What You Should Know About White Tea

Tea Essentials

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Rare and delicate, white tea has been compared in flavor to honey, apricots, peaches, and chestnuts. It is subtle and mellow, clean and fresh. But why is it so expensive? Read on to learn more about white tea, how it's made, and what the different types are.

What is white tea?

Like all true teas, white tea comes from a shrub called Camellia sinensis. Although white tea is the least processed variety of tea, it requires careful tending, picking, and selection. It is delicate in flavor and lacks the astringency and grassiness of black tea and green tea.

White tea is traditionally grown in the mountains of Fujian Province, China, and consists of the first tender buds, which are covered in soft, silvery-white hairs. Young leaves may also be included. Tea growers pluck the buds and leaves for a few weeks in early spring, then quickly wither and air- or oven-dry them with minimal oxidation. Unlike many green teas, white tea buds and leaves are dried naturally rather than rolled or twisted into different shapes, so they have a fluffier texture. When brewed, white tea ranges in color from pale yellow to light orange.

Many consider white tea to be a product of terroir and from this perspective, the name can only be given to tea from specific cultivars grown in three Fujian Province counties of Fuding, Jianyang, and Zhenghe. However, the label "white tea" is also given to tea produced in other regions of China as well as India, Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

White tea varieties

  • Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle): The most rare and famous white tea, this tea consists only of spring buds and has a delicately sweet taste and floral aroma. True Silver Needle tea comes from Fujian Province.
  • Bai Mu Dan (White Peony): This tea consists of the buds and first two leaves. It was originally developed for export to England and has a stronger flavor. It is also less expensive than Silver Needle.
  • Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow): Consisting of larger leaves plucked after Silver Needle and White Peony have been harvested, this tea has an earthier flavor. "Eyebrow" refers to the curved shape of the leaf.
  • Shou Mai (Long Life Eyebrow): Consisting of larger leaves plucked after Silver Needle and White Peony have been harvested, this tea is more oxidized. It is popular in Hong Kong and dim sum houses.
  • Darjeeling White: Grown in India, this tea is less expensive and more widely available than many Fujian white teas.

Caffeine in white tea

Although white tea typically has less caffeine than other teas, this is not always the case. Caffeine content may vary depending on the plant varietal, processing, and brewing methods.

(Image credits: Emily Han)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade