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Journal

One of the most common things I hear about white tea is that, since it’s made from tender tea buds, it should be brewed at a lower temperature–around 160º to 170º Fahrenheit. Lately, though, I’ve heard murmurings from a number of sources that white tea is not actually as fragile as some Western sources would have us believe.


To challenge the popular notions about white tea brewing, I decided to try an experiment of my own: I brewed our Silver Needle tea at three different temperatures–170º, 190º, and 200º, each for 4 minutes, and a fourth cup at 200º for 2 minutes, in case the 4 minute cup was too strong.

The results were pretty surprising–none of the cups exhibited any of the bitterness associated with, say, an over-brewed green or oolong tea. At 170º (the cup on the far right) the tea is almost predictably light–silky smooth, with flavor that fills your mouth gradually after several sips. At 190º (second in from the right), the flavor is much more up-front, registering in all parts of the mouth at the very outset of the drinking experience, and lingering much longer. Additionally, the body is significantly fuller and the cup color significantly darker. At 200º, the flavor is similar to the 190º cup, if slightly stronger, and the body is full to the point of astringency–after sipping, I can definitely get the slightest hint of a “too much flavor” bitterness, but it isn’t uncomfortable. It turned out that the 2 minute 200º cup was not really necessary–the 4 minute steep was not unpleasant, and 2 minutes was too short.

What surprised me the most was that the three teas were really not that different in flavor or body, despite a 30º temperature variation. Body-wise, the 170º cup produced the most pleasant experience, but the 190º cup wins the flavor prize hands-down. After contemplating why it could be that white tea is much more resilient to very hot water than its green tea counterparts, my hypothesis is that the slight oxidation produced by the tea’s extended withering must be the key. That slight chemical change produced by the tea’s enzymes likely takes the edge off those “greener” aspects of the tea buds, altering the bitter and tannic elements that come out with really hot water. For gong fu brewing of white tea, I’d definitely recommend using hotter water to extract bold flavor bit by bit, revealing a variety of characteristics from the buds. This experiment also reminded me of one of the most important aspects of tea preparation–experimentation is key, and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to brewing tea! Some tea vendors pass down brewing recommendations like they’re set in stone, but everyone’s tastes vary, and a tiny bit of experimentation with temperature and brewing time could produce a tea that you appreciate much more than the “recommended” method.

Elliot

As I mentioned in the last entry, in the world of Chinese white tea, there are really two primary types of white tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. Since the processing methods (extended withering) are very similar, the main difference between these two teas is which leaves are selected during plucking.

Bai Hao Yin Zhen means “White Hair Silver Needle.” The name describes the soft, white down that covers the buds of the tea plant. Many tea drinkers are familiar with Silver Needle tea, which is the classic white tea–it’s produced from large, fat tea buds only, which makes it the more expensive of the two white teas. Of course, there are variations in quality between grades of Silver Needle–generally, the larger the buds the better, and the bud should appear green underneath the down as a sign of freshness. Silver Needle has an extremely delicate flavor–like some of our premium Chinese green teas, its flavor will blossom in your mouth a few seconds after sipping, and the aftertaste will continue long after the tea has been swallowed. The flavor is naturally sweet (thanks to the extended withering process), and good Silver Needle tastes to me of fresh hay and honeysuckle–if it’s fresh, it also has delicate beany notes. If a Silver Needle tastes smoky, overly nutty, or fishy, it’s likely old and has been re-roasted or it had flaws in the initial production. Like most bud-based teas, the best Silver Needle harvests occur in the spring, when the plants put on the most buds.


Bai Mu Dan means “White Peony.” Unlike Silver Needle, White Peony is produced from leaf selections that include the bud and the first two leaves. Although the finished leaves tend to be a bit brittle, you can still usually find a few complete leaf sets. The leaves are a pleasure to look at–the leaves are bright green on one side and brown on the other, and the buds, though not as large as those in Silver Needle, are nice and plump. Because fewer buds are used, White Peony is cheaper and often considered an everyday white tea. The inclusion of leaves makes the body quite a bit more robust (and the liquor darker) than the Silver Needles’, and the flavor is bolder as well. I think White Peony tastes earthy but sweet, and it’s easy to draw a connection between its flavor and Silver Needles’. If it’s a nice fresh grade, you’ll also notice a nice bean- or pea-like sweetness that lingers especially along the aftertaste.


