Tea Categories: White Tea 101
Working in the tea industry, I field questions on a wide variety of tea-related subjects on a regular basis. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is how frequently white tea crops up in these discussions. Among the four widely known tea categories (white, green, oolong, black), white tea seems to elicit more questions among the tea-drinking public than all the others combined. Hopefully this post can answer some of those questions and clear up any confusion. So, without further ado…
What, exactly, is white tea? Are there different styles?
I’m glad you asked!
White tea is very minimally processed tea, plucked from a specific part of the tea plant. (The plant in question is nearly always a varietal of the China bush, C. sinensis sinensis.) In the case of the most classic style of white tea, only the newest buds of the tea plant are picked. In other words, these particular white teas are not made from full leaves, but from the leaf shoots that have yet to unfurl into leaves.
This style of white tea is called Yin Zhen – literally, “Silver Needle”, owing to the long, narrow buds’ sharp points and whitish-grey colour. Originating in Fujian Province in southeastern China, an area that to this day still produces what most consider the world’s finest white teas, Yin Zhen has a rich and storied history. In fact, Bai Hao (“white feathery” or “white downy”) Yin Zhen is one of about twenty teas that was held in such high esteem that it was offered to Chinese emperors as a Tribute Tea, and remains today one of China’s most famous teas.
An exquisite example of a jasmine-scented Yin Zhen from Fujian
Fujian’s white teas have been cultivated for centuries – actually, millennia – and thus the master tea artisans there have had plenty of time to develop their craft. But Fujian, to the consternation of some and the joy of others, is no longer the sole home of white tea. Today, exquisite white teas are being made not just in other Chinese provinces such as Anhui, but also in nontraditional white tea areas such as India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and even Kenya and Malawi.
The other style of white tea commonly sold in North America, known as Bai Mudan (“White Peony”), is a much newer innovation than Yin Zhen. Bai Mudan also contains some of the silver needles that comprise Yin Zhen, but the remainder of the tea is made up of the youngest open leaves (not buds) plucked from slightly lower on the tea plant.
A beautiful example of Bai Mudan. Note the presence of green leaves in addition to the buds.
How is white tea made?
White tea manufacture is definitely easier to describe than undertake. After the buds (and/or young leaves) are gathered, they are simply dried in the sun or, for the highest quality whites, air-dried in shaded pavilions. The only oxidation that occurs happens in the short time between plucking and the completion of the drying process.
“White Whisper”, a very rare single-estate Kenyan white
Sample graciously provided by Royal Tea of Kenya (http://royalteaofkenya.com/)
So what does all this mean for the actual steeped tea?
It means white tea is one of the lightest teas in colour and body, with an exceptionally refined, delicate and complex flavour. When tasting, I find I notice nutty and peachy notes the most often, especially in the highest quality Yin Zhens, and most white teas – regardless of type – contain an appealingly understated natural sweetness.
When steeping white teas, whether Yin Zhen or Bai Mudan, I suggest using about 1.5 – 2 grams of dry leaf per 250 millilitre (8 oz.) cup, with a water temperature of 75 – 80 degrees Celsius (165 – 175 degrees Fahrenheit). Steeping times can vary significantly depending on the particular tea and the style in which it’s steeped, so it’s best to experiment to find what suits your taste, but in Western-style steeping I generally infuse my Yin Zhen around four minutes, and my Bai Mudan three.
I recommend drinking white teas between late morning and late afternoon/early evening, ideally on their own so their subtle charms can be best appreciated, although I find Bai Mudan can be a great tea to pair with light sweets for dessert, as well.
Bai Mudan infused liquor (1.5g per cup, 80 degrees Celsius, 3 minute steeping)
What can you tell me about the health benefits of white tea?
Especially here in Vancouver, this is a commonly asked question, and is simultaneously one of the easiest and one of the most difficult to answer.
Firstly, all tea – regardless of type – will contain beneficial antioxidants. That’s about as much as virtually anyone in the tea industry is allowed to say without running afoul of government agencies. What varies is which antioxidants, and how much. White tea is thought to contain slightly more antioxidants than other types of tea because it is arguably the least processed of all teas.
Where the issue becomes tricky is ascribing specific health benefits to these antioxidants. The truth is that while there is a growing body of scientific evidence to attest to the health-promoting effects of the antioxidants found in tea, it can’t be conclusively stated that white tea (or any other) can reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
My advice? Drink tea because you enjoy it, not just because of any potential health benefits. Tea is a wonderful beverage to drink as part of a much broader healthy living strategy, but its positive health effects, however they may be perceived, should be seen as the proverbial icing on the cake – not the cake itself.
First Flush Darjeeling White Tea
I’ve heard that white tea has less caffeine than other teas. Is this right?
In short… NO!
I’m asked this question – or a variant thereof – more often than any other about white tea, and arguably no single issue causes more confusion among tea drinkers.
It must be said that the caffeine content of any given tea (not just white tea) is exceedingly difficult to gauge without actually scientifcally testing that particular batch of tea. There are a great deal of variables that affect how much caffeine a cup of a given tea will contain. Some of these can be controlled by the tea drinker – for example, steeping time or quantity of tea leaves used – but many cannot. These uncontrollable factors include the varietal of tea bush from which the tea is made; the manner in which the tea is processed (or not); and even the age of the leaves plucked to make the tea, to name just a few.
With that out of the way, a few generalizations can be made, and one of those is that white tea, on average, has more caffeine than other types of tea. As Beatrice Hohenegger notes in Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West:
“White teas… are commonly believed to be very low in caffeine. The opposite is true if we consider that young leaves contain more caffeine than old ones, and white teas are made up mostly of young leaves and buds.”
Ultimately, the exact amount of caffeine in a given cup of white tea is academic. Suffice it to say that if you are strictly avoiding caffeine, white tea probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a delicious, light-bodied little indulgence, you owe it to yourself to brew up a cup or three of a fine Yin Zhen.
Thank you for reading, and happy drinking!!