What is white tea?

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You may be surprised to learn that most tea varieties actually come from the same plant known as camellia Sinensis. It’s actually how they’re harvested, processed, and packaged that gives us the wide range of tea we’re accustomed to seeing on store shelves.

White tea is the least processed of its counterparts and is harvested the earliest, making it light, sweet, and highly enjoyable to drink. Because it’s gathered so early in the growing season, the tea leaves still have a white, fuzzy coating, giving white tea its name.

If you’re a seasoned tea drinker, you’ve probably enjoyed white tea before. But are you brewing it in a way that maximizes its flavor? I’ll cover that and a whole lot more in this primer on white tea. You never know, learning the history of this centuries-old beverage just may give you a new appreciation for it the next time you sit down to relax and enjoy a cuppa.

White tea’s role in ancient Chinese culture

White tea has been around for centuries; in fact, records show it was referenced as far back as around the year 600 during China’s Tang Dynasty. And although this white tea was quite unlike the white tea we know today, it played an important role in its evolution.

While white tea is quite common and widely available today, during the Song Dynasty it was reserved for royals and could allegedly only be served in a very particular and ceremonial way. The biggest difference between white tea then and now is that during that time it was served in powdered form, rather than the whole leaves we enjoy today. This shift can be attributed to the Ming Dynasty where loose leaf tea became the norm.

An early spring harvest

What makes white tea so unique is the fact that it is harvested in early spring, from around mid-March to the beginning of April. But that’s not all that makes white tea a variety all its own.

Some folks believe that in order to truly be white tea, it has to have been cultivated in the Fujian Province of China. Even though it is grown in other parts of the world, including India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, not all tea drinkers consider these to be white tea, even though they are manufactured and sold as such.

Popular white teas

White tea may seem like a tea variety all its own, which, in a way, it is. But within this category of tea are a wide range of white teas that each bring their own flavor profile to the table. Some of the most popular white teas include:

  • Silver needle: the most well-known and highest quality of the white teas, and has a light and sweet flavor
  • White peony: a close second to silver needle in terms of quality, it has a similar taste profile, but with a roasted and nuttier profile
  • Tribute eyebrow: considered to be good quality, but not to the level of silver needle or white peony, with a bolder flavor

How to brew white tea

The preparation of white tea can vary quite a bit, so be sure to read any instructions that come with the specific white tea you’re preparing in order to ensure the best brewing experience. Typically, white tea should be brewed anywhere from 160-190 degrees Fahrenheit (70-90 degrees Celsius) and steeped for anywhere between 2-5 minutes. Again, this will all depend on the particular tea you’re brewing, as well as your own personal preferences.

A minor difference in temperature or steep time can ruin a cup of white tea, so you’ll want to take care to prepare it properly. Otherwise, if steeped for too long or brewed at too high a temperature, what should be a delicate white tea will end up bitter and unpleasant on the palate. It may be helpful to remember that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), so it should be obvious if the water you’re brewing is too hot, as you won’t want it to reach this point.

White tea is meant to be enjoyed just as it is. While you’re welcome to prepare and drink your tea to your liking, the light flavor of white tea shouldn’t require any sweetener or milk to be added. With high-quality white tea, the flavor profile of the leaves alone should be enough.

How much caffeine is in white tea?

White tea harvested in the Fujian region of China should contain very little caffeine, however, white tea harvested in other areas of the world can contain much more caffeine, sometimes as much as green or black tea. If you are sensitive to caffeine or need to watch your intake for any reason, it’s best that you keep a close eye on where the tea originated and pay close attention to the packaging, rather than assume all white tea on the market is low in caffeine.

How long does white tea last?

Tea doesn’t really go bad, per se, but it definitely can lose its signature flavor and become stale. White tea will really only last up until about a year before starting to go downhill, but there are steps you can take to ensure it stays as fresh as possible.

  • Keep away from sunlight
  • Store at room temperature… you don’t want it to get too hot or too cold (so no refrigerating!)
  • Avoid moisture finding its way into your tea storage, as it can cause mold or mildew to form, ruining your tea
  • Separate from spices, seasonings, foods, or other teas with a strong odor, which could be imparted into your white tea, impacting flavor

With a bit of education on the topic, knowledge really is power. Maybe you thought you didn’t like white tea, but it turns out you were preparing it wrong all along, or maybe you were opting for a lower-quality variety that didn’t meet your expectations.

Either way, white tea is beloved by millions, both in China and around the world. If you’ve never given it a try or haven’t enjoyed it in the past, I encourage you to give it another go now that you’re equipped with plenty of knowledge on the topic!