What is white tea | Blog | | TEA SIDE
29 Feb 2020

Let’s talk about white tea

Posted By: TEASIDE Times Read: 1784 0

This article is scripted and translated from Russian issue No.65 of the online podcast of Pu-erh FM Radio created and hosted by my fellow tea specialist from Russia Anton Dmitraschuk. In view of the long duration of the issue, it is provided here in a somewhat abridged form.

Let’s talk about white tea (白茶, Bái Chá). More specifically, about its technology features; geography, which is narrow and wide at the same time; botany; history and useful properties. This will also explore how easy it is to learn to understand the varieties of white tea, and what tea buds are, and how they differ from leaves.

In a sense, white tea embodies the idea and the spirit of tea in general. This is a very simple and natural thing, but nuances and details are extremely important, understanding which requires attention and comes with experience.

What is White Tea

White is one of the six main types of tea, along with green, yellow, red, black (or dark), and oolong, according to the technological classification. That is, this is not a separate type of tea plant, and not even a special variety of it, but a processing option. Theoretically, from a formal point of view, white tea can be made from any tea raw material. But in practice, as with all other types of tea, there are varieties that are best suited for such processing. This will be covered further a little later.

What is the processing that makes white tea white? White tea has the shortest processing chain: it's just picked and… dried, most commonly, in the sun. And that’s it. White tea is the only kind of tea that doesn't get kneaded. This is a kind of “tea herbarium.”

Tea herbarium from Moonlight White tea

“Tea herbarium” from Moonlight White tea (2019 Yue Guang Bai).

But this is not at all simple and easy. What happens as a result of drying depends on many factors, including temperature, light, humidity, wind intensity, time, and so on. To make good white tea, the producer must monitor all of these factors and regulate the timing of those that can be regulated. For example, to protect the tea from the sun, when necessary, by placing it into the shade, or covering it with a semi-permeable fabric, or on the contrary, by removing the cover. There's an art to making tea; it cannot be mastered in a year or two. For many years, the future master first participates in the production of tea as a simple worker, then trains on the cheapest raw materials for a long time, and only then they can be entrusted with leading this process. This is a great example of gongfu – a skill that comes only with great experience and nothing else.

I think those readers who understand the meaning of various manipulations with tea in the process of its production see several consequences that such technology has. Firstly, since a person minimizes interference with the nature of tea leaves, the quality of the raw materials is very important. There is a list of ten contraindications to plucking. It refers primarily to white tea Bái Háo Yín Zhēn (白毫銀針, “White Hair Silver Needle”). For this type of tea, these prohibitions are strictly observed: it is not plucked on a rainy day, until the dew dries; small and frail buds are not plucked; neither are purple shoots; raw materials affected by wind, humans, and insects is a no go; so are hollow shoots and buds, as well as weak buds.

2018 Bai Hao Yin Zhen (“White Hair Silver Needle” Tea)

2018 Bai Hao Yin Zhen is made exclusively from tea buds. This is the most famous and expensive variety, it was first mentioned in historical documents at the end of the 18th century. But Chinese sources sometimes say that white tea was an export product from the very beginning of the Qing era, that is, from the middle of the 17th century.

White Tea vs Green Tea

The “killing” of greenery and “fixing” of tea is prohibited. This means that the enzymes participating in oxidation reactions remain fully active in tea leaves. Therefore, white tea has a higher oxidation rate than green tea. There is a 2-3% level of oxidized polyphenols in green tea and about 5-10% in white. However, other values can occur, usually they are indicative. In any case, the dry versions of white tea and its infusion are darker than green, and its taste is, accordingly, a little denser.

So why is it called white then? It is believed that this is due to the abundant and long white hairs covering the buds and young leaves of white tea, both on the bushes and in the finished state.

Why do tea leaves not completely oxidize in many hours without fixation, considering that the process of producing white tea can take a day or more? Because they are not kneaded (unlike green and red teas and oolongs), the cell membranes are not destroyed, the leaves are not saturated with juice, and compounds interact very weakly with atmospheric oxygen. Under these conditions, fermentation is very slow and proceeds in a slightly different direction than that of other teas. Not only are less oxidized substances formed, but their spectrum is slightly different, therefore the taste of white teas is not similar to other types and is quite peculiar.