You may come across a large number of white teas with different names, but they’re generally lower grade than these classic teas and less widely-known. We’ve seen our fair share of “other” white teas at Miro Tea; they generally exhibit some of the flaws I mentioned earlier, and though their names may differ, if you look closely, they’re usually of the same appearance as Silver Needle or White Peony, or a combination thereof, which only serves to reinforce the assertion that there are two primary Chinese white tea types!

Elliot

The goal of this article is to broadly define “White Tea.” From a processing perspective, it’s easily identified–White tea is produced from either tea buds only or tea buds and the first two leaves, which are withered in a humidity-, temperature-, and airflow-controlled environment for a long period of time (up to three days). In the processing of green tea, oolong tea, and black tea, withering is a step that lasts only a few hours at most. Withering reduces moisture content prior to oxidation or firing (which, in the case of green and oolong tea, prevents oxidation from continuing). For white tea, though, withering is the process by which oxidation is arrested–eventually the low heat and airflow will deactivate the leaves’ enzymes. For this reason, white tea is technically considered slightly-oxidized. This slight oxidation makes white tea different than green tea, which is fired as early as possible and considered un-oxidized. White tea is called “white” because of the white down that covers the tender buds of the tea plant.

White tea originated in the late 1800’s in China’s South-Eastern Fujian province (the same province where Anxi and Wuyi oolongs come from). Although tea producers had been sun-withering tea leaves for hundreds of years, the white teas that are recognizable today were made possible by tea farmers in Fuding County (circled on the enlargable map of Fujian province) who developed a special cultivar (a genetically unique variety of the tea plant propogated using cuttings) with large, plump buds–the most important component of white tea. From the new cultivars the tea producers developed the two primary white tea types that are around today–Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan, which will be covered in the next entry.

Today, tea producers in Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and even Africa have begun producing their own white teas, developing processing that relies on extended withering. More than for any other tea type, though, the market’s taste is for Chinese white teas. That is to say, if a tea drinker is told a tea is “White,” they’ll generally expect it to taste similarly to a Chinese white like Yin Zhen or Bai Mu Dan. This is rarely the case, though, since the other countries I mentioned have their own specific growing conditions and often use other cultivars to produce their white teas. So, the main challenge facing these other tea producers is produce a white tea with distinct and desirable enough characteristics that tea drinkers will recognize that white tea–like black and green teas–can be “done” successfully (if differently) by a number of different countries. I’ve tried a number of non-Chinese white teas, including a Darjeeling white and whites from Malawi and Rwanda, and I don’t think we’re there yet–the teas I’ve tried aren’t going to make anyone forget about China’s famous white teas. These tea gardens are always experimenting and honing their craft, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the day came in the next few years when white teas of singular quality start emerging from multiple countries across the globe.

Elliot

Even if I didn’t have a calendar, I think I’d probably still know that summer is fading into memory and fall is upon us–if only from how chilly my hands get on my morning bike ride to Miro Tea! As we’ve been trying to do on a monthly basis, the beginning of October marks the beginning of a tea feature; this month it’s White Tea, an ideal choice for sipping during the quiet moments of a crisp, sunny fall afternoon (which we’ll hopefully get a few of this October!).

I’m excited to feature white tea for a number of reasons–white tea’s recent surge in popularity has really catapulted it into the general public’s consciousness. From Snapple and other “ready to drink” beverages to vitamin supplements, white tea is being touted for its health benefits, and is often described as “better than green tea.” So, with white tea’s rising popularity, it’s a great opportunity to expose curious people to premium white teas, so they can see the best of what this tea type has to offer. Also, this month will be a great opportunity to clear up some of the misinformation that has come along with white tea’s popularity–look for a few short articles regarding caffeine, health benefits, and processing.

As usual, we’ve got a few features going to celebrate white tea:

  • 15% off white tea by the cup or pot, as well as bulk
  • We’ve got a few white teas in our clearance area, including some seldom-seen Darjeeling white teas–not to be missed by both adventurous white tea fans and Darjeeling fanatics
  • We’ll be cupping on request, side by side, Bai Hao Silver Needle and White Peony, the two classic white tea types.
  • General white tea information (including upcoming articles) will be condensed in take-home handouts available in Miro Tea.

Be on the lookout for the next couple of informational articles, and try a cup of white tea!

Elliot