White tea is the least processed of all the teas derived from the leaves of Camellia sinensis (the others being yellow, green, black, oolong and Pu-erh). The tea drink that results is usually a very pale golden colour.
White tea is considered one of the healthiest teas, as it contains high levels of antioxidants such as catechins and polyphenols.
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Production of white tea
White tea is produced only from the immature leaves of the plant which are plucked in springtime before they have fully opened and are still covered in white, downy hairs, which is how it gets its designation “white”.
Tea that is destined to become black tea is rolled, shaped or crushed to speed up the oxidation and the aim is to fully oxidize the leaves. White tea and green tea need the opposite treatment, that is, for the minimal amount of oxidation to take place.
White tea, however, is even less processed than green tea: the leaves are simply allowed to air dry, or wither, in the sun for two days. It is ready for packaging after another day.
White tea must be hand-harvested from only the tiniest, youngest leaves of the tea plant which can only be harvested during a fairly short period of time in Spring, so it tends to be more expensive than other types of tea.
History and origins
White tea was traditionally produced in China’s Fujian province from one particular variety of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. However, the same techniques are now applied to other varieties of the tea plant and white tea is now produced in Nepal, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and northeast India.
Scholars and historians disagree on the history of white tea. Arguably, some tea has always been made from young fresh minimally processed leaves that have only just been plucked. The challenges involved in keeping it fresh and preventing it from starting to oxidize mean that was largely unknown outside of the region, or even the plantation, in which it was grown until very recently
The two main varieties of white tea
The two main varieties available are:
- Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle): this is believed to be the oldest variety of white tea, originating in China’s Fujian region. It is made from relatively large buds that, because of the particular nature of this variety of Camellia sinensis, is covered in more of the white downy hairs. The most expensive type of white tea, it smells rather like hay and the drink is golden in colour with a hint of honey in the flavour.
- Bai Mudan (White Peony): a fuller, more robust flavour is obtained from this slightly newer style of Chinese white tea made from buds plus some young leaves, giving the drink a slightly greener colour than Silver Needle. The flavour is fruitier, almost like ripened melon, and the drink is fresh yet smooth and mellow.
These are both Chinese white teas. The same processing method is now used across the tea-producing world, so there are Sri Lankan and Darjeeling white teas, which have the same delicacy of flavour but vary in their levels of fruit flavours, with some Darjeeling white tea even described as “chocolatey”.
There also variation within these types of tea: some are made from leaves and buds which still have the white downy hairs or “pekoe” on them, other types use large leaves and are usually a little more oxidized and will have a bolder flavour. A good tea merchant or vendor will have photographs of the product so you can see exactly what sort of tea you are buying.
Brewing white tea
This most delicate and expensive tea deserves to be handled with care but it is actually slightly easier to brew well than green tea because it resists going bitter if brewed at too high a temperature or for too long. Some guidance:
- Use freshly-drawn, cold, filtered water or spring water.
- Bring the water to a simmer, that is, around at around 75 to 80 degrees Celsius or 167 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit
- Use around a teaspoon of tea leaves to a cup of water.
- It is best made from loose leaves in an infuser tea pot or other large infuser to give the water the best chance to steep the leaves.
- White tea lacks the compounds which make green and black tea begin to taste bitter after brewing for more than around five minutes so can be brewed for up to seven minutes.
- Most high-quality white teas can be successfully used to brew tea more than once. Up to three or four times is entirely possible, with some arguing that the flavour is best on the second or third brew.
How to drink white tea
As already mentioned, the flavour of white tea is exceptionally delicate so it is usually drunk without milk or other additives. However, there are many traditional flavours which are added to white tea and it is available combined with other flavours such as chrysanthemum, goji, tangerine, jasmine and other fruits.
The flavours of white tea
White tea probably has the most subtle flavour of all teas and is quite a different drink from black or even green tea: its taste is probably as close to fresh tea leaves as you can get in a dried tea. It doesn’t have the malty punchiness of black tea and doesn’t have the same “grassy” flavour as green tea and there is definitely no bitterness at all.
Where to buy white tea
Update (5th March 2020): Please note that as a result of the ongoing worldwide coronavirus outbreak, TeaVivre is only able to ship products to the USA from its existing stock in the USA. Sadly this means that the links below to TeaVivre products will not work. You can read their latest update here, or check back with this site as we will be keeping a close eye on the situation and very much hope TeaVivre is able to start shipments again soon.
White tea has become extremely popular and therefore can be found on the shelves of your high street supermarket. We have not tried any of these, preferring to use our favourite, reliable tea suppliers for something as exclusive and special as white tea. My favourite suppliers of white tea are:
- TeaVivre are the Chinese tea specialists: find their award-winning Organic White Peony Tea, fresh new harvest Organic Silver Needle tea, as well as rare aged white teas.
- Art of Tea: one of my absolute favourite destinations for all things tea, Art of Tea sell excellent Silver Needle and White Peony, their award-winning Liquid Jade white tea (a blend of white and green teas with a hint of bergamot) and white tea in combination with peach, blueberry and other exciting additions.
- Culinary Teas: as well as Chinese white tea, alone and in blends Culinary Teas sell an exclusive Kenyan White Matcha which results in a deliciously thick, rich, floral drink. Exceptional.
- Teabox are the Indian tea specialists and sell a dozen different Indian white teas including Darjeeling White and Nilgiri White teas. They also offer a beautiful selection of ten different white teas as a sampler to help you decide which you like best.
If you’ve not tried white tea before, I really encourage you to do so, even if, or maybe especially if, you think tea is not for you. It is a sublimely beautiful drink, hot or cold, alone or in combination with other flavours. Exotic and yet comfortingly familiar at the same time, there is a white tea for every palate.