The World Is a Tea Party Presents: Your Guide to White Teas

If you’ve been around tea drinkers awhile, you’ve heard of white tea. But do you know what it is? Don’t feel bad. There seem to be several ideas floating around out there. Time to take a closer look.

See more details on our experiences with various white teas here:

White Teas We Have Tried Over the Years

Why It’s Called White Tea

First, white tea isn’t what we usually think of as white, not the way snow is white. How teas are named sometimes goes back hundreds or even thousands of years and can be cultural or just ways to translate from the original language (often Mandarin or Cantonese) into English (that’s called “romanization”). They can be a bit misleading and not to be taken literally. Thus it is with white teas. For example, one white tea called “white peony” has no part of the peony plant in it.

“White” can mean either a total lack of color as in white sheets, etc., or a full spectrum of color as in sunlight (which is also called “white light”). When it comes to tea, “white” means neither. It is relative. The tea leaves aren’t true white but are usually lighter in color than green, oolong, and black teas. This light color is often due to a fuzz on the leaves present due to them being picked off the tea bushes during certain conditions.

Grades of Chinese White Tea

The key to grading white teas is usually based on the ratio of leaf buds to leaves, the presence of white fuzzy down on the leaf buds, and the season of harvesting:

  • Higher — tight leaves enclosing leaf buds; harvested on days that are not rainy or frosty, and when there is sufficient dew between March 15th and April 10th of every year; the leaf buds should be tightly enclosed in new leaves and not purple, malformed, or damaged. The translation of “Silver Needle” varies. It’s called “Flowery Pekoe,” “Bai Hao Yinzhen,” “Yin Zhen,” and “Yin Zhen Silver Needle.” There may be even more variations. No matter what name you call it by, though, this is one of the 10 classic teas of China.
  • Medium — two leaves and a bud combo, the leaf buds being covered with a silvery downy texture; named “white peony” (also known as “pai mu tan” and “bai mu dan”) with an amber color and a sweet flavor, “gong mei” (also called “tribute eyebrow” — one of those odd names I was referring to above), “shon mei” with an oolongish tasting tea, and “white puerh” with a sweet-flavored blend from the Yunnan province.
  • Lower — a bud with two or three leaves or a tea made with larger and coarser leaves; also called “Longevity Eyebrow” (another of those odd names I was referring to above); Sow Mee is another example, and Pai Mu Tan is sometimes classified here, depending on what article you’re reading.

Other Countries of Origin

India —

Darjeeling white has a delicate aroma and is pale golden in the cup with a flavor that is mellow, a bit sweet, and often described as “light and fluffy”; Assam white is fairly rare, has a lighter body than traditional black teas, and infuses a naturally sweet liquid with definite malt flavor.

Sri Lanka (Ceylon) —

often commands considerably higher market prices than Ceylon black tea; has a coppery gold color to the infused liquid and a light flavor distinguished by its gentle hints of honey and pine.

Malawi and Kenya on the African continent —

higher caffeine content, generally, than other white teas; composed mostly of needle-shaped leaf buds.

Processing

White tea is a very direct tea, undergoing little processing twixt bush and cup. It is not wilted or heavily oxidized, like other teas are. The leaves are only withered and then dried, resulting in only a very light bit of oxidation.

How to Infuse

  • Use water heated to 170-185°F (one site advises that you should wait until you see tiny bubbles rise from the bottom of the pot or kettle in which you are heating the water).
  • Add a good portion of tea leaves to your teapot or infusing cup (the leaves tend to be very light weight, so don’t go by that when determining how much to use).
  • The first infusion is usually 4-5 minutes, with the second infusion being 5-6, the third being 6-7, etc. (However, some vendors recommend much shorter infusing times.)

The longer infusing time assures that the leaf buds open and their full flavor infuses into the water. You may need to play with the steep times until you find what works for you. Generally, longer infusing produces stronger flavor. Many people find white tea too weak tasting, and the culprit is probably too short a steep time (some experts recommend as long as 10 minutes).

The History of White Tea

Legends about tea abound, not surprising for a beverage that has been enjoyed for thousands of years. A certain tea tree varietal that some white teas come from was supposedly discovered by Lan Gu, a young girl from the Fujian province in China, while she took refuge in a cave in the beautiful Taimu Mountain. The young leaf buds were covered by a silvery hair during the Spring time. A form of compressed tea called “white tea” was produced in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Other white teas gained popularity in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), such as “Palace Jade Sprout” and “Silver Silk Water Sprout.”

Other Uses

White tea is popping up in various products, including body wash and anti-aging creams since it is said to be beneficial to skin. Bottled white tea is also being seen with increased regularity.

