Originally from China, white tea is mild in taste and due to the different terroirs it grows in, surprisingly diverse. It is the least processed of all the six tea categories, and is also probably the most misunderstood type of tea. For one thing, many people associate the colour white with being pure and assume that the tea will contain little or no caffeine. In this guide to we aim to answer your questions about white tea.
Does white tea contain caffeine?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions about white tea. The best teas, e.g. Chinese Silver Needle or Ceylon Virgin White Tea, come from prized harvests consisting entirely of young buds. While they are growing, these young buds produce caffeine to act as a deterrent to insects. The caffeine is still in the bud once is has been plucked, and is most present in the first infusion of the tea. Subsequent infusions, and teas that are not so fresh, have less caffeine. Teas made using the more common combination of two leaves and a bud, e.g. Moonlight White, contain less caffeine. If you are sensitive to caffeine we would not recommend drinking any tea from the tea plant at bedtime.
Is white tea healthy?
Yes! But we are not doctors so are careful in what we claim. White tea contains many antioxidants, including polyphenols, flavonoids, and tannins, and since it is minimally processed, it has more antioxidants than many other types of tea.
Should white tea be drunk as fresh as possible?
We normally say that tea, especially green tea, should be enjoyed as soon as possible after the harvest. However, Like Pu Er, white tea definitely improves with age, and the Chinese have a saying that up to one year old white tea is a tea, at three years it is a treasure, and at seven years it is a medicine. This is because as the tea matures it develops a more intense sweet, floral fragrance and a delicious mellow flavour. I have to confess that we do have a couple of Taiwanese white “treasure” teas that we are reluctant to drink, let alone sell.
Popular white teas
- Silver Needle (Yin Zhen), is the original, traditional, plump, bud-only tea. Needle style teas from other countries tends to be known as “Silver Tips”.
- White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), consists of varying amounts of bud (depending on the quality from 10% to almost half) combined with leaf from the same tea bushes.
- Jasmine Silver Needle (Yin Zhen Moli) is Silver Needle that has been scented naturally in the traditional Chinese way, which involves the buds being exposed to jasmine blossom over five or six consecutive nights until the natural scent of the flowers is absorbed into the tea.
- Moonlight White (Yue Guang Bai) is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to Bai Mu Dan and the best qualities are suitable for ageing. Over the months and years the flavour of Yue Guang Bai becomes darker and closer in taste, comparable to a sweet black tea.
- Other – for us less interesting – types of Chinese white teas include Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei) and Long-life Eyebrow (Shou Mei). These are earthier and darker in the cup than Silver Needle.
How white tea is produced
Undoubtedly the least processed and the most natural type of tea, this is what happens before the tea reaches your cup:
- Careful picking to ensure that the leaf cells are not damaged.
- Withering on large bamboo trays in gentle sunlight.
- Indoor withering / drying.
- Final baking to remove excess moisture (if necessary).
- For Jasmine Silver Needle, scenting of the buds with fresh jasmine blossom.
- Note: The buds are plucked just before the leaf opens on the stem and are air-dried to lock in colour and flavour. The chlorophyll is not mature in this bud and that gives the tea its “white” appearance.
How to brew white tea
Silver Needle is a beautiful tea to watch brew, and the leaves can easily be infused two or three times.
- Water temperature: White tea is suitable for multiple infusions and should be steeped at around 80°C.
- Brewing time: Steeping time varies, but a leafy white tea rarely needs longer than 2 minutes at a time, so start with a 2 minute steeping and then increase the time by 30 seconds each time until it tastes good to you.
- Amount of tea: The volume of tea to water should be between 12-15 g of tea for 1 litre of water. If you are new to white tea we suggest weighing the dry tea leaves before you try it for the first time, that way you will use the right amount of tea and know how many teaspoons (or tablespoons) to use in the future. As with all types of tea, the leaves should be given as much room as possible to open up.
- Choice of teapot: For convenience’s sake we recommend using a teapot with a removable sieve that can be put aside until you are ready to make subsequent infusions. Otherwise let the leaves brew loose in the teapot, and pour the tea through a sieve to another vessel to pour or drink from. What is important here is that the leaves do not continue to steep in the time between making the first and next infusion. By the way, Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) is a beautiful tea to observe the “agony” or the “dance” of the leaves as they twist and unfurl during steeping.