White Tea - Bai Cha
Introduction – Tea’s White Knight
Rare, delicate, and exotic, white teas are the orchids of the tea world. Named after the color of its leaves, which ranges from white, to silver, to pale green, white tea as we know it has been enchanting tea lovers since the late 1700s. Its light and refreshing taste, perfume-like aroma, and beautiful, young, downy leaves are just some of the many characteristics that make white tea so special. Although it is the least processed of the six tea types, the simplicity of how white tea is made utterly contrasts the complexities of the tea type. Just what complexities? Let’s delve deeper into the alluring world of white tea and find out.
The History of White Tea - Steeped in Mystery
Mysterious, contemplative, uncertain, enchanting. It is hard to narrate the history of white tea without noting just how mystifying the origin of the tea type is. The year in which white tea was first produced is still debated to this day. While some argue that white tea was China's first tea, others claim that records of white tea can only be traced back to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE).
The process in which white tea is made is simple - the simplest, in fact! The entirety of the procedure involves tea leaves being gathered and then allowed to dry in the sun. That's it. Being the most minimally processed of all teas, one would assume that, indeed, white tea was the first type of tea. It is argued that this process must have been the first method that was used to store tea after it was picked. However, the true white tea that we enjoy today does not encompass just any tea leaf that is left out in the sun to dry. When we speak about white tea, we are talking about Spring harvested, sun-dried young tea leaves and/or buds. The first noted tea of this variety was produced in Fujian, China within the last two centuries. For a tea that requires so little effort to process, one would wonder why it took so long for farmers to create it!
Within the category of white tea, there are three well known types: Bai Hao Yin Zhen (White Down Silver Needle), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), and Shou Mei (Long Life Eyebrow). Silver Needle tea is the earliest type of white tea. The first Silver Needle was made from downy tea buds - the youngest leaf on the tea plant - in the late 1700s from a rare cultivar A cultivar is a plant variety that has been created through selective breeding. with very small buds. It was not until the mid-1800s that white tea became popular as Fuding discovered a much better cultivar to create the tea from; Fuding Dai Bai, or The Large White Leaf of Fuding. These downy buds were not only larger, they were also more flavorful, covered in a thicker, visually alluring down (called pekoe), and came from a cultivar that was not nearly as rare. The farmers of Fuding were able to create a distinctly delicate, aesthetically beautiful tea that gained instant popularity. Following Fuding, the neighboring county of Zhenghe created its own cultivar for white tea production, Zhenghe Dai Bai, only years later. And although there are many other counties in China and even places outside of China that produce white tea, Fuding and Zhenghe produced white teas are considered to be the best and most authentic. After sampling a cup of Fuding Silver Needle, it is no wonder why so many others have tried to imitate it.
How White Tea is Made – Making Magic
Although white tea requires the simplest processing method, there is still an art to creating the tea. While other tea types require rolling, shaking, pan-frying, and/or steaming, among other steps, in order to be produced, white tea only requires two steps after picking.
To start the process, young leaf buds and unopened leaves are picked from Spring-time tea trees. These leaves then go through the process of withering and then, finally, they are dried. Arguably the most important part of the process is the picking of the leaves. The best quality white teas are those with the youngest buds and leaves and the most pekoe. Traditionally, the tea leaves and buds would be flatly laid out on bamboo sieves in the sun. Following that, they are then taken out of the sun and allowed to wither for three days before drying. A more commonly used process sees that possible fluctuations in weather do not hinder the withering and drying process. Using the application of controlled heat, the leaves that are set out to wither are heated at a consistent temperature, insuring that no matter if the day is grey and rainy or humid and sunny, that the leaves wither completely, readying them for the next stage of processing. Once most of the moisture has evaporated from the leaves (in many cases 80-90% of the moisture), the leaves are then inspected and any buds that have opened during the withering process are taken out. Once the leaves have been sorted, the best quality leaves are then dried over a very low fire. As they are roasted on bamboo trays, the leaves are watched carefully to insure that none of the leaves lose their characteristic qualities by either being overheated or under-heated. Tea farmers create their batches of white tea to ensure that they are not only flavorful, but also aesthetically pleasing – which is not only a science, but also an art. And as farmers, artists, and scientists, these men and women who devote their lives to producing white tea sure seem like a triple threat!
Speaking of great things that come in threes, let’s talk about the different types of white teas next!
Types of White Tea – The Triple Threat
Unlike the other types of tea (such as green tea), that seem to have endless varieties to their names, white tea only has three main varieties. Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Bai Mu Dan, and Shou Mei are the three primary types of white tea, ranging from highest quality to lowest. With that said, tea lovers need not fret. Though there are only a few varieties of white tea, the exquisite differences between each type are more than enough to hold one's interest!
Bai Hao Yin Zhen: White Down Silver Needle
La crème de la crème. The cream of the crop. The Blue Ribbon winner. The gold medalist. Silver Needle tea is the finest and highest quality white tea that there is. Made entirely from young tea buds, Silver Needle tea is called such because of its silvery white Pekoe and thin vesica piscis, or needle-like shape. Some consider Silver Needle to be the epitome of tea enjoyment. Others consider the tea to be the height of sophistication. This tea is often saved for special occasions in many Chinese families. With its fragrant, floral, and crisp aroma, and smooth, delicate, honey-sweet, and often slightly fruity taste, there is no wondering why either sentiment would be expressed.
