What is White Tea?
White tea undergoes minimal processing, so it’s better defined by what it is not. The only deliberate action taken upon the tea leaves is a slow and methodical drying to reduce moisture and achieve a desired aroma and flavor. It is not “fired” like green tea, so varying degrees of oxidation (the process that defines black tea) will happen incidentally. It is also the only type of tea without any rolling or shaping of the leaf, so white tea leaves tend to be bulky and have the more rustic appearance of dried leaves (because that’s what it is).
How it’s made
We’ve heard tea producers say white tea is the most difficult tea to make because it is the simplest. There are very few points in which the tea maker engages the leaf, so the consequence of each decision is more significant. Because making white tea is a process of slowly withering and drying over time (sometimes a very long time), it is more about controlling conditions surrounding the leaf than interacting with the leaf itself.
White Tea vs. Green Tea (other tea types)
There are three ways in which white teas and green teas are similar:
- White tea and green tea are the teas most often mentioned in our popular culture for their health benefits (for more on the health benefits of tea, see our section below).
- Both are the only teas not deliberately oxidized. White tea avoids oxidation by gentle and minimal handling. Green tea prevents oxidation through firing or “kill-green”.
- Both tea types are often marketed as being low in caffeine, which is not inherently true. Both white tea and green tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant and will therefore contain caffeine (see our section below on caffeine).
Due to the “hands-off” processing of white tea, the leaves retain more of their natural shape, making it a bulky and voluminous tea to handle. Conventional western tea tools are usually not designed for this. However, broken grades are sometimes available to make white tea more cooperative in this regard.
Because of the minimal processing, white tea can be aged. Since it does not go through the kill-green process like green tea, nor a deliberate oxidation process like black tea, there will be a slow pace of change over time not unlike raw puer.
Where is White Tea Grown?
Tea field in Fujian province
The traditional home of white tea is Fujian province, but other Chinese provinces (and other countries) have started to produce white tea as its popularity has begun to climb. The local growing conditions and cultivar used play an outsized role because the tea maker has so few points of control during the process. As a result, the regional differences in white tea from, for example, Fujian province versus Yunnan province (or even Ceylon) can be significant.
How Do I Find the Best White Tea?
Since white tea is defined by its minimal handling from the tea maker, it also limits it to only three basic styles. You could say these styles are listed in descending order (Silver Needles being the highest, Shou Mei being the lowest). But similar styles made by different makers or in different regions are not all created equal.
White tea originated in Fujian province and the best teas tend to be made there due to geography, local cultivars, and accumulated experience and expertise. Not surprisingly, they are usually the most expensive. Other areas make good value white tea, but they will have a different character. Each should be judged on its own merits.
Silver Needles (Chinese: Bai Hao Yin Zhen)
Silver Needles white tea
This tea is the young unopened buds of the plant and is considered the highest quality white tea. Depending on where it was grown, the cup is usually light in body and color, but thick with texture. The flavors are fresh and vigorous, usually rotating around vegetal, fruity, and nutty simultaneously.
White Peony (Chinese: Bai Mu Dan)
The pluck of this tea consists of the bud and the first one or two leaves off the plant. White Peony tends to have more body than Silver Needles, but less texture. Depending on the oxidation levels of the particular lot, White Peony tends to produce a darker cup and the flavors will be more vegetal, floral, and slightly herbaceous.
This tea has no buds and tends to use only larger, more mature leaves. Shou Mei is not common in America and usually goes by its Chinese name. The teas tend to be more oxidized and are frequently pressed into cakes and aged. Compared to Silver Needles and White Peony, Shou Mei typically produces a fuller-bodied cup and flavors that are darker with woodsy/earthy characteristics.
How to prepare white tea
White tea often is described as having a “delicate flavor”, but our experience does not bear this out. White tea is actually quite forgiving and can be steeped in almost any manner you see fit. It does not easily become bitter or astringent so there’s no need to be overly gentle. The primary concern for most people steeping white tea is “What do I do with these huge leaves?” Western steeping methods are often not compatible with the bulkiness of white tea without crunching up the leaves first (which we don’t recommend since it will change the outcome of the intended quality). Like most Chinese teas, white teas are recommended for gongfu preparation (as will be outlined in the traditional instructions below).
Western steeping method:
3-4 grams of dry tea leaves per 8-12 ounces of liquid. Steep for 2-3 minutes at water that has just been brought to a boil. Adjust in ways that suit your tastes. Re-steep the leaves if desired.
Traditional steeping method:
This uses a larger quantity of leaves in smaller amounts of water for shorter periods of time. The leaves will yield many steepings this way. There are numerous ways to do this and they are a lot of fun to explore (and zero reason to be intimidated). The below instructions are a good baseline to start from if using a gaiwan, but can be adjusted based on the equipment you are using:
Use approximately one gram of tea per fluid ounce of near boiling water in your gaiwan. Steep the leaves for 5 seconds and decant. Discard this brief initial steep, which is known as a rinse. Re-steep the same leaves now for approximately 15-30 seconds. Decant into your cup or serving pitcher and enjoy. Repeat as much as the leaves continue to yield satisfactory results – increasing the steep time of each round. Take notice of not only the flavor in the cup but the aroma and the appearance of the steeped leaves. This is all part of the experience. Adjust any above-mentioned factor to suit your tastes.
So what about caffeine?
All tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), so all tea has caffeine. There are three factors you control that determine how much caffeine ends up in your cup:
- How much leaf you use (more leaf equals more caffeine available to extract)
- How hot you steep it (the hotter the water, the more caffeine extracts into your cup)
- How long you steep it (the longer it steeps, the more caffeine is extracted from the leaf)
White tea (like green tea) is also commonly advertised as having less caffeine than other types of tea. This is not accurate. Like any other tea, the amount of caffeine in your cup is primarily dependent on how hot you steep it and how long you steep it. Many tea sellers suggest very low temperatures and short steeping times for white tea, which would greatly reduce the caffeine in your cup.
Tea leaves that were pressed into the 2020 Winter White Tea Cake
Tea is one of the healthiest beverages in the world, especially as a preventative approach for long-term physical and mental health. TeaSource doesn’t make any claims about its teas as prescriptive solutions to any particular health issue since this is not our area of expertise.
Here are a couple articles to read if you are interested in learning more about the health benefits of tea:
From the NIH:
From “Medical News Today”:
The health benefits of tea, though considerable, are not the foremost purpose for drinking it. Tea is for your enjoyment - in whatever way you choose to do that. And that enjoyment is good for you all by itself.