Select Currency

  • Call us on 0203 476 6991

What is white tea?

by on April 11th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 80: Yunnan White Bi Luo Chun

This week’s Tea Club sample is Yunnan White Bi Luo Chun. It’s not a white tea, but a very delicate green tea, given the name because of its appearance. Classic Bi Luo Chun is of course not from Yunnan, but from Taihu near Suzhou in Jiangsu province, but this tea has been made using exactly the same techniques, pressing and rolling the leaves by hand in a hot wok. I think it is very fine and attractive, but it’s not a white tea. This raises the question – what is a White Tea?

The question of finding a definition takes be back to my times on UK Tea committees about 20 years ago. As those of you who have read my Tea & Health blog will know, the committee had spent some time getting to grips with green tea, and later they were confronted by the health claims of white tea. I recall being in a meeting with representatives of most of the well known UK tea brands, and the chairman of the meeting asked “can anyone explain what white tea is?”. There were a few offers of ‘tea with milk’, which sounds ridiculous, but understandable in the context of tea and health – there had been some unhelpful research about the addition of milk greatly reducing the body’s absorption of antioxidants. The most popular suggestion was Ceylon Silver Tips.  I had recently made my first visit to China, and seen white tea being made in Zhenghe, but that wasn’t considered helpful – it was clear that there was little or no experience of China in the room, and a desire to keep things simple.

White tea picking in Zhenghe

White tea picking in Zhenghe

I had some involvement with a small company called Ridgways in the 1980s, and I can remember buying chests of Ceylon Silver tips and repacking them into small flat tins for the Japanese market. I can’t remember what they tasted like, I have no idea how they were made, but they were very elegant twisted silvery-grey. My guess is that they were a kind of finely plucked black tea. That was about the sum of our knowledge back then.

Now of course there is a much better understanding of white tea and the way it is made in China, and tea producers in many countries are now experimenting with making white teas in that way. The earliest of these were in Darjeeling, with some tea makers making some very interesting teas. The question is – are they White Teas, or just teas made in the White Tea style? Is there a difference? Does it matter? We need to look to China.

White tea colour range

White tea colour range

White Tea in China

The first thing to say is that in China, the use of the word ‘Bai’, meaning white, is quite widespread and used to describe teas made from bush varieties that have very pale or translucent leaves. So we have teas such as Anji Baicha, literally ‘Anji White Tea’, one of China’s classic green tea varieties. Also Dancong Oolong and Black teas made from the Bai Ye (‘White Leaf’) bush variety: in fact Bai Ye Dancong black tea is one of the most elegant black teas I have ever tasted. None of these are white teas though.

Anji Baicha leaves

Anji Baicha leaves

White teas can be defined using two criteria – the bush variety and the making process. I would say that the only genuine white teas are those made in Fujian from Da Bai Hao bush varietals using the slow drying process. Some might refine this further and insist on sun drying for truly authentic white teas.

Grades of White Tea

There are two basic varieties of White Tea – Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle Pekoe), made from single large unopened buds, and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), made from a mixture of buds and leaves. Within the latter category, there are several different grades, with the lower ones having much more broken leaf and no buds: these are known as Shou Mei.

Different grades of white tea

Different grades of white tea

The flavour of Bai Hao Yin Zhen is delicate and sweet, and needs to be coaxed from the buds using repeated infusions at 80°C. Bai Mu Dan has a deeper flavour and is more forgiving on infusion, able to stand temperatures of 90°C plus. The top grade is more showy to look at, but the second grade has a deeper flavour.

 

White Tea Bush Varieties

One bush variety is at the heart of all white tea in China – Da Bai Hao, or ‘Big White Bud’. It originated in Yunnan, where we managed to track some down on our visit last year. It has very dramatic large green shoots, which are covered in fine white hairs that give the buds a white appearance when they are dried. It is now cultivated in Fujian, and used for black and green teas aswell as white tea. Production is concentrated in two specific parts of Fujian – Fuding and Zhenghe – and each has its own Da Bai Hao varietal (Fuding Da Bai Hao and Zhenghe Dai Bai Hao). These varietals are slightly different, and are also processed slightly differently, so that the finished teas have their own unique characters. We hope to send both to Tea Club members to make their own comparisons in a month or two’s time.

Dai Bai Hao in Yunnan

Dai Bai Hao in Yunnan

How White Tea is made

The process seems simple – the leaves are first spread out in the sun, and then brought inside to wither very slowly over a number of days. During this slow drying the leaf cell walls start to degrade and a slight oxidation takes place. This gives the tea its pale golden colour and mellow flavour, with none of the astringency of green teas. Although it seems simple, the drying process needs to be very carefully controlled, as temperature and humidity levels affect the drying and oxidation process. The method we saw in Fuding last year comprised four separate 12 hour withering stages, starting with cool moist air and finishing with hot dry air, followed by a first baking, cleaning and final baking. It is of course possible to speed this process up, but the flavours will not develop to the same extent. There has been a recent trend towards a shorter process for Bai Mu Dan grades that results in a greener leaf and more pronounced white buds: whilst this is very attractive to look at, it lacks the depth of flavour of the longer process that results in a browner appearance.

White Tea Withering

White Tea Withering

So – what is White Tea?

Most of the white teas produced outside China are made using a long withering process, either natural or using warm dry air. Some of these have similarities to China varieties, particularly those made in the Bai Mu Dan style, but they tend to be only leaves and without buds and be rather lacking in flavour. Others are more like Silver Tips – twisted and wiry. I have yet to see anything like a Silver Needle Pekoe produced outside China, for an obvious reason – no Da Bai Hao. The only one that got slightly close was in Kenya using a clonal variety with large buds. It didn’t really taste like anything though (in my opinion).

Phil & Jennifer tasting white tea

Phil & Jennifer tasting white tea

There are some interesting teas produced in this way, and it’s very encouraging to see tea growers experimenting and trying to make better teas. I can immediately think of several producers in Darjeeling, Rukeri in Rwanda and Satemwa in Malawi and there are many more.

But for me the genuine article can only come from China. If I’m offered a White Tea in a tea room or restaurant I would expect it to come from Fuding or Zhenghe in Fujian (and wouldn’t it be great to have that much information on the menu).

But rather than get too precious, maybe we should keep things simple and talk about ‘Chinese White Tea’ and ‘Other White Tea’.

Let me know what you think.

  1. teaxplorer says:

    Yet another great post, Phil! I really like your final suggestion about keeping things simple with ‘Chinese White Tea’ and ‘Other White Tea’. You mentioned a few of the ‘Other White Tea’ producers above (esp. in India and Africa), but what do you think of the these teas?: Good? Bad? Average? Early days? I will have to admit that I have not tasted any of them – I am not huge fan of white tea, but need to give them a go. I am intrigued by new producers trying different types of tea. I hope you write more about African producers making speciality teas in the future (hint, hint). Your piece about Satemwa in February was great.

  2. PhilMumby says:

    Thanks Drew. I wrote about black orthodox and silv tips from Rukeri in Rwanda last year, worth a read if you haven’t already seen them. There is some good orthodox black tea being made in Kenya, and also some white and purple but that is not really to my liking. As far as white teas go, some of the teas in Darjeeling are quite good, but I think the best flavours come from producers who develop their own white tea methods rather than trying to imitate Chinese teas.

  3. […] I won’t go into the method of making white tea, as it is on a previous blog. […]