In the middle of a cold snap, there is nothing better than enjoying a warm drink that reminds me of spring. White tea fits that bill beautifully. There are not that many pure white teas in the US market, there are plenty of flavored white teas. The two most commonly found here in the states are Bai Hao (Silver Needle) or Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) also known as Bai Mudan. These two teas couldn’t be more different in appearance or taste.
Bai Hao (Silver Needle Tea) White Tea
Bai Hao, or Silver Needle White Tea, is the grandfather of white tea. This bud-only tea is believed to have been around since the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) but only appeared in the late 1800’s in European publications. The cultivar Da Bai of Camellia Sinensis is the plant typically used to make Bai Hao as it produces the longest and largest buds. Bai Hao is only picked in early spring, usually in April and consists of the buds from the first flush (first growth) of the season. These buds produce the longest of the silver hairs that appear on the outside of the leaf. The name Silver Needle comes from the appearance of needle shaped buds covered with downy hairs. The buds are typically dried in the sun, some may be dried in a drying room if it is large production or weather prevents drying outside. The tea is usually only 5% oxidized. Brewing this tea requires care as you do not want to put boiling water on it as it will burn the tea. If brought to a boil, the water should be cooled down to 170° Fahrenheit before adding the tea. It only needs to be steeped for 2-3 minutes and will produce a pale yellow drink with a smooth sweet flavor.
Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) White Tea
Bai Mu Dan was developed in the 1920s in Fujian as China worked to meet the demand for unique teas from the United States and Europe. Bai Mu Dan is usually a bud and either one or two small open leaves. When you look at the dried leaves they resemble small peony flowers; hence the name White Peony. The bud in Bai Mu Dan is shorter than Bai Hao typically as it is made from different cultivars of Camellia Sinensis. Bai Mu Dan is also dried in the sun. However,it is typically baked after drying resulting in a wide array of colors in the leaves from silver to the dark brown you would expect from a black tea. Still,the tea is only around 5-7% oxidized. This white tea can be brewed just like Bai Hao, however you should experiment with brewing it like an oolong, with a water temperature up to 190° Fahrenheit and 3-5 minutes of steeping. It produces a very different flavor depending on how it is prepared. Brewed as you would a white tea you get a smooth floral tea. Brewed as you would an oolong (closer to 190°) and you will get strong muscatel flavors with a hint of nuttiness from the very pale yellow liquor. Unlike Bai Hao, this tea is used as the base for most flavored white teas, as it is produced in much larger quantities making it a more cost efficient.
Whether Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) or Bai Hao (Silver Needle), white teas are a smooth and refreshing addition to your tea collection.