Such spontaneous fermentation is usually uneven, so Bai Mudan (白牡丹, “White Peony”) and Shòuméi (寿眉) look very colorful; the color of their leaves varies from silver-green to distinctly brown. It can be assumed that due to the absence of heating and kneading, the biochemical composition of white tea is closest to that of living tea leaves, hence the idea of its special usefulness arises.

Bai Mudan (白牡丹, White Peony)

Bai Mudan (White Peony) looks very colorful; the color of the leaves varies from silver-green to distinctly brown.

White Tea Benefits

There are indeed plenty of antioxidants in dry white tea. But the problem is that potential for extraction is much lower in comparison with that of green and red teas; not all useful substances get from a leaf into the infusion due to the undamaged membranes.

White tea is said to help maintain health if you drink it regularly, often, and correctly.

According to legend, tea from the white trees of the Taimu mountains saved people from epidemics. According to modern views, white tea is strong in the fight against “san gao,” the “three heights” (三高, Sān gāo) — high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood glucose levels. It also counteracts the harmful effects of radiation, aging, and the formation of tumors, but the same can be said of any quality tea.

White Tea Processing

In the most traditional, artisanal way, white tea is dried in the sunlight, without artificial heating, and this is also an important nuance. It is not about the magical effect of solar energy, but the gentle mode of such drying. In the conditions of modern mass production, this is not feasible, and during the final drying, today most of the white tea is heated, but this is done delicately and smoothly.

Due to this, part of the enzymes remains in an active state, and tea is capable of development – in the same way and for the same reasons as Sheng Pu'er. If Sheng matures in the direction of Shu Pu'er, then correctly made white teas are more like the red teas (black teas).

White Tea Price

Year after year, there are more and more golden and brown shades in them; the infusion is darker and denser. In twenty-year-old white teas, it is almost completely black, opaque, darker than in Shu Pu'er. And, as with Sheng, prices for mature white tea rise significantly with age. Even Shòuméi, which is not elite or exquisite until it is 10-years-old, can be sold in the Russian retail market for several thousand rubles per 100 grams [TEASIDE’s edit note: this information is outdated. Today, 10-year-old white tea in Russia is priced at about $15 per 100 gr]. Everyone decides for themselves whether this price is justified.

Storing White Tea

The fact is that there are fewer aged white teas available than fresh ones, and they are valued higher because of their rarity. It is also true that what is really interesting is not just old white tea, but good old white tea. As for good fresh white tea, it is both interesting and not cheap.

The white tea variety is also important. For example, Bai Hao Yin Zhen is made almost exclusively from tea buds. There is an opinion that in any case, buds cannot be stored for a long time, no matter how they are processed [TEASIDE’s edit note: if they are from bushes, not from old trees,]. However, in good Bai Hao Yin Zhen, their energy is definitely enough for several years. The lovers of this variety I know are looking for just such a little seasoned variety of Bai Hao Yin Zheng, not fresh versions.

Leaves predominate in Bai Mudan and Shòuméi, and they can live and develop for many years.

Aged 2013 Shou Mei White tea

Aged Shou Mei 2013.

But if white tea is dried in a hurry, intensively and stupidly, then it is really poorly processed and does not get better during storage. Fresh versions of such tea are also nothing to shout about. It initially has a moldy and dusty taste, and absolutely no chocolate, lemon, coconut, honey, peach, smoke and berry overtones.

White Tea Geography

Let's talk about the geography and varieties of white tea. Until recently, only Chinese white tea was known, but now, with an increase in interest in tea in general and white tea in particular, one can find Burmese, Indonesian, and Thai white tea, and it is very interesting to try them, since the taste of white tea is highly dependent from growing conditions – i.e. terroir.

With white tea, you can travel without leaving your home, absorbing a piece of tropical countries! If you focus on the much more famous and more common Chinese white tea, then its geography is very narrow and very wide at the same time. On the one hand, more than 90% of all white tea in the world is made in Fujian province, famous for its oolongs and red teas. 80% of Fujian white teas come from the city county of Fúdǐng in the northeast of the province, on the coast, which is quite far from the legendary Wu Yi mountains.

