White Tea: Origins, Manufacturing, and Popular Variations

The Story of White Tea

June’s Agony has always loved understanding the origins of tea which always begins by discovering teas roots. White tea, defined by poets, was and is “white like the clouds, green like a dream, pure like snow, and as aromatic as an orchid.” This appreciation and respect made it the perfect gift to give. Between 600 and 1300 (Song Dynasty), a custom was created for citizens to offer a “tea tax” to the Emporer’s. The teas, fine and rare due to those which they were delivered to, were often white tea. What made white tea worthy of Emporers? What makes white tea the delicacy that it is it’s how it’s made; from the most youthful, freshest, and exquisite his buds from the finest of tea plants and plantations.

Between 600 and 1300 Chinese Imperial Dynasty, a custom was created for citizens to offer a “tea tax” to Emporer’s. White tea was the tea provided as the tax; fine, rare, and fitting for those which it was offered to. What made white tea worthy of Emporers? How white tea is made. From the most youthful, freshest, and exquisite his buds from the finest of tea plants and plantations.

During the age of the Song Dynasty, which was predominately under Emperor Huizong’s rule, juvenile tea buds were plucked from the tea plants stems during the spring season and steamed to halt oxidation. Once further oxidation was prevented, tea plantation workers would meticulously wash the tea buds with spring water, air dry them in the shade with the aid of a gentle breeze, and grind the buds down to silvery white powder. Similar to matcha powder, the fine white powder would be added to a bowl of hot water and whisked to produce the finest drink one could get their hands on. It was a perfectly exquisite drink for a rich Emporer.

Manufacturing White Tea

Generally speaking, white tea is made using young leaves with little or no drying and oxidation. All drying methods used, whether it be air drying, solar drying, or mechanical drying, alters the taste and appearance of tea. Plantations may only use one method of drying in order to achieve the same outcome of their teas taste. They may use a different method of drying for tea buds plucked at the beginning of harvest. Another method for those buds picked later in the same harvest. No matter, white teas are characterized as the lightest, least manipulated all of teas. White teas almost never left to oxidize which produces a most natural, pure tea taste and liquor.

The taste of white tea is very delicate and easy to drink; the least manipulated by manufacturing, the flavor is faint, perhaps naturally sweet, with no bitterness or astringency. What you should not notice with white tea is a smokey profile, as it has not been through the process of firing/steaming. White tea is a wonderful way to start your morning. It’s gentle enough not to cause an immediate jolt of caffeine, but a perky drink that can ease you into your day.

Popular White Tea Variations

Bai Mudan White Tea

Bai Mudan, translates to “white peony” from Chinese to English. To break it down further, peony is defined as “a flowering plant in the genus Paeonia.” This variation of white tea is the combination of plucking one leaf shoot and two young leaves. The young leaves plucked with the shoot, which makes Bai Mudan a tea of its own profile, creates a heady, stronger tea than teas where only leaf shoots are used. Without the presence of young leaves in white tea, you’ll discover a more subtle and gentle taste. The flavor of Bai Mudan is fruity and fresh, the liquor pale green or faint yellow in color, depending on the accuracy of steeping. For proper brewing and a look at Bai Mudan tea, check out The Jasmine Pearl!

Shou Mei White Tea

Made from naturally withered upper leaf and tips, Shou Mei’s profile is similar to that of lighter oolong teas. The similarities between light oolongs and Shou Mei are a darker liquor color and carry more depth in character. Do not mistake the way in which this tea should be brewed! Because Shou Mei is similar to light oolong teas does not mean increasing water temperature or steeping time should happen when brewing this tea. 2 to 5 minutes of steeping, at a water temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit remains necessary.

Shou Mei is considered a low-grade white tea because manufacturers of this tea only use a handful of bugs and 2-3 leaves plucked after those used for Bai Mudan discussed above. Thus, this particular plucking to create Shou Mei produced a darker tea, much greater in strength and potency. Using full-grown, polychromatic whole leaves speak to the reasoning for grading this tea as low, which also explains why Shou Mei is less expensive than the more polished and rare Silver Needle white tea, which we will discuss next.

Silver Needle White Tea

Silver Needle is produced only using the top buds (or leaf shoots) of the tea plant. This speaks to why it’s a rare, and more expensive, variety of white tea. Ideal plucking for Silver Needle production is when the sun is high enough in the sky that any moisture that remains trapped within the buds will be evaporated. Consumption of Silver Needle liquor will display sweet, vegetal, and delicate notes for drinkers. This is a very sought after tea among tea enthusiasts and white tea lovers. Steeping Silver Needle should actually take 5 minutes, unlike other white teas that generally only need about 3 minutes or less. The amount of tea used for steeping can also be higher in volume, so more flavor from this delicacy can be extracted.

If this article excited you about white tea, further intriguing you to learn more about all categories of tea, check out June’s Agony’s article, All Different Types of Tea, All from the Same Plant!