Let’s deal with the colour question first. Why is it white if it comes from the same plant as green and black tea — Camellia sinensis ? Indeed, it does, but it’s made from the unopened buds, which are clothed in a fuzz of fine, silvery “hairs”, giving it a whitish colour. When it’s made into a tea, however, it has a pale-yellow straw colour and a delicate, slightly sweet flavour, lacking the grassy aftertaste of green tea.
White tea is grown mainly in China’s mountainous Fujian Province – tea heartland – though some is also grown in Sri Lanka, India and Japan. It is hand picked in early spring and within only a very small window, making it more precious than its green and black cousins. Its also processed differently, in only two steps: steaming and drying. Black tea gets its colour from full fermentation and green tea is partially fermented, but white tea is not. It also does not require panning, rolling and shaking.
Although its history dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), white tea became popular with the royal court and a favourite of emperors during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Back then, it was ground into a powder then whisked in ceramic bowls (somewhat like Japanese matcha, a powdered green tea) as part of the Song tea ceremony. In fact, the Japanese tea ceremony, which features matcha and ceramics, had its origins in the Chinese tradition.
Both the minimal processing and the part of the plant white tea comes from make it higher in antioxidant polyphenols than black and green tea. as the antioxidants are thought to be more concentrated in the buds, though levels can vary in different teas. These high amounts of antioxidants confer many health benefits:
Improved cardiovascular function
The catechins in tea have been found to reduce cholesterol, decrease blood pressure and improve the strength of blood vessels, leading to decreased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Antibacterial and antiviral
White tea is thought to protect from bacteria such as Salmonella by boosting immunity. A 2004 study at New York’s Pace University found that white tea extract slowed viral, bacterial and fungal growth and reduced the incidence of infections such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. The same study found that adding it to toothpaste enhanced the antibacterial and antiviral effects of the toothpaste.
Anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing
A 2009 study at Kingston University in London found that white tea had high anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-collagenase and anti-elastase properties, suggesting it protects against rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, some cancers and heart disease, as well as slowing the breakdown of elastin and collagen that occurs due to ageing and free-radical damage.
Scientists from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University found that moderate consumption of white or green tea may help prevent colon cancer. At the Skin Study Centre at University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, researchers found that green and white tea helped skin cells to repair themselves after ultra-violet damage, which we know leads to skin cancer.
Chinese, British and Australian studies have found tea drinkers to have significantly better bone density and strength than non-tea drinkers, making it the ideal drink for anyone with osteoporosis and arthritis.
Those are five compelling reasons to take up white tea drinking. In addition there’s its deliciously delicate flavour, which may appeal to those who find green tea too grassy and black tea too strong tasting.
BREWING WHITE TEA
- Use high-quality loose-leaf tea or teabags you can be certain contain only pure white tea (Some brands have very little, if any, white tea in their teabags because it’s expensive; if it’s cheap, it’s unlikely to be pure white tea.)
- Boil fresh water and leave for a minute or two so it’s off the boil before adding the tea leaves.
- Add two teaspoons of leaves per cup (or one teabag).
- Allow to steep for 5-8 minutes. Some like to brew it longer. If reusing the same leaves with new water, steep for longer.
- It’s a good idea to try all the types to see which you like most.
WHITE TEA VARIETIES
There are four main varieties of Chinese white tea:
- SILVER NEEDLE (baihao yinzhen), the most expensive because it is made from only buds, delicate in flavour and light in colour.
- WHITE PEONY (bai mudan), the next highest quality, uses first leaves (only the hairy ones) along with buds and has a slightly darker colour and stronger taste.
- LONG LIFE EYEBROW (shou mei), a lesser-quality tea made from the hairy leaves left after the Silver Needle and White Peony are selected.
- TRIBUTE EYEBROW (gong mei), bottom rung but nevertheless popular in Chinese teahouses and often taken with dim sum, a darker, earthier-tasting tea that is more processed than the other varieties.
In Sri Lanka, pure white tea made from the buds of Camellia seninsis is known as Silver Tips.