When a White Tea Is Really a Green Tea

The distinction between white tea, yellow teas, and green teas can be rather tricky to those fairly new to tea. Add to that the mislabeling by some tea vendors of green teas as white teas — either due to simply not knowing the difference or wanting to take advantage of the growing demand. When shopping for these teas, therefore, you need to get some foreknowledge so you can tell when a white tea is really a green tea.

A matter of definition

The main issue is defining what is a white tea, and there seems to be some variation in this. You can’t be too literal here with the word “white.” White tea isn’t what we usually think of as white, not the way snow is white. The tea leaves are usually lighter in color than green, oolong, and black teas.

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, allowed to slightly oxidize (some sources say no oxidation occurs), and then dried in relatively low heat and without rolling (some sources say this is done right out in the tea fields). In contrast, green teas are subjected to high heat to stop oxidation and also dried using high heat. Another difference: Harvest time! White tea is harvested just once each year — in the Spring before the buds have opened and while they retain a fine white hair, which is what gives the leaves their light color. Green teas are harvested after this and generally do not have those fine hairs.

Look carefully at the dried leaves

The best online tea vendors want you to see the leaves, so they will post close-up photos of them. Tea shops will usually let you take a peak, too (just don’t reach in with your bare hands but let the employee take some out for you).

2011 Spring Organic-certified Imperial Yunnan Silver Needle White tea:

2011 Spring Handmade Premium Liu An Gua Pian:

Even a tea like this that looks sort of jumbled will have some of that telltale fuzz:

2011 Spring Organic-certified Imperial Shou Mei White Tea

Tea grades make a difference

There are several grades of white teas (some vendors say three, others say four), with the lowest one being the most akin to green teas.

  1. Higher — tight leaves enclosing 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 buds should be tightly enclosed in new leaves and not purple, malformed, or damaged; named “bai hao yinzhen” in Chinese and “Silver Needle” in English.
  2. Medium — two leaves and a bud combo, the 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”), “shon mei” with an oolongish tasting tea, and “white puerh” with a sweet-flavored blend from the Yunnan province.
  3. Lower — a bud with two or three leaves or a tea made with larger and coarser leaves; also called “Longevity Eyebrow”; Sow Mee is another example, and Pai Mu Tan is sometimes classified here, depending on what article you’re reading.

A little knowledge goes a long way

Now you know and will be able to tell what you’re buying. We’re dedicated to helping you make such knowledgeable decisions in your tea purchases. Please subscribe to our blog or sign up for the RSS feed so you don’t miss a word!

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
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