White and green teas are both commonly touted for their minimal processing and beneficial antioxidants. Many sources cite differences in processing, caffeine, or antioxidant levels as defining features between the two types. But among dubious health claims and heavy marketing, it can be hard to tell what, exactly, makes these two types of tea so different. Most teas categories, including green teas, are defined by the steps used in processing, but the definition of white tea is a little more specific. In this post, we’ll break down the differences between the two styles based on the four components of any tea’s identity: variety, provenance, harvest date, and craftsmanship.
Varieties of Camellia sinensis
You may already know that all color-coded categories of tea come from the Camellia sinensis tea plant. You may also know that there are thousands of distinct varieties of this single species, just like there are thousands of varieties of grapes used for making wine.
Differences between varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant can affect flavor, leaf size, and even caffeine levels in the finished tea. Two varieties, first cultivated in Fuding County, on the coast of Fujian Province, are well known for the coating of downy white trichomes that covers the buds of the plant. Though these trichomes exist on the young buds of all Camellia sinensis varieties, they are particularly obvious on these two varieties, earning them the names Xiao Bai (“Small White”) and Da Bai (“Big White”).
Today, most traditional white teas are crafted with the large, plump leaves of the Da Bai variety. The white trichomes, visible on the young leaves even in finished white teas, give the category it’s name. Green teas, on the other hand, are made with a wide range of Camellia sinensis varieties, depending on the region of origin.
Traditional Growing Regions
China is a huge country with an extremely rich tea culture. Over thousands of years of cultivation and crafting, each region has developed it’s own style, based on local tastes and terroir. Again, wine makes an apt comparison: teas from different regions of China vary in much the same way as French wine differs from Italian wine. The soil, the water, and the weather can all have a huge effect on the final flavor. The cumulative effect of these factors is called terroir.
The terroir of northern Fujian, where Fuding County lies, is an essential part of crafting a true white tea. It’s climate, humid and cooler than most tea producing regions in China, forces the tea plants to grow slowly, giving them time to develop complex flavor compounds and build reserves of carbohydrates during dormant winters. Though the popular Da Bai variety has now been transplanted to regions across China, it does not produce the same quality of flavor in hotter or drier growing areas. Such examples would still be called white tea, but don’t totally fit the traditional definition.
Green teas are more broadly defined than white teas, identified primarily by the prompt roasting of the leaves after harvest, and the resulting green color of the leaves. Green teas are grown in many different areas, each of which has it’s own favored varieties and distinct terroir.
Season and Date of Harvest
For both white and green teas, harvest dates are the biggest indicator of quality. The first buds to sprout in the springtime are the most highly valued, thanks to their naturally sweet, smooth flavor. In both tea types, these baby buds are picked just once a year, and are inherently limited in supply.
One common myth is that white teas are crafted from the young leaves of any tea plant. This is obvious nonsense, as some of the most famous and popular white teas, like Bai Mu Dan and Shou Mei, primarily contain the large, mature leaves of the Da Bai variety, picked late in the spring or in the summer.
The crafting process of green tea is central to the definition of the category. The leaves remain green because there is no bruising or oxidation of the leaves before they are heated. This broad definition leaves a lot of wiggle room for various varieties and regional styles of crafting, so green teas include a huge swath of flavor profiles based on these variables. The most famous of Chinese green teas, Dragonwell, is pan fried in a hot wok to produce a toasty, nutty flavor, while others are roasted in a large rotating drum.
White tea, in the most traditional sense, has a much narrower definition. Traditional white teas undergo a process called “fading”, whereby the leaves are essentially air dried. Some traditional Fujianese tea farms dry their Da Bai leaves in the sun, while others use climate controlled buildings for more precise craftsmanship. Many sources claim this leaves white tea leaves more intact than those of green teas, which are more dramatically “cooked”. But in fact, this slow drying process allows for slight oxidation in white teas, which serves to mellow any grassy flavors, while preserving the characteristic downy coating on the leaf buds.
Using Da Bai leaves in non-traditional crafting methods can also yield fascinating and delicious results, which are still categorized as white tea. Both our White Dragon Pearl Premium and Xin Gong Yi (New Craft) white teas use non-traditional crafting methods to create unique flavor profiles, while retaining classic characteristics of white tea with Da Bai leaves and Fuding County’s terroir.
Rather than defining tea categories based on the properties of the final product, we prefer to focus our attention on factual information about the factors that go into making a tea what it is. With a little bit of context, these four aspects of tea identity can reveal everything you need to know about the flavor and quality of any given tea.
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