White tea is made from the buds and young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant and sun dried or dried by steaming with no fermentation. As a result it has the least amount of caffeine of all the teas, about 1% that of a cup of coffee, and the most subtle flavours. They are appreciated by tea connoisseurs all over the world for their natural sweetness and delicacy. It is a speciality of the Fujian province, China.
History of White Tea
White tea is supposed to be the first form of tea drunk in China as it is the least processed. As new techniques were developed new varieties of tea were developed. It is first known to be drunk during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) where it was pressed into cakes and then boiled in a kettle, until it became revered during China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279) where it was the choice of the royal court. It was the particular favourite of the tea loving emperor Hui Tsung who declared it to be the culmination of all that was elegant. During this time the preparation techniques changed, the leaves and buds would be ground into a fine silvery powder and then whisked in bowls during a complex ceremony. It is this ceremony that inspired the famous Japanese tea ceremony. It was also during this time that loose leaf forms of white tea became available but it wasn’t until 1391 that the Ming court issued a decree that loose leaf tea would accepted as tribute and the production of loose leaf white tea became widespread.
White tea’s reputation as a commodity for the elite was sustained by the extremely intensive labour required to produce it. First it would have to picked from selected breeds of cultivated bushes or wild tea trees in early spring. Then it was immediately steamed and the buds selected and stripped of their outer, unopened leaves. The delicate interior bud that was left was rinsed with spring water and dried to create white teas that were paper thin and very small.
Modern white tea production begun in the Qing Dynasty in 1796 where they were processed and distributed as loose tea and steeped in hot water. They were picked from a mixed varietal bush called Chaicha during this time and differed from other teas in that they weren’t de-enzymed by pan-firing or steaming and the leaves were often shaped. These created small, thin leaves with not much of the silvery-white down that can identify many of the white teas we know today. In 1885 the specific bushes called Da Bai (great white), Xiao Bai (small white) and Narcissus were selected to make particular white teas. By 1891 this careful section led to the familiar white haired leaves known as Silver Needle tea being exported from China and in 1922 the variety known as White Peony was created.
White Tea Health Benefits
White tea has the highest levels of anti-oxidants of all types of tea. It also has the highest concentration of theanine, an amino acid that has relaxing and mood enhancing properties, due to being made form younger leaves. In 2009 a study by Kingston university found it had high anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-collegenase and anti-elastase properties which could potentially reduce the risks of developing rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers, heart disease and slow the development of wrinkles or sagging associated with the aging process. This is true despite white tea having similar levels of catechins, thought responsible for these properties, as other teas but may be due to the lack of processing involved in white tea. In 2004 Pace university found it had more anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties than green tea.
White Tea Varieties
White tea comes in a number of grades and can be made from most tea bushes. Many black, green and oolong tea plantations produce a form of white tea from their early spring buds but a few plantations exist that produce almost exclusively white tea. Some of the most famous kinds are:
Yinzhen (Silver Needle tea) is the most expensive and highly prized variety of white tea. It is produced almost exclusively from the Da Bai (Large White) tea tree bush in the Fujian province. They are picked only between March 15th and April 10th, only on days when it is not raining and only unopened buds are selected. It has the mildest and most delicate flavour of any white tea.
Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) is a stronger tasting white tea made with the new leaves as well as the centre bud. It is also picked exclusively between March 15th and April 10th when it is not raining and there is no frost on the ground. No purple buds are allowed and partially opened leaves or damaged leaves are rejected and put into a lower grade.
Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow tea) is a by-product made from Yinzhen tea and is darker and stronger than most other white teas with fruity flavours similar to lighter oolong teas. It is made from the withered upper leaves and tips from the Da Bai bushes picked after the Yinzhen season.
White Tea Preparation
White tea should be prepared with cooler water to prevent bitterness from overwhelming the fine flavours. 80°C (180°F) is the recommended temperature for most white teas and steeped for 2-3 minutes, although with certain varieties this may be considerably different. Refer the instructions on the packaging for any white tea you buy for specific instructions.