Monday, February 20, 2017

What is White Tea?



It dawned on me that I've never done an introduction to each of the tea categories. Information like this might be old hat for some of you but I think those that are new to tea who might find it useful. Over the next few weeks, I'll be covering a different type of tea each Monday. Please let me know in the comments if there's something you'd like to see covered for yellow tea, green tea, oolong, black tea, or puerh tea.

Origins


White tea originates from China's Fujian Province. It is heavily debated when people first began producing it. Some sources say that it is the first tea ever consumed but others say that this processing technique has only been around for a few centuries. Fuding, Zhenghe, and Jianyang are the main production areas. White is often marketed as being rare but this simply isn't the case, especially as western interest continues to increase.

Varieties


Bai Hao Yin Zhen 
  • aka Silver Needle
  • Made exclusively from unopened buds. 
  • The highest grade of white tea.

Bai Mu Dan 
  • aka White Peony. 
  • Made using unopened buds as well as larger leaves. 
  • The leaves are largely unbroken and should still have a green hue.

Shou Mei 
  • aka Longevity Eyebrow. 
  • Contains a higher leaf to bud ratio than Bai Mu Dan. 
  • The leaves are more broken and may be a bit more brownish in color.

Gong Mei 
  • aka Tribute Eyebrow. 
  • Made mostly with larger leaves with some scattered buds. 
  • The leaves will be mostly broken and brown in color. 
  • The lowest grade of white tea.

The Chinese definition of white tea stipulates that it must be grown in Fujian and made from the Da Bai variety of the tea plant. This definition was established at a time when China was the only producer of white tea. Now that we have white teas coming out of other regions like Ceylon and Darjeeling it becomes a bit of a gray area. That doesn't mean that they aren't worth exploring, though!

Processing


White tea is processed by withering the leaves to reduce the moisture content and then drying them. Traditionally this is done by laying them out in the sun. Nowadays it is common to dry them mechanically with an oven or dryer. Unlike most other teas, leaves destined to become white tea are sorted and separated before processing. Little else is done to the leaves with the possible exception of rolled pearl style or blooming teas.

White tea is often referred to as the least processed category. I tend to not use that word because processed can take on a negative connotation in the food world. This isn't the Chicken McNugget of tea that we're talking about. Lightly oxidized is sort of accurate but that isn't always the case either.


Taste


Floral, fruity and slightly vegetal are all words that are used to describe the taste of white tea. Think cucumber, melon, meadow flowers, and snow pea. Notes of hay or grass might also pop up. White tea can be very delicate and mild. particularly for those who are used to stronger tastes, so don't give up if it doesn't grab you right away. 

Pro Tip: Try taking a sip of room-temperature water and eating a salty cracker first. This will help wake up your taste buds.

How to Brew It


First, it's important to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to brew any tea, All that matters is that you enjoy the end result. White tea is commonly treated like a green tea, with lower water temperatures. High-quality ones can stand up to much hotter water but poor quality teas will show their faults under pressure.

When using a western method, water temperatures are usually around 160 to 175° Fahrenheit. Steep times can vary between 3 and 8 minutes depending on the tea. White tea leaves tend to be fairly fluffy, making it hard to measure in teaspoons. Weighing your leaves will help make sure that you are using the right amount. Most teas will call for 2 to 2.5 grams of leaf per 8oz cup of water.

Gongfu is definitely my preferred way to make white tea. A gaiwan or glass pitcher is best because yixing teapots retain too much heat. Water temperatures will range from around 175° to 212° Fahrenheit with steep times between 30 seconds and 1 minute. I also really enjoy white tea grandpa style when I'm feeling a bit lazy.

What was the first white tea that you ever had? Let me know in the comments!

Header image attribution: WJ Houtman, via Wikimedia Commons