Silver Needle Versions

Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) is one of the finest white teas available. As such, teas are popping up everywhere on the market bearing the name “Silver Needle.” The question is: how many versions of this tea are out there? Of course, we then have to ask: are these versions really “Silver Needle”? I’m not sure if this article will give definitive answers or instead raise more questions.

Some Definitions of Silver Needle Found Online:

These all have a common thread. Silver Needle is from a certain location. It is harvested at a certain time of year. The leaves have certain qualities.

Three descriptions found online:

  • “Silver Needle tea is a rare white tea from China’s Fujian province. Due to its delicate structure, it can only be harvested once over two days in early spring.” — from What is Silver Needle Tea? by Jessica Jewell, eHow Contributor
  • “…a white tea produced in Fujian Province in China. Amongst white teas, this is the most expensive variety and the most prized, as only top buds (leaf shoots) are used to produce the tea. Genuine Silver Needles are made from cultivars of the Da Bai (Large White) tea tree family. It is important to point out that there are other productions that look similar with downy leaf shoots but most are green teas, and as green teas, they taste differently and have a different biochemical potency than the genuine white tea Silver Needle. It is commonly included among the China famous teas.” — from Wikipedia
  • “…a delicate, high-grade Chinese beverage. A sweet white tea, Silver Needle tea is made of very tender tea leaves, and is considered one of the most revered Chinese teas. Lightly nutty and subtle, it is a popular gourmet dessert tea. … Young, fleshy, bright leaf buds are selected to make the tea. During selection, harvesters choose the most uniform shapes, without leaves or stems, to ensure the resulting delicate, pale brew the tea is known for.” — from Wisegeek.com

Some Versions Out There:

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, here are several versions of Silver Needle, all but one are produced in the Fujian province of China:

Click on photos for details:

This looks like another of those issues in the tea world that will need to be addressed by growers. Just as some teas have to be produced from leaves grown in a certain area and also processed there in order to bear a certain name, the same may be true one day of “Silver Needle.” Until then, let the buyer do his homework but also be open to whatever that tea turns out to be. You may just be in for a pleasant surprise!

An award-winning Silver Needle that actually deserves the award:

Doke Tea in Bihar, India, has certainly come a long way in producing Silver Needle tea!

Read all about it here.

Click on photos for details:

The Joys of White Peony

When you start out expanding your tea horizons, you usually begin with the basics: black tea and green tea. Then, you add oolongs and white teas and begin to explore each of those four tea types in more depth, discovering the varieties in each. Soon, you are no longer going for that generic stuff labeled “black tea” or “white tea”, etc. Instead, you look for certain kinds, trying this one and that one to suit your palate. The next stage is to delve even further into those kinds to the finer points. Here, we see the joys of exploring two of those finer points:

  • Imperial White Peony White Tea
  • Fuding White Peony White Tea

What White Peony Tea Is

Tea names are a big muddle, with lots of confusion stemming from long traditions, strange translations, poetical whimsies, and so forth. Unlike teas named after their aroma and/or taste (example: Dancong Gardenia which has a gardenia quality) or teas named after items added to them such as Apple Spice Tea (with, of course, apple bits and spices added in to the tea leaves), White Peony is another matter. It has no peony aroma or flavors. Instead, this tea is named after the appearance of the bud/leaf sets after infusing, which some think look a bit like newly opened peony buds.

Other names for White Peony:

  • Pai Mu Tan
  • Bai Mu Dan

We tried a “Pai Mu Tan” from The English Tea Store and were greatly disappointed. The Boston Tea Company’s “White Peony” was also definitely nothing special. The “Bai Mu Dan” from Canton Tea Co. was reviewed by us with faint enthusiasm. It seems that whatever name is used, the tea aroma and flavor are not affected.

White Peony is slightly oxidized and consists of leaves and leaf buds, making it a second grade white tea (the first grade is Silver Needle which is unoxidized and consists entirely of silvery leaf buds – they’re covered with fine gray hairs that give them that silvery appearance). White Peony was first created around 1922 in Jishui, Jianyang city in Fujian province, China. Later, the production of this style of white tea began in Fuding and Zhenghe, which then became the main production areas. One good aspect of this tea is its ability to last awhile when properly stored.

Comparing 2 White Peony Versions

The contenders are Imperial White Peony White Tea and Fuding White Peony.

We infused both using water heated to 195°F for 3 minutes, 3 minutes 15 seconds, and then 3 minutes 30 seconds. Three infusions, generating a liquid that was golden in color and mild in flavor.

Results (click on each photo for details):

Not bad, but not quite up to Silver Needles.

Disclaimer: These teas was provided by the tea company. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective.

See more details on our experiences with various white teas here:

White Teas We Have Tried Over the Years

© 2016-2020 World Is a Tea Party photos and text

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