Text and Photography Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Considered the rarest and finest of the four tea families, white teas are renowned for their subtle flavor, natural sweetness, and minimal processing. Although connoisseurs have long extolled the virtues of white teas, as rich in antioxidants as they are in taste, word is spreading outside the circles of aficionados. Research in recent years points to evidence that whites not only please the palates of tea purists, but may also prolong the drinker's life.
Ask for white tea in an English-style tearoom and you will receive a strong cup of English Breakfast with a hearty addition of milk. White tea is what the British drink from a very young age, but it is not the tea that currently is garnering so much interest. The history of the true tea family known as white began hundreds of years before the British tasted tea. The newest trend in tea is an ancient beverage that has been around for over a thousand years.
White tea is the most alluring yet enigmatic of the four tea families—black, green, oolong, and white. Every tea drinker in the Western world knows black teas, and more and more tea consumers are sampling green teas. Occasionally they even taste oolongs. But whites are a tea of a different color, and their new popularity is turning heads in the worlds of food, health, and cosmetics.
Some consumers are still puzzled as to whether they should drink white tea, apply it to their faces, or meditate over it. Actually all three uses are acceptable!
White tea has been revered in the Chinese culture since at least the 12th century. It was singled out as the rarest and finest tea produced during the time of Emperor Hui-tsung (1101–1125). Hiu-tsung was so preoccupied with his love of tea and the pursuit of the perfect cup that he lost his empire to the invading Mongols.
Stephen Chao of Eastrise Trading Corporation points out that white tea is named for tea buds covered with silvery white down or fine hairs. In traditional processing, this tea undergoes only withering and drying, with no pan-firing or rolling, he continues. The tea leaves are strewn over bamboo trays indoors, and a fan is used to control the flow of air over the leaves. This drying process takes place over several days. In China, Chao notes, white tea is produced mainly in northern Fujian Province.
The two most particular characteristics of white tea are bud count and the process the tea goes through as it makes its way from the bush to the cup. White teas are often picked when new leaves tightly envelop the buds. These leaves maintain the silky white hairs that denote new growth.
One of the most famous white teas is Junshan Yinzhen, or Silver Needles. Junshan is the name of the mountain where it originates, and yinzhen translates as silver needles. This is the most identifiable white tea because the tea looks like silver needles. These tight, unopened buds of the Camellia sinensis bush are carefully picked and dried. There is no oxidation, low caffeine, and no tannins. The liquor is so pale that it almost appears white. It has a fresh flavor with a passing sweetness to the long-lasting finish. Over 3,000 buds and a lot of hand labor are needed to make a pound of silver needles. Almost as valuable as gold, it is produced only a few days each year and fetches top dollar when it is sold by the ounce or gram.
Other well-known Chinese white teas include White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), made from the very small buds and leaves plucked in early spring just before they open, and Jade Ring (Yu Huan), hand-sculpted into tiny ringlets that spring to life when infused in hot water.
China is no longer the sole producer of white tea. India's famed Darjeeling region has begun producing small amounts of white tea that is finding its way into the American market. Floating loose in a clear glass teapot, the rehydrated tea becomes a work of art as it unfurls to reveal its true form and to release its golden nectar.
The driving force behind white tea's new fame may be its health benefits. The white elixir has joined green tea as a possible preventive for many of life's ailments, from certain cancers to skin wrinkles. Green tea has undergone about 10 years of research that indicate it may prevent cancer, lower blood cholesterol, control high blood pressure, and even prevent cavities and fight viruses. In recent years, white tea has been included in research, most notably at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
These restorative benefits have not missed the cosmetic industry's eye. In 2002, white tea began appearing in cosmetic products, joining a growing infusion of green tea lotions and bath products already on store shelves.
White teas are best enjoyed unaccompanied by food or after a light meal. Closest to the fresh taste of pure tea leaves, the delicate flavor of white tea will be lost on a tongue saturated with spicy foods or heavy sauces. For those who find green teas too earthy or vegetal, the clean taste of white tea is the perfect way to enjoy the health benefits of tea.
Water temperature is one of the most important factors in preparing white tea. The delicate buds are best brewed with water ranging from 160° to 170°. Generally these teas need a long brew—up to six minutes for the first infusion. Add a minute or two to each subsequent steep. A fine-quality Silver Needles tea will yield four to seven infusions, each having a unique flavor palate, making it well worth the cost.
Most tea blenders suggest either letting the tea leaves float loose in the pot or purchasing a simple Chinese guywan. This three-piece porcelain set includes a handleless cup, a small saucer, and a lid. It is the perfect vessel to reverently prepare these beautiful teas.
Simply place a healthy pinch of dried tea in the cup, and gently add the heated water. Remove the lid while the tea infuses. The tea will warm your hands as you cradle it, and the aroma will tease your nostrils. Your heart will beat more slowly, and calm thoughts will enter your mind. (You may start to realize how Emperor Hui-tsung forgot about the everyday concerns of his kingdom.) Then replace the lid, allowing it to hold back the leaves as you drink from the cup. Add more hot water, and continue the process as long as you wish.
For a pick-me-up in the morning, drink a strong black tea. But if you are feeling stress in your life and long to maintain a quiet balance, try easing into the rest of the day with a gentle cup of white tea. Whatever your motivation, you'll nourish both your physical and spiritual well-being.
Yin Zhen (Silver Needle)
The premier Chinese white tea has a clear yellowish infusion with a richly flavored body, unique savory aroma, and sweet mellow finish. Brew at 180° for 7 minutes. Yields multiple infusions.
Bai Mu Dan (White Peony)
A beautifully styled, elongated-leaf tea with white tips and gray-green leaves. The tea brews to a pale infusion and a smooth-tasting cup. Brew at 180° for 7 minutes or more. Add more hot water for a second infusion.
Darjeeling White Tea
This exceptional tea brews to a light, ecru liquor with a fresh aroma. The tea has a most delicate, slightly fruity, sweet aftertaste. Brew at 180° for 7 or more minutes. Add more hot water for a second infusion.
Yu Huan (Jade Ring)
This Chinese white tea is scented with jasmine and produces a soft liquor with a very fresh meadow flavor. Brew at 180° for 5 minutes. Yields three or four infusions.