There are famous mountains, Taimu shan, the Mountains of the Great Mother. They are called mountains of four perfections: “dangerous peaks, wonderful stones, quiet caves, ghostly mists.” There is plenty of forests, clouds and fog, and fertile soil; the landscape and climate here are the best suited for tea growing. It is not surprising that the Fuding Mountains of Taimu were mentioned in the Tea Canon by Lu Yu – moreover, as mountains of white tea.

It is difficult to imagine that in the Tang era they made the same white tea as they do today. Obviously, we are talking about buds and leaves covered with white hairs. Although, if you think about it, surely the picking and drying historically preceded all those complex sequences of operations that are necessary for the production of other types of tea. Obviously, in those days when only the medicinal properties of tea were discovered, they prepared it in the same way as other medicinal plants, by picking and drying it. So with a certain degree of conditionality, we can say that white tea is the oldest tea. It is rather difficult to establish exactly when the white tea as we know it began to be made.

Bai Hao Yin Zheng, the most famous and expensive variety, was first mentioned in historical documents at the end of the 18th century. But Chinese sources sometimes say that white tea was an export product from the very beginning of the Qing era, that is, from the middle of the 17th century. There are few varieties of white tea, and it is very easy to sort them out. The only difficulty is that the names of the botanical varieties of tea bushes and the names of the varieties of ready-made tea do not match at all.

White Tea Varieties

There are two botanical varieties of white tea, [TEASIDE’s edit note: plant types commonly used to make white tea], which are quite similar to each other – Da Bai ( 大白, dà bái, “Big White”) and Da Hao (“Big Silvery-Hair”). Almost all Chinese white tea is made from the raw materials of these two varieties. Sometimes they say there is also Xiao Bai (“Small White”), and that white tea is also made from Shui Xian raw materials.

In 1984, the Select Tea Variety Committee recognized Fuding Da Bai Cha and Fuding Da Hao as State-Selected Varieties. Moreover, they received the titles “Chinese Tea No. 1” and “Chinese Tea No. 2,” respectively. The reason for this was their surprising prevalence.

In the 60-70s of the twentieth century, about 5 billion (!) tea seedlings were exported from Fuding to a number of provinces. At present, the area of Da Bai Cha is over 100,000 hectares. This is the most common tea bush variety in China – not Lóng Jǐng and not Bì Luó Chūn, but Fuding Big White.

There are four traditional varieties of ready-made white tea, and they differ not in botany or technology, but in raw material. Only buds are used for Bai Hao Yin Zheng. For Bai Mudan, White Peony, they take a bud and two upper leaves. It is something like this: previously, in Bai Mudan there were only leaves, but now the content of buds can reach half of it. For Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow), only fresh leaves up to the fourth leaf are used, and for Shòuméi (Longevity Eyebrow), the same parts are used, but completely without buds, and the leaves are larger.

Shòuméi usually has large, dark leaves, because this variety is more likely to be made from summer, mature raw materials. As for Bai Hao Yin Zheng and Bai Mudan, fresh spring leaves are used. Although, recently Shòuméi made from spring raw materials has become more common, and they look more like Bai Mudan than the usual summer Shòuméi.

I think it will be appropriate to dwell a little on what tea buds are in general.

At the point of growth at the end of the spindling shoot, a bud is formed in the form of a narrow, plump leaf folded in two. It grows, its sprig extends, and it unfolds in a leaf; a new bud is laid at its base. Such buds form throughout the growing season, although the bush grows more intensively in spring. That is, the buds are leaves at the very beginning of their development. The buds are very tender; they are difficult to pick and process, and are very small. For the same weight of finished tea much more buds are needed than leaves. For this reason alone, teas made from buds are expensive. Teas from buds are usually more tender and refined.

High-gade white tea flush. 2019 Yue Guang Bai White tea.

High-gade white tea flush. Material from old trees of Thailand.
2019 Yue Guang Bai White tea (Moonlight White). Sweet, with subtle vanilla and floral notes.

Buds also appear on tea plants at the end of winter, from which new shoots later develop. Such buds are usually not so much green but yellowish-white and look like small strobili that started to open or several paper bags nested in one another [TEA SIDE’s note: nested winter buds occur only in wild varieties]. These buds from Pu'er trees [TEA SIDE’s note: trees related to types used to make Pu’er] are harvested, dried, and sold under the name Yabao.

