|2012 Imperial Meng Ding Huang Ya-B|
White teas haven’t been around as long as green and black teas — only about 200 years versus 5,000. They are, therefore, a bit of a mystery even today for some tea drinkers. Further confusion results from the differences between some of the teas out there that are classified as “white” — to the casual eye, they seem very different from each other. The key to understanding white teas, especially Chinese versions, is to look at the basics: harvesting and processing.
White tea was first made in China and is commonly seen as a specialty of Chinese Fujian province. The main white tea producing areas include Fuding, Zhenghe, Songxi, and Jianyang Counties. Now white tea is also being produced in some other countries such as India and Sri Lanka.
The leaves are usually hand-picked in the earliest part of the growing season while they are still “white” due to the downy hairs on them. These tiny hairs, giving the young tender shoots a silvery-gray appearance, is often regarded as a sign of quality. The rareness of the tea trees and short harvest time (e.g. high grade Silver Needle is only made from the youngest buds plucked during two days in Spring) cause the price of white tea to be higher than other varieties.
White tea is characterized by heavy withering and slight oxidation (very carefully controlled) in processing. When making white tea, fresh tea leaves are left to wither for up to 3 days, unlike green teas where high heat is applied to kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process. The tea is then sun or oven dried (using relatively low heat and no rolling) to reduce moisture to 5% or lower.
Varieties of White Tea
White tea comes in many varieties and types and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart. Here are the main varieties of white tea:
- Snow bud (Xue Ya) — Start your exploration of white teas here. It’s affordable and lets you enjoy the subtlety and delicacy of white tea.
- Silver Needle (Yin Zhen) — This is the highest quality white tea, being made entirely of undamaged, unopened buds, and is seen by some Chinese tea experts as one of the 10 Great Chinese Teas. It is hand picked during a short period in early Spring before the buds develop into leaves. It was first produced in the Fuding and Zhenghe counties of Fujian province in Southern China.
- White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) — This is the 2nd highest quality of white tea, consisting of a bud harvested with two leaves. It comes from the same kind of tea plant as Silver Needle, and the buds and leaves are covered with the same white down.
- Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei) — The leaves for this type of white tea are plucked after Silver Needle and White Peony are harvested and so contains mainly young leaves and a small amount of buds.
- Longevity Eyebrow (Shou Mei) — The 4th grade of white tea, produced in Fujian Province and Guangxi Province in China. A fruity, furry, chaotic mix of tips and upper leaves that steeps up a liquid with a stronger flavor than other white teas (similar to Oolong). It is plucked later than Bai Mu Dan and may steep a darker color.
- Song Yang — A meticulously harvested and exclusive white tea where it takes about 3,000 tea leaves to make one pound. It is handcrafted in the Song Yang region of Zhejiang Province, China.
- Other Varieties — The growing popularity of white tea has prompted producers in India to produce a version called Darjeeling White. It is similar in appearance to Silver Needle, commonly consisting of only buds. Then there is Ceylon White and Silver Tips from Sri Lanka. Japanese tea growers also have begun producing small quantities of white tea.
A Couple of White Teas to Try
- 2011 Spring Old Tree White Moon Light Jinggu Tea — comes from Jinggu; the withering process is conducted for a long time, causing some interior oxidation by the interior enzymes and making this a white tea different from the varieties above.
- 2011 Spring Imperial Shou Mei White Tea — slightly oxidized and consisting of 2 leaves and a bud.