What Is White Tea?
White tea consists of tea leaves from the Da Bai ("Big White") variety of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is easy to see the origin of the name, as the young buds of this variety are coated in a silvery down.
Cultivation of these plants developed in Fuding County, in northeastern Fujian province. Today, white tea is now grown in many other areas. But the unique terroir of its original provenance are critical to the quality of flavor. We consider white teas to be the champagne of the tea world, and source only from this traditional region.
How Is White Tea Made?
The most traditional way to craft white tea involves a unique step called "fading". The leaves are gently laid on bamboo mats and left to dry in the sun. This slow drying process produces very slight oxidation. The minor browning differentiates white tea crafting from that of green teas. (Green tea leaves are roasted immediately to halt oxidation before it begins.) After fading, the white tea leaves are gently baked to remove any traces of moisture. Baking and drying the leaves preserves them for storage.
White teas are defined by their variety, rather than their rate of oxidation. This means that modern white teas are not always crafted in the traditional way. For instance, rolled white teas (often used for jasmine scenting) are steamed. This application of heat after picking halts oxidation without the fading process. Some tea makers also experiment with higher rates of oxidation. These non-traditional techniques create new and interesting flavor profiles within this classic variety.
Signs Of Quality
The best quality white teas are made up of only of the youngest buds of the Da Bai variety. These young leaves contain more natural sugars and carbohydrates. The plant stores these compounds as energy reserves for the growth process. In the finished tea, these produce a smooth texture and naturally sweet flavor. One common myth is that all white teas are made of young baby leaves. But most white teas on the market consist of larger, more mature leaves picked from further down the stem.
In fact, high quality harvests consisting of selected buds occur just once a year. In the springtime, these premium teas are the first ones plucked. The tea plant spends the cold winter in dormancy. In this state, it is absorbing nutrients from the soil but producing no new leaves. In the spring, the plant sprouts a large number of new buds, which are then harvested carefully by hand. These unopened buds, covered in white down, are usually given the name Silver Needle.
Later harvests are picked during periods of warmer weather in the summer. At this stage, the plants grow faster, and the harvests include more mature leaves. These later harvests usually produce more vegetal flavors, with a drier mouthfeel.
White tea has become popular in recent years for it's lauded health benefits. As with all teas, mileage is likely to vary with the quality and freshness of the leaves. Leaves picked early in springtime have higher concentrations of caffeine, theanine, and antioxidants. They are the most potent within a year of harvest, though flavor complexity can develop with a year or two of aging.