White tea can be a real treat, offering delicate and subtle taste, beautiful appearance, and creamy pale yellow liquor. It is produced from the buds and young leaves of the camellia sinensis plant and only lightly processed before steeping in your cup. The sign of a truly fine white tea is the presence of lots of fine white (downy) hairs on the leaf, like the bud-only, Bai Hao Silver Needle. There are also white teas made of bud and one to three of the young leaves. The white hair is where its name comes from. To preserve these hairs, the tea is handled very carefully. The tea is hand plucked. It is withered in the sun to dry and then is further dried in the air, sun, or mechanically to stop oxidation. It is not pan fried, steamed, roasted, or rolled since those methods would destroy the fine hairs.
Delicate Hairs For Self Defense
The camellia sinensis plant typically produces the most hairs on its first buds and new leaves of the season. It is not unusual for plants to have hairy leaves or buds as the hairs serve multiple defense functions for the plant like protecting the buds from sunburn and insects (Evert, 2006). As the leaves get bigger, the hairs fall off. So there is a very small window at the start of the growing season to pick the buds with the most hairs. This means there are very limited quantities of true white tea, and if weather interferes there could be seasons with little to no white tea available.
Origin of White Tea
There is no definitive answer as to when the first white teas were produced. The name silver pekoe starts to appear in the mid-1800’s in English publications referring to a fine black tea with silver hairs. Back in the 1800’s, teas were either black or green. If the tea was steamed, it was green and all other teas were black (Hanson, 1878). Most of these silver pekoe teas came from the Fujian and Zhejang provinces of China. Those provinces are still considered home to the finest of Chinese white tea. China, however, does not have a monopoly on white tea. India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Kenya also produce white teas. As tea farms take hold in Hawaii, they too are making white teas.
White Tea Preparation
When preparing white tea, be careful to prepare gently, in the spirit in which it was produced. Boiling water should never be poured on a white tea since it will produce a very bitter brew. It is best to allow the boiling water to cool to between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit or even cooler before introducing the tea leaves. White tea is also only brewed between 1-3 minutes though it depends on the origin and variety. The flavors of various white teas range from floral to fruity to nutty with all brews being smooth. Most white teas can be infused 3-6 times and not lose their flavor. Since this tea has the lowest amount of oxidation, it brews a very pale yellow cup.
White tea is a variety well worth exploring.
Evert, R. F. (2006). Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Hanson, R. (1878). A Short Account of Tea and the Tea Trade. London: Whitehead, Morris and Lowe.