seconds…but more recent harvests do require a little longer time. You hit on a key point though.. there’s really no “standard” for knowing caffeine and antioxidant content. Pick it, test it. Test it again in a year or two. It will be different. I think the writer you mentioned probably meant “unfermented” rather than “unoxidized.”