The white tea plant comes from the same shrub as black, green, and oolong teas, Camellia sinensis.
White tea undergoes minimal processing compared to other varieties and is steamed rather than air-dried. This minimal processing keeps the leaves closer to their natural state and increases the tea’s anti-oxidant properties.
Only the youngest leaves of the tea plant are used to make white tea, and these are what give it its name because the leaves are covered with silver fuzz when harvested, which turns white during processing.
White tea is a much newer variety of tea compared to the other types (green, oolong, and black tea). The history of this type is only 200 years old, compared to around 5000 years for the other types.
How is white tea made?
White tea is produced from the youngest leaves of the plant, which are harvested before the buds have fully opened and are still covered with white down.
The leaves then undergo minimal processing to stabilize the leaves. Most varieties of white tea only undergo two steps: Steaming and drying.
Unlike other teas, they are not withered, rolled or crushed during processing. As a result, no fermentation occurs – the natural enzymes inside the leaves are never exposed to air.
This minimal processing of the leaves keeps the tea closer to its natural state, which is why white varieties have more polyphenols than other teas – and potentially greater health benefits.
The absence of these steps means that the appearance of the leaves is not hugely altered. The white down on the leaves is clearly visible and gives the finished tea leaves their white appearance.
What does white tea taste like?
The flavor of white tea is delicate and sweet compared to the other types of tea. It has little of the grassy “vegetal” taste that is sometimes noted in green tea.
White teas, when brewed, have a pale yellow color and low levels of caffeine compared to the other teas. They are smooth and very pleasant to drink.
Different types of white tea
Three varieties of tea plants are used to produce white tea: Narcissus White, Vegetable White, and Big White. Big white is considered the finest and most popular.
White teas are also differentiated based on plucking method:
- Longevity Eyebrow: one bud is harvested along with two to three leaves
- White Peony (also called Pai Mu Tan or Bai Mudan): one bud together with one leaf are harvested, and
- Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen): Only one bud is plucked
Two of the most popular white teas are White Peony and Silver Needle, which is considered the most precious and exotic of the white teas.
The price of white tea tends to be higher than the other types of tea. This is due to the rareness of the tea bushes and the short harvest time.
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