White Tea Caffeine

In the buds, the concentration of all biologically active substances, including caffeine, is highest; as the leaf develops, it decreases. Therefore, it is ridiculous to say that there is much or little caffeine in white tea in general. It is clear that the level of caffeine in Bai Hao Yin Zheng is higher than in Shòuméi, but the big question is how much of it will be extracted into the infusion.

White Tea Varieties Part 2

Bai Hao Yin Zheng is valued most highly and often ends up on lists of famous Chinese teas. For a hundred years, until 1891, it was officially banned from export from the Middle Kingdom. After it became available to European merchants, for some time it was able to surpass red tea that was loved by the British and Dutch. They say that Queen Elizabeth I of England loved this tea very much.

Bai Mudan is much simpler and usually cheaper, but more understandable and pleasant for a less experienced tea drinker; sometimes it can surprise drinkers with a beautiful flavor. It is believed that the story of Bai Mudan began in the 1920s in Zhenghe, the second largest center of Fujian white tea. By the way, they cultivated their own Big White variety (Zhenghe Da Bai) in Zhenghe at the end of the 19th century.

Note: It is important not to confuse the white White Peony with the White Peony from WuYi. Wu Yi Bai Mudan is a classic rock oolong, which is a completely different tea.

Bai Mudan and Shòuméi can be both loose and pressed. Sometimes such cake-pressed white teas are sold under the name “White Pu'er.” This is completely wrong, because it is not a Pu'er either from the point of botany, or from the point of technology, or from the point of geography.

Gong Mei is a higher gade Shou Mei.

Pressed Gong Mei white tea. Gong Mei is a higher gade Shou Mei (the equal amount of leaves and buds).

What teas exist besides these classic varieties? Firstly, there is Xīn Gōng Yì Bái Chá (新工艺白茶), white tea made using new technology. According to the method of processing the tea leaf, it is something between white and red teas. This is partially, but relatively evenly (unlike oolongs) oxidized tea. It can be attributed to white teas only conditionally, since it undergoes kneading. I can say that both the appearance and the taste of Xīn Gōng Yì Bái Chá, which I tried, are much closer to red teas than the usual white ones. The tea bottom is generally completely brown, like that of a fully fermented tea.

Secondly, there are Nefujian white teas, mainly from Yunnan and Guangxi. Sometimes they are called using the same names as Fujian varieties, and sometimes by their botanical name, Da Bai Cha.

Yunnan Bai Cha

Yunnan pressed Bai Cha

Thirdly, there is Yue Guang Bai (月光白), Moonlight White. Each leaf has one side silver-white and the other coal-black. It is said to be produced for the first time in the vicinity of Jingmai, in the Yunnan province.

This effect is achieved using quite a witty technique. When drying, a stream of air passes over the leaves. The upper and lower sides of the leaves are in different temperature conditions. According to technology, this is white tea, as it is not kneaded. Raw materials are collected from Pu'er trees (therefore, Yue Guang Bai is also sold under the name White Pu'er). It has a rather specific, catchy aroma and taste.

2018 Yue Guang Bai (Moonlight White)

2018 Yue Guang Bai (Moonlight White Tea), each leaf has one side silver-white and the other coal-black. The material is from 300-500-year-old thai trees with sweet caramel flavor leaves. Perfectly suits for pressing and storing.

How to Brew White Tea

I should say a few words about brewing white tea, using the example of Bai Hao Yin Zheng. There is an established stereotype that like green tea, white tea “loves” porcelain gaiwans and, unlike Pu'er and oolong tea, does not like clay teapots. I advise you to check for yourself whether this is true. There is an established stereotype that the more tender the tea, the cooler the water should be and the shorter the exposure time. But in relation to Bai Hao Yin Zheng, the opposite advice works perfectly – you need to “heat the bud.” If you pour tea with hot water for a minute, drain the infusion, and then brew it in normal mode, it will open up much better; it will be tastier and more aromatic and will give more infusions than with delicate handling. In addition, it is very good to brew Bai Hao Yin Zheng over an open fire.

Related Posts
Write Comment
TEA SIDE © 2012-2020