White tea is the most subtle of all the varieties of tea, using only the newest tea leaves from each bush with a minimal amount of processing. Considered by some connoisseurs to be the height of gourmet tea, white tea is just beginning to make an impact on Western culture. Much of this newfound popularity is a result of initial health studies on white tea (although, as mentioned in previous lessons, it's now being shown that all teas are part of a healthy lifestyle).
In this lesson, we'll provide an in-depth look at the most delicate of all varieties of tea - white tea. We'll discuss the growing regions, processing, taste, and some interesting historical facts to provide a deeper knowledge of this exquisite style.
Most of the white tea in the world comes from China, but there are regions of India and Sri Lanka that produce it now, too. There are also a few different styles. In the finest white teas, only the unopened buds - still covered by fine white hairs - are hand-plucked and harvested. In others the newest leaves are plucked just after opening. The fine white hairs give this rare variety its name, and are also a sign of good quality. White tea is scarcer than the other traditional teas, and quite a bit more expensive.
The original White Teas came from the Fujian province of China during the 18th Century Qing Dynasty. In 1885, specific cultivars of tea bushes were selected to make these teas. The most common cultivars include Da Hao (Big Silvery-Hair), Da Bai (Big White), and Xiao Bai (Small White). Each type yields silvery-white leaf buds, which are traditionally harvested in the early spring. Because this annual, bud-only harvest produced a very limited crop, open leaf white tea production began in 1922 with the creation of White Peony (aka Pai Mu Tan or Bai Mu Dan). These teas included the first and sometimes second open leaf along with the bud.
White tea production is actually quite simple. The freshly plucked leaves are spread out and allowed to wither until they're completely dry. If the weather isn't cooperating on the day of harvest, sometimes a dryer set at a very, very low temperature is used to help the leaves wither faster. That's pretty much it; there's no twisting, rolling, steaming, etc. Most green teas have a distinctive 'grassy' or 'vegetal' taste to them, but white tea typically does not. The flavor is described as light, sweet, and delicately floral.
White teas are versatile and forgiving in their preparation. Now, you will hear many different "rules" on how to brew them, but they're much more flexible than that. Their smooth, naturally sweet qualities make them excellent teas to use when learning about brewing tea in general. A good starting point is 175 or 180 degrees for 3-7 minutes (all about personal preference). You could also use hotter water - 190 or so - and steep it for much less time. Cooler water for a longer time will yield sweetness and a soft, delicate quality. Hotter water for a shorter time will make a brighter cup with more body. Also, as most white teas can be very large and fluffy, you should use more leaf - 2+ heaping teaspoons per 8 ounces of water.
One serving of white tea can be brewed several times, with each steeping revealing another element of flavor. Experiment with these methods to find the perfect cup of white tea to fit your tastes.
While white teas have yet to receive the true praise and attention that they deserve, the fact that they are beginning to reach many large markets is a testament to the quality and durability of tea. Thank goodness, there may be still hope for the palate of Western culture!