White Peony (Pai Mu Tan or Bai Mu Dan), coarser version after steeping

White Peony (Pai Mu Tan or Bai Mu Dan), coarser version after steeping

If you’ve been around tea drinkers awhile, that is, the hard-core kind who try various new blends (no, not that flavored stuff, but blends of various tea types) and the latest tea trends, or if you’ve been a devoted reader of this and other tea blogs, 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.

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 tea. 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

Davidsons Silver Needles Loose Leaf White Tea

Davidsons Silver Needles Loose Leaf White Tea

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

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 (this version is called Peony White Needle).

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” — 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 steeps 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 steeped liquid and a light flavor distinguished by its gentle hints of honey and pine; a good example is Adam’s Peak.

Malawi and Kenya on the African continent — higher caffeine content, generally, than other white teas; composed mostly of needle-shaped 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 Steep

A very fine example of Silver Needles after steeping

A very fine example of Silver Needles after steeping

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 steeping cup (the leaves tend to be very light weight, so don’t go by that when determining how much to use). The first steep is usually 4-5 minutes, with the second steep being 5-6, the third being 6-7, etc. (However, some vendors recommend much shorter steeping times.) The longer steeping time assures that the 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 steeping 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 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.”

White Peony, finer version

White Peony, finer version

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.

Some White Teas to Try

  • Adams Peak White Tea — from the Nuwara Eliya region of Sri Lanka (Ceylon); grown at 7800-8200 feet above sea level; hand rolled; steeping up a delicate and light copper-colored tea tasting of pine and honey.
  • Darjeeling White Tips White Tea — very rare Darjeeling tea; each leaf is hand selected; steeps up a liquid having a muscatel taste with a hint of white wine.
  • Flowering Tea – Flower Symphony – White Tea high quality white tea with hibiscus and lavender blossoms; while steeping the flowers open, the hibiscus petals appear to bleed and paint the water; liquid has honey notes, sweetness, citrus notes, and a touch of floral.

Have a white tea adventure!

See also:
White Tea and Black Roses
White Tea Roundup
Reading Tea Leaves — White Teas

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