White Tea Explained

Many people want to know exactly what is white tea?

When green tea first arrived on the Western scene it faced many of the same obstacles. Eventually, Americans welcomed its different, astringent taste, particularly when it was infused and flavored with other elements like ginger or mint. And green tea’s publicity as a healthy beverage greatly added to its popularity. Today, there are very few Western households that do not have at least one type of green tea in their kitchen cupboard. Even Lipton makes several flavored varieties.

White tea, which followed in the wake of green tea’s long stretch of success, has for the most part been lost on many of today’s consumers. Unlike most varieties of green tea, the best white tea is not found on the supermarket shelf. Much more costly and harder to distribute, true white tea simply lacks economic value for most sellers. In general, the white tea that one comes across in the grocery is in actuality a white tea blend and not real white tea at all. And, because of its subtleness, it is often heavily flavored with fruit – usually peach or pear – to provide it with some sort of aroma and taste. Anything heavier on the palate like ginger or even lemon would completely mask white tea’s essence, if it was there to begin with.  As a result, white tea has yet to enjoy the commercial success of its green cousin. But thankfully this is beginning to change as people discover what white tea really is and how, on so many levels, it can enhance your tea drinking experience.

Specialty tea companies and grocers, whose clientele seek out the more unusual and exotic, will carry white teas. For the seasoned tea drinker who is willing to do the legwork, the beverage of emperors can usually be had for a price. Even in these locales, white tea blends are common as they help to reduce the perceived exorbitant cost, but the blending is far superior to that found elsewhere. Through these channels, many have been able to experience the true pleasure that white tea can imbue.

What sets white tea apart from the rest of the teas, is that white tea is the least treated and processed of all available teas. It has been subject to fewer climatic changes, less growth and aging, less drying, less oxidation, and essentially less tampering overall, resulting in something far more pure and natural than its counterparts such as black teas – which go through a good deal of processing – and even green teas – which are generally subjected to firing. It is also, interestingly enough, the tea that receives the most care and attention in its production.

The Simplicity of White Tea

White tea in its purest form consists only of the unopened budsets of specific Chinese bush tea plants and are specific to the Fujian Province, located on the eastern coast of China. Picked in the early spring before they have had a chance to develop into leaves, the buds must be plucked under the most propitious weather conditions and before any “greening” has taken place. This helps ensure that the resulting flavor and color is simplistic in nature, with only subtle undertones that suggest honey, chestnut, and peaches, as it has been described by white tea aficionados.

There are two distinct versions of white tea available that are easily discernible in their appearance as well as taste. The more modern “new style” white tea, is composed of the first leaf bunch of the tea plant as opposed to the budset. Although both are dried in the shade, the modern type receives a final bake to remove lingering moisture, resulting in a more concentrated flavor. When sold it is often combined with buds in varying amounts to help replicate the authentic budset taste. It is much less costly for the consumer but is thought to lack both the true white tea flavor as well as many of the health benefits that traditional style budset white tea possesses.

White tea budsets are generally shaded on the bush for about three weeks before plucking. According to ancient tea lore, only silk-gloved virgins were allowed to pick the buds that would become the Emperor’s tea. Today they are still carefully plucked (the buds that is) from the same esteemed gardens but by professional tea manufacturers who are trained to know the perfect time and circumstances. Once removed from the tea plant, the budsets are moved to another shaded area, generally a pavilion, where there is abundant air circulation. No heat source is necessary.

Bai Hao Yin Zhen budset white tea, familiarly known as Flowery White Pekoe or Silver Needle, is the most expensive grade of Fujian white tea. Picked for about one month from March to April, about ten thousand handpicked buds are required for approximately 2.2 pounds (1 kilo) of product. Only undamaged and unopened buds are picked, which are gently separated from the stem. The leaves are then laid out in a single layer on a bamboo tray and left in the sun to wither until 70% of the moisture is removed. Afterwards, very minimal oxidation is allowed (about 5%) which is carefully monitored.

Light in color with a soft grey hue, the buds themselves are covered with a velvety looking downy hair. The closest one can get to the pure leaf, the hairs of Silver Needle are indicative of the tea’s quality and delicacy and can often be seen in the cup when brewed. Pale and light with a highly subtle flavor – often said to be reminiscent of peaches, apricots, or ripe melon – Yin Zhen is clearly the champagne of teas, and an experience in taste not to be missed! I think I’ll go have a cup right now!