White Tea, called Bai Cha (pronounced ‘buy char’) in Chinese, has become more and more popular in recent times in the West thanks to the intensive (and often confusing) marketing done in relationship to its unique taste and health enhancing properties.
If you are short on time you view our infographic at the bottom of the article summarising the most important points about White tea.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
White tea is made using only the youngest and most tender hand-picked leaves and buds of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, harvested in early Spring. Sometimes, as is the case of the Silver Needle tea, only buds are used.
Many people think that the name ‘White tea’ derives from the almost transparent colour of the liquor, but in reality it stems from the downy white hairs covering the tender buds used to make this tea.
Much like true champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, the original and best White tea comes from China’s Fujian Province.
It was first produced in Fujian’s Fuding county, before spreading out to nearby counties like Zhenghe, Jianyang and Songxi, as well as to other provinces such as Guanxi, Hunan and Yunnan.
Nowadays White tea is also produced in other countries, most notably India (Darjeeling and Nilgiri), Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Kenya and Malawi but the original and arguably best White tea remains the Chinese one.
The first written records mentioning White tea are from the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), in particular from Emperor Song Huizong (1101–1125 AD). A great tea enthusiast and connoisseur (and lover of art in general) in his Treatise on Tea he gave a detailed description of the Song style tea ceremony.
Due to its labour intensive processing and elegant taste, back in those days White tea was considered a luxury solely reserved for the emperor of China.
Originally, White tea was produced using the Xiao Bai (‘Small White’) varietals of the tea bush. The small and thin plants only had small buds with little downy hair on them and did not yield much, resulting in low production quantities.
It was only at the end of the 19th century, when the Da Bai (‘Big White’) variety was discovered in Fuding, that White tea became more common. This variety yielded much bigger, fleshier white buds, imparting a sweeter taste and allowing for an increase in production.
By the early 1890s, export of Silver Needle White tea, considered to be the finest White tea, began and during the early 20th century, the popularity of this tea abroad grew rapidly. Soon after, in the early 1920s, the production of Bai Mu Dan (‘White Peony’) tea commenced.
Today, White tea is consumed in many countries worldwide and can even be found in bottled drinks and even as an ingredient in cosmetics. It does however remain a precious tea that commands lofty prices than many more common teas.
If you have read our previous blog post giving an overview over tea’s production processes you’ll know that White tea is the least processed tea. Yet its production is labour intensive and time consuming: the delicate buds and tender leaves require hand-processing from start to finish to avoid them getting bruised, as bruising would cause them to oxidise.
After plucking, the buds and leaves are withered for 2-3 days, first outdoors on bamboo racks under the sun, then indoors in a temperature controlled environment. The slow withering process allows the leaves to develop a sweeter, less grassy flavour.
After separating the stems, the leaves are baked at relatively low temperatures until their moisture content is reduced to about 3%. This increases the shelf-life of the tea, which is now ready for sorting and packaging.
MAIN STYLES OF WHITE TEA
There are several different styles of White tea, but here we’ll focus on the most famous ones. What differentiates them from each other is the plucking standard, which has a significant effect on the final cup.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen (‘Silver Needle’)
As mentioned earlier, Silver Needle tea is made only from unopened buds of the Da Bai bushes and derives its name from the fine silvery white down on the buds, considered the finest quality and the top grade of White tea. The very best Silver Needle is picked in early spring (from late March to the very beginning of April) before the Qing Ming festival (a traditional Chinese festival also known as Chinese Memorial Day or Ancestors’ Day), when it is not raining. Only undamaged and unopened buds are chosen and plucking is strictly by hand. For all the above reasons Silver Needle tea is the most precious and prized White tea on the market.
The dry buds have a silver-green colour and, once brewed, gives a pale yellow-green liquor which is known for its subtle sweetness and smooth, refreshing taste.
Bai Mu Dan (‘White Peony)
White Peony, aka Bai Mu Dan, is another popular style of White tea, also made from the same Da Bai leaf variety.
It is produced using the bud, still covered with white down, and the first one or two leaves. Plucked a little later in April, after Qing Ming, it is considered to be the second grade of White tea. The more buds are included, the higher the grade of Bai Mu Dan.
The dry leaves are a beautiful mix of green and silver, sometimes with a dark brown tinge to it, resulting in a liquor that’s darker and stronger than Silver Needle.
When the leaves gently unfold in the teapot they resemble the petals of a peony blossom, hence its name.
In terms of the flavour profile, White Peony is known for its delicate nuances of floral and fruity aromas, with mellow-sweet notes of fresh hay and some hints of honey. It is a slightly stronger tea than Silver Needle.
Gong Mei (‘Tribute Eyebrow’)
Gong Mei, meaning ‘Tribute Eyebrow’ in Chinese, is similar to Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), but is made using the bud and the first two or three leaves of the Xiao Bai (‘Small White’) cultivar. Gong Mei is considered to be the third grade of White tea. The dry leaves are smaller and narrower, often broken and slightly oxidised. The liquor is therefore darker and bolder than White Peony.
Shou Mei (‘Longevity Eyebrow’)
The fourth and last grade of White tea, Shou Mei (meaning ‘Longevity Eyebrow’ in Chinese) is also made from a bud and the first two or three leaves of the Da Bai bushes but harvested later in the season than Yin Zhen Silver Needles and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony).
The fresh leaves are bigger and the when dried assume a green, brown, sometimes almost black coloration with very few silvery buds. The liquor is golden with a bolder but less elegant flavour than Bai Mu Dan, reminiscent of lighter oolong teas.
There is a lot of misinformation about the caffeine levels contained in White tea. Many companies wrongly claim that White tea has the lowest levels of caffeine of all types of tea.
The reality is that it is very difficult to measure the amount of caffeine in a tea. It depends on many factors, including the type of tea, the plant variety used, whether it’s blended or not, the amount of leaves brewed, the temperature of the water and the steeping duration.
But as a general rule, White tea tends to have a higher concentration of caffeine than other types of tea. That’s because White tea, particularly higher grades such as Silver Needle, contains a relatively high percentage of buds. Buds are known to be higher in caffeine as they use it to protect themselves against insect attacks.
Having said that, tea generally contains significantly less caffeine than coffee and it is also important to stress that caffeine is a healthy stimulant for our heart, as long as it’s consumed in reasonable amounts.
Green tea tends to get all the glory when it comes to health benefits, but White is supposed to be even healthier, as it’s the least processed tea and therefore retains the highest level of antioxidants.
White tea is said to help against all sorts of ailments, from lowering blood pressure cholesterol levels to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and preventing diabetes related effects in the brain.
Whilst there is general consensus that tea in general is a healthy drink, there is often conflicting information and little scientific proof about how healthy it really is.
At Taste for Tea we believe that the main reason to drink tea should be to craft moments of serenity as an antidote from our hectic lifestyles and to savour a tea’s wonderful taste, alone or with friends. Any health benefits are just an added bonus!
What are your thoughts on White tea? Have you tried it, and if so which one? Do you have a favourite? Let us know in the comments box below!
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