White tea was popularized in the West in the 1980s. There was quite the fanaticism going on. Green tea was popular in California at the time, notably for its health benefits, but there was a new, previously unheard of tea which was even less processed than its green brother. White tea hit California in a big way. So big in fact, the supply couldn’t keep up with the demand, and the West dramatically raised the price of white tea, leaving it among some of the rarer types. They used white tea for just about anything they could use it for: yoga mats, lip balm, lotion, skirts, things like that. It’s only recently we’ve seen the prices and accessibility of white tea return to normal.
White tea was discovered some time between 1392 and 1542. In the year 1392, cake teas were outlawed in China for an inexplicable reason, which destroyed the tea industry. Cake teas were the only way Chinese cultivars knew how to produce tea, so they were forced to learn other methods of tea production, subsequently inventing red tea, oolong tea, and white tea.
Most teas have origin myths associated with them. According to legend, white tea was discovered in 1292 by a goddess named Tai Mu Niang Niang (Niang Niang means mother) atop a mountain called Tai Mu Shan (Shan means mountain). She used these tea leaves to cure local children of a deadly fevers.
Chinese white tea is principally grown in Jian Yang, Fuding, and Zheng, all of them being north-eastern territories of Fujian, which is a province well-known for producing certain great quality teas. Recently there has been a popularization of Indian white tea as well.
True white tea production was not invented until between 1772 and 1782. Until that time, white tea was pan-fried and shaped. Modern white tea production involves neither of that. These changes were done for economical reasons.
Modern white tea production goes as follows:
- Tea buds (and leaves) are picked
- The buds are left out to dry in the sunlight
- The buds are brought indoors, then left to wither on bamboo racks in an arid environment of about 40° C
- The buds are slightly roasted, graded, then packaged.
When you contrast the production to normal tea production, white tea is minimally processed.
There are four main categories of Chinese white tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow… seriously…), and Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow. Also serious.) They are listed from highest quality to lowest quality.
White tea is usually viewed as low in caffeine content for some reason, but just the opposite is true. A high quality white tea is the highest in caffeine content, as only tea buds are used. Tea buds are the youngest form of the leaf, and contain the highest caffeine content, not to mention that the production promotes further caffeine content. A cup of shade-grown green tea can be comparable in caffeine content to a shot of espresso, and some white tea contains even more caffeine than that. Do not drink white teas for a lack of caffeine. Drink white tea to feel the sweet, sweet caffeine high.
White teas are delicate and subtle in taste, with many I find, as I once described to a curious individual “like hay, but in the best way possible.” They often have fruity notes to them, cherry, apricot, and the like. It’s a pleasurable summer tea or evening tea, if you can ignore the caffeine content.
White tea is resilient when it comes to steeping temperature, as you can steep the leaves in boiling water without issue, however, you will enjoy your tea more if you steep it anywhere from 80°C-90° C.
White teas are best prepared in a gaiwan to taste their subtle flavour profile.
Recommended dealers for white tea: