What Is White Tea?

Almost a thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor made white tea, whose

frothy foam . . . was said to resemble the moon and stars. (Barnes 2014:18)

Clearly, things have drastically changed because (1) when we want frothy tea, we’re whisking matcha green tea rather than white tea, and (2) we expect our white tea to be brewed from intact buds and leaves!slv needle lvs-webToday, the finest grade of white tea consists of Camellia sinensis (usually Da Bai cultivars) buds, which are plucked in early spring, between late March and early April (Preedy 2013). Because the buds retain their minute hairs, they are silvery (and a bit fuzzy!) in color—the name of this tea, Silver Needle, perfectly describes its appearance.slv needle lvs closeup-webCare is taken to never bruise the buds because any damage causes oxidation, and after processing, the tea is carefully packaged so that the buds don’t get crushed. As seen here, when bulk white teas are shipped, each individual bag of tea is double boxed.
box in boxBut back in China’s Song Dynasty, ground white tea was whisked, the basis of the Song tea ceremony (Preedy 2013:34) and also that of fencha, or tea game.

By beating and brushing, practitioners could manipulate the froth into fleeting images of animals, birds, flowers, and so on (Shen Dongmei 2001). (A precursor to today’s latte art!)

To produce white tea during the Song Dynasty, Camellia sinensis  buds and immature leaves were steamed and dried right after being harvested, and then were slowly ground. The longer the grinding time, the finer and higher quality the tea (Shen Dongmei 2001).

Quality was important because tea competitions, doucha, were also all the rage.

During the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960–1127), scholar Cai Xiang believed Dragon Phoenix, a white tea from Fujian, was the best for competitions, wherein judges assessed the whiteness of the tea and how long the froth remained (Barnes 2014:18). Emperor Huizong proclaimed that a “pure-white tea infusion is the top-grade” (Shen Dongmei 2001). Eventually, aroma and flavor were also judged (Southern Song, AD 1127–1279; Shen Dongmei 2001).

It wasn’t until the 1700s that white tea leaves were steeped rather than ground and whisked, and in the late 1800s, various white teas were produced and finally exported outside China (Preedy 2013:34).

slv needle brew-web
Silver Needle white tea

Today’s White Teas

White tea is still prized, with the “white” referring to the buds’ silvery-white appearance. So-called new-style white teas contain buds and the first two, still immature, leaves, plucked early in the year. Silver Needle, consisting solely of buds, remains the ultimate white tea, however.

The young leaves and buds are harvested on dry, sunny days so that they don’t retain moisture, and as I said above, care is taken so that they aren’t mechanically damaged.

They are quickly steamed and dried—not allowing much opportunity for oxidation to take place, and ensuring that the buds retain their minute hairs and silvery color and that many of the tender leaves retain their bright green hue. Leaves remain largely intact as well, as this China Pai Mu Tan beautifully demonstrates.531 lvsThese large leaves as well as the fluffy buds mean that the tea itself takes up a lot of space, and measuring out a “teaspoon” is challenging (weighing is recommended, although how many of us have a scale this accurate?!).

Note that when you brew white tea, you also really need to pay attention to the temperature of your water. If it’s too hot, it will ruin the flavor of your leaves.

A typical recommendation is to use 2 heaping teaspoons (3 g/0.1 oz) of tea per 8 oz of water that has been boiled and cooled to 158°F; brew 2 minutes.
531 brewPreedy (2013) posits that white tea is the oldest type of tea because it is so minimally processed. This also means that many of the leaves’ health benefits are preserved, although whether white or green tea retains more is debatable. Studies have been contradictory.

All tea contains polyphenols, including flavonoids, which themselves include catechins. Catechin levels depend on several factors such as the plant’s location, growing conditions, and initial processing of the leaves (Dias et al. 2013:20). According to some studies, the less processed the tea, the higher the catechin content, but,

otherwise, the flavonoid content in tea is less affected by processing, being present in comparable amounts in all teas (Dias et al. 2013:21)

Other work has indicated that white tea contains more polyphenols than other teas, and thus has higher antioxidant qualities, whereas other studies have suggested that green tea has more (Dias et al. 2013:21).

Every study acknowledges that further investigation is needed to parse this all out. Still, white tea, like other tea types, seems to have numerous potential health benefits in these areas (Dias et al. 2013:22):

  • Cardiovascular disease: anti-thrombogenic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, hypotensive activity
  • Cancer: anti-mutagenic, -carcinogenic, and -inflammatory among others
  • Diabetes: hypoglycemic activity and reducing insulin resistance, among others
  • Weight control
  • Central nervous system: anti-stress (see my post on consuming matcha), anti-depressant, antioxidant, among others

all 3-web
I say, let the scientists continue their work, while I brew my favorite tea.

Because regardless whether it’s determined that white or green or black or yellow or oolong is the “healthiest,” all tea offers myriad—intangible—rewards.

–Barnes, Laurie E., High Tea: Glorious Manifestations East and West, Norton Museum of Art, W. Palm Beach, FL, 2014.
–Dias, T. R., et al., “White tea (Camellia sinensis (L.)): antioxidant properties and beneficial health effects,” International Journal of Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics 2(2):19–26, 2013.
–Preedy, Victor R., ed., Tea in Health and Disease Prevention, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2013.
–Shen Dongmei, “The manufacturing and drinking arts in the Song Dynasty,” conference, 2001.

White teas shown here available at TeaHaus.

2 thoughts on “What Is White Tea?

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