Drinking white tea is the newest trend for many of today’s tea drinkers. Drinking white tea, however, is not really new. The Chinese have been drinking white tea since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). It gained greater popularity in China during the Song Dynasty when the emperor Hui Zhong declared white tea to be the most elegant form of tea.
However, even today, white tea is much rarer than black and green tea, which is part of the reason that fewer people know about it. In addition, because it’s so rare, it’s also the most expensive of teas. Growing white tea takes special care and a special kind of harvesting, so far less of it is grown than black and green tea.
White tea is different from black and green tea in two important ways; the maturity of the leaves at harvest and the actual tea processing. It’s the ability to harvest white tea at exactly the right time and the ability to process the tea properly that makes a quality white tea.
The best white tea gardens have this delicate harvesting and process down to a science, protecting the delicate flavor that is so important in white tea.
White tea is harvested much earlier than other teas, before the leaves are fully open. At this point in the growing process, the tea buds are still covered by fine white hair, hence the name white tea. For the very best tea, only the completely unopened and undamaged buds, and sometimes the first two leaves, are used. It’s critical that the buds remain undamaged as they’re being plucked.
It is also critical that the weather be perfect when white tea is grown and harvested. The very best white tea buds are harvested in March and April. In fact these are typically the only months out of the year that tea farmers will harvest white tea, which is another reason it is so rare.
White tea must be harvested on a dry day, after the previous night’s dew has dried and on a morning when there is no frost. If the buds appear purple, they are typically rejected.
Next, the white tea leaves and buds must be processed. White tea actually goes through very little processing, but the processing must be performed correctly.
Different varieties of tea (black, white, green, oolong) are created based mostly upon the way they are fermented. Tea leaves have enzymes in their veins. When the leaf is broken, bruised, or crushed, the enzymes are exposed to the air resulting in oxidation.
The amount of oxidation depends upon how much of the enzymes are exposed and for how long. This oxidation is what causes the fermentation. So, to make different varieties of tea, you allow oxidation to go on for different periods of time.
White tea is not fermented at all. For this reason, it’s critical that the leaves not get bruised or broken in any way. This talent for harvesting the leaves without creating any bruising is one of the things that separates a very high quality tea garden from a mediocre one.
Once the leaves are harvested successfully, the tea leaves are left out to air dry and wither for a period of time. Next, they are fired or steamed to prevent the oxidation process from beginning. Often the steaming and drying of the tea leaves is performed right in the tea fields, to protect the delicate leaves.
It is this special care, along with the immaturity of the leaves that gives white tea its light sweet flavor and pale color.
The best white tea gardens are those that pay special attention to the details required to make the most delicate white tea. This means examining each and every bud before plucking and only using the bud and the top two leaves.
Some lesser quality tea is graded as such because more than the top two leaves are harvested and used. This makes the tea less expensive, because it is bulkier, but it results in a sacrifice in the flavor of the tea.
Creating the lightest and most delicate of white teas also requires careful attention to the time of harvest. Watching the weather and ensuring that the conditions of dryness and temperature are met is crucial. Harvesting buds at the wrong time severely compromises the flavor of the tea.
White tea is grown in China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, with the vast majority of it being grown in China. Each of these growing regions will produce a slightly different flavor because of the differences in the area’s soil, climate and altitude.
For example, Darjeeling white tea, grown in the Darjeeling region of India will retain the slightly muscatel flavor that is the most significant flavor of black Darjeeling tea. However, because Darjeeling white teas have been harvested and processed like other white teas, it will also have the mild sweet flavor and delicate aroma of other white teas.
High quality white tea will have a bit of a silver appearance, and the tea will feel light and a bit bulky. White tea is typically not as compact as black teas, which means you will need more tea leaves per cup to brew it to the proper strength.
When it comes to white tea, it is often true that you get what you pay for.
If you find an extremely inexpensive white tea, it likely lacks the delicate flavor and aroma of a high quality white tea because it was harvested at the wrong time, grown during the wrong season or because more than the top two leaves were used.
So, choose carefully to ensure that the white tea you buy is of the best quality.