Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is White Tea?

Yin Zhen and Bai Mei, both white teas

Delicate is the best word I can find to explain the experience of white tea.  The aroma, liquor, flavor - they're all delicate.  When I drink white tea, it invites me to pay careful attention.  To experience it fully, I must block out the attractions/distractions of the world.

White tea is made from the buds (unfurled leaves) and in some styles the tender leaf of the Camellia sinensis tea plant.  The tea gets its name from the little baby hairs on the buds that look like down. 
An air dried white from PDXTEA, a mix of downy bud and leaf

White tea hails originally from Fujian, China and was a lovely Chinese secret for many centuries.  Over time the secret got out and other tea growing areas began to process in this style.  Around the millennium white tea stepped confidently onto the global stage.  You've probably seen white tea in everything from nutritional additives to cosmetics.  I believe the excitement has subsided a bit in the past few years, but the research into white tea continues - research is always good!  One thing that has been cleared up by research is that white tea isn't always low in caffeine, as was often promoted in its early days of US popularity.  The caffeine content depends on the tea varietal, the processing and how it's brewed (among other things). 
Silver Tips and Bai Mu Dan, two very different styles of white tea

White tea is very minimally processed.  The leaf is picked by hand, allowed to sit and wither a bit, then dried.  That's it!  Straight forward, yes - but it takes an expert to know how to manage the tea within each stage. 

The taste, honestly, is one of the hardest for me to describe.  Like I wrote at the top, it's delicate.  Sometimes floral and sometimes sweet, it's elusive and I like that.  You will also find scented white teas (jasmine or other aromas).  White tea carries these aromas well because the down retains the aromatics. 

White tea is on the pricier side because it's hand picked, made from only the baby bud and tender leaf and picked during a very narrow window of time.  Expect to pay ~$10-12 for an ounce of Silver Needle.  White tea is fairly forgiving as you brew it.  It does particularly well brewed in a gaiwan with water at 160-190 degrees for about 3-5 minutes.  Some can even take a steep up to 7 minutes.  Experiment with brewing times and temperatures.  I start with a very short brew and hotter water, then increase the time as the water temp cools.  You'll  need to use more leaf than you think because white tea is fluffy.

Do you like white tea?  What tips or experience can you share?


Michael said...

Hi there. Really well written post. Silver Needle (and I think any white tea) also has to be picked before the sun comes up (see http://metro-deco.com/silver-needle-white-tea-jasmine-yinzhen), which is what makes it white. The biggest mistake you can make when drinking white tea is scalding it.

Glad you're enjoying the world's greatest drink. Keep writing!


Linda at Friendship Tea said...

Great post, Stephanie! I had a long comment written, but your word verification was too difficult for me to read. Thought I would try again.

Angela McRae said...

Totally agree with you that white tea can be hard to describe, and "delicate" is a good word. When I'm trying a new white tea, I don't want any other flavors cluttering up the experience. I think I became a fan of Silver Needle after reading one of Laura Child's mysteries mentioning that tea, and I do love the pretty bow-like appearance of the Bai Mei you show up top. I love that some artisans took the time to craft this!

Steph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steph said...

Thank you all, I love reading of your experiences!

Teafan said...

Are those your photos? Meaning, have you tasted all those teas?

Steph said...

Teafan - I am a lucky woman! Yes, I have enjoyed all of these. You can read more about the first and last photos under the "Harney Tea Review" label - see right side of my blog. The middle photo is from a lovely tea tasting that I had with David of PDXTEA.

cha sen said...

Silver Needles is my favorite white. I love its delicate, honeyed taste. It's a tea that especially rewards with mindful sipping.

Rosemary said...

The delicate nature of white teas is what I enjoy about them... those beautiful fuzzy leaves are a delight!

Marilyn said...

I haven't experiments much with white tea, as the delicate, light flavor just didn't attract me. Maybe I should give it another try. Your descriptions are definite right on. Thanks!

Quinn said...

On a tea-related note, have you been to OCAC to see the teapot exhibit?