Bai Mu Dan: White Peony
Our runner-up to Silver Needle is White Peony. While Silver Needle consists of solely buds, White Peony consists of one bud for every two young leaves. When White Peony tea leaves dry, they twist into small and irregular floral patterns which helped inspire the tea's name. The similarity of the tea to flowers is readily noticed once again in the exquisite floral notes it emanates during the brewing process. White Peony is known to have a medium body. However, White Peony from Zhenghe is typically a bit more oxidized, giving it a fuller body, while its Fuding made counterpart has a light body and crisper taste.
Shou Mei: Long Life Eyebrow
Long Life Eyebrow tea leaves come from a different variety of tea plant than its counterparts. Hailing primarily from Jianyang, Fujian, there are many grades of Long Life Eyebrow as the tea consists of a hodgepodge of buds and older leaves. With such a fusion of leaf types, the colors of Long Life Eyebrow run the gambit of white tea's palette from grey, to white, to pale green. Long Life Eyebrow is processed in the same way that White Peony is, however, where White Peony boasts flavorful floral notes, Long Life Eyebrow's taste is more reminiscent of fruit and can be a bit bittersweet.
With just three main types of white tea, why not be adventurous and taste them all? Comparing the subtle differences between the three types is not only a great way to increase your understandings of tea, but also a wonderful way to discover what it is you like about teas and what characteristics you look for.
Health Benefits of White Tea – A Tall Tale?
Now that we have talked a bit about the flavors that white tea can have, let us talk about another characteristic that many people seek when choosing to drink white tea: chemical compounds.
Tea, in general, is known by many to contain healthful chemical compounds such as anti-oxidants, caffeine, and amino acids. Although white tea contains some of the compounds that its brethren contain, such as theanine, the tea also consists of compounds that are unique to itself.
White tea is known to have the highest level of antioxidants out of all of the tea types. Arguably the most intriguing antioxidant that white tea contains is Catechins, a type of polyphenol antioxidant that is reported to support many healthful functions. Catechins have been shown to help reduce bad cholesterol and increase function of blood vessels.
With that said, because white tea consists of young tea leaves and buds, white tea contains quite a bit of caffeine; more than most other types of teas, in fact. Caffeine is a compound that many types of plants use to help ward off insects and harmful fungi. The younger tea leaves contain more caffeine as a means to help ensure that the plant continues to thrive into old age.
In addition to the benefits listed above, white tea has been the subject of many scientific studies which have revealed even more benefits. From having anti-cancer properties, to the ability to slow down bacteria growth, and improving skin, it seems as though white tea has it all! With that said, we advise everyone to take these claims with a grain of salt. Although revealed through scientific research, these studies are relatively new, and science is always moving forward. We hope that with time even more studies will be done on the possible benefits of consuming white tea. After all, what is better than being able to indulge in such a wonderful treat while knowing that the treat is good for you?!
How to Drink White Tea – Bubble, Double Leaf, and Guzzle
White tea is a delicate beauty and it has to be treated as such when prepared. While other teas can tolerate and, in some cases, benefit greatly from being steeped in high water temperatures, white tea must be prepared at a low temperature. We at Yezi love to prepare our white tea in water ranging from 85 degrees to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Due to the fact that white tea is so light in weight, when first preparing the tea it may seem as though you are putting too many leaves in your gaiwan or teapot. Our rule of thumb is that for every 5 to 6 ounces of water, you need 4-5 grams of tea. When brewing gongfu style, we suggest rinsing the leaves first (by steeping them for about a second or two), before preparing your first infusion. After rinsing, the first infusion should be steeped for one minute. All following infusions should then tack on 15 seconds for each succeeding infusion.
The light to medium body of brewed white tea makes it a perfect tea to drink all day long. (Just be mindful of the caffeine!) The brisk and light flavor makes it a wonderful treat in the summer.
We cannot talk about drinking white tea without discussing how to properly keep the tea at its best! As we noted in our blog on "How Long Does Tea Last?" white tea is best stored in a cool, dark, odor-free, and air-tight place. If stored properly, some suggest that the lighter teas may last only as long as about six months without their characteristics changing. We have experienced, however, that most Fuding white teas can last for up to eighteen months. If you want to appreciate an orchid’s beauty, you have to take care of it properly, and the same can be said of appreciating white tea.
Final Words – The Happily Ever Afterwords
Although there is disagreement upon when white tea first originated, any tea scholar would agree that white tea is one of the most exquisite examples of tea artistry and science. Delicate, rare, and beautiful, with an ethereal taste and numerous healthful compounds, white tea is often flattered by imitation. And although some may say that imitation is the best form of flattery, we advise any tea lover looking to delve into the world of white tea to delve into those that hail from Fujian, the tea's birthplace. Some say that drinking white tea is the epitome of sophistication, we say, let your taste buds be the judge. We promise that you won't be disappointed.