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What is White Tea?

White tea is comprised of new, young tea leaves and buds from the camellia sinensis plant and is only harvested for a few weeks each spring in the northern district of Fujian, China. The leaves are generally picked in mid-March to early April and only on days when it is not rainy or humid. Just like champagne, white tea can only be called “white tea” if it comes from the Fujian province. White tea gets its name from a silvery type down that covers the leaves and unopened buds, known as “Hao.”

History of White Tea

For many years it was believed that white tea was discovered during the Song Dynasty (920-1269), however, even earlier references to white tea have been traced as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At that time in history, white tea preparation was a very different experience than it is today: early harvest white tea leaves appeared solely in compressed cakes and broken pieces were steeped in earthenware kettles.

Although white tea was popularized and widely revered in the Song Dynasty (960-1269), it was relatively unknown to the rest of the world until very recently. Only royals were allowed to consume white tea and it is rumored that it could only be served as a “tribute” to the emperor by virgins with white gloves as a symbol of honor and respect. One emperor, Hui Zong, became so enamored by white tea that it literally cost him most of his empire. During this time, ceremonial methods of preparing white tea were very similar to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for matcha; typically in powder form and whisked in wide ceramic bowls.

It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), that the Ming court ruled that only loose leaf white tea could be served as a tribute to the emperor, thus changing our understanding of white tea processing and its preparation forever.

White Tea Today

Modern day harvesting and preparation of white tea is quite minimal and includes drying and withering of the leaves in one of several methods. These methods include heated vents, wind drying chambers or natural sunlight almost immediately after picking, preventing oxidization. Because of the minimalistic processing involved, many people refer to white tea as a “raw” tea and it is believed to have a higher amount of beneficial properties than green or black teas . The tea withering processes vary from region to region in Fujian, and are very much influenced by the environment, both in terms of climate and local traditions.

White Tea Types & Variants

White teas can be classified into five different types: Yi Zhen Bai Hao (Silver Needle), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Gongmei (Tribute Eyebrow), Shou Mei (Noble, Long Life Eyebrow) and Fujian New Craft (DaBaiCha or DaHoaCha).

Of the five, Silver Needle and White Peony are the most superior in quality and are the only white tea types carried here at Art of Tea. Our prized white teas are hand-picked under strict standards passed down from the Qing Dynasty (1796) and deliver fresh, mellow and sweet golden infusions, completely devoid of astringency.

Of course, we believe that every varietal has something unique to offer, and we encourage you to experiment and find your own favorites; whether it’s a single source white tea like one of the teas mentioned here or one of our signature white tea blends.

Here is a brief overview of the five varietals:

Silver Needle is a premium quality tea and the most sought after white tea. The shape should be uniform with no stems or leaves and should have long, needle-like silvery tips. This tea has a pale golden flush with a sweet floral aroma and a light woodsy body.

White Peony is also a premium quality tea. It consists of two leaves and a silvery bud and has a richer, yet shimmery golden color and texture. It has a sweet, yet nutty taste with a slightly roasted finish. Because white peony lingers longer on the palate, it is an excellent white tea to blend with.

Noble, Long Life Eyebrow is a good quality white tea, though of lesser standing than Silver Needle and White Peony. It is generally comprised of all of the leftover leaves deemed unsuitable to be harvested as Silver Needle or White Peony. Because it is slightly more oxidized, due to being harvested later in the season, it has a darker color and bolder flavor, likened to an oolong.

Tribute Eyebrow is another good quality white tea, though of lesser standing than Silver Needle and White Peony. It consists of young leaves without buds and the taste is darker and fuller, with a bold finish.

Fujian New Craft is one of the newest members of white tea family, with harvesting only occurring as soon as the late 1960’s. It was developed to meet the growing demand for white tea in the Chinese market and comes from Fuding County in Fujian province. An interestingly deceptive white tea at best, this tea is processed by withering, slightly rolling and drying the leaves, giving it the appearance of a black tea. The leaves tend to be long and curly with a rich greenish/brownish color, and are far less delicate than most other white teas. The flavor and liquor are probably the most robust of all the aforementioned white teas, yet the fragrance is extremely mild.

White Tea Tips & Preparation

White teas are best prepared with a milder water temperature of 175°-185° F. Water that is too hot can cause the leaves to overcook and become astringent. To capture the best flavor, we recommend steeping white teas for 1-3 minutes only. Although some white teas can be re-steeped, it is not generally recommended, as a second or third steeping may not yield as flavorful or fragrant a cup. It is suggested that you use about 1 Tbsp per 8oz cup for optimum results.

Caffeine Content

Traditionally, white tea has been thought to have less caffeine than other tea types. However, some recent studies have pointed to the possibility of white tea having even greater caffeine content than black tea. Regardless of which theory is being ascribed to, because white teas are typically steeped for a shorter amount of time than more processed teas, the caffeine content present in each brew tends to be significantly less, therefore reinforcing the idea that white teas are less caffeinated.

Recommendations

Whether you are new to white tea or just looking for something unique and adventurous to satiate your palate, we have a wonderful selection of teas and blends to try.