White Tea: An In-Depth Introduction to this Elegant Tea

Posted by Elizabeth Taeed on

I remember the first time I had white tea: my aunt had found a box of silver needle teabags at a discount food store and pulled them out at Thanksgiving. The box said “White tea is the next big thing” or something similarly marketing-y, and I was suspicious. But I took a sip and BAM – blown away! The liquid was clear, but the taste was rich yet delicate, round and floral. I was hooked.

Today’s post is for everyone who wants to learn more about this lesser-known sibling of green tea. If you haven’t tried it before, fair warning: one sip and you may never look back... 

Let's dive into: 

  • What is white tea anyway? What are the main types of white teas?
  • How is it made and where is it from?
  • How much caffeine is in white tea? Is white tea antioxidant-rich?
  • And most importantly, how do I brew white tea?

What’s white tea? What’s the difference between white and green tea?

White tea is a ‘true’ tea, meaning it’s made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea bush. (All ‘true’ teas are made from this plant, anything else is an herbal tea / tisane) It’s called white tea because it tends to make a clear, peachey, light-colored brew that is a million miles away from a thick black tea or an opaque green.

Because its brew looks so delicate, white tea is often thought to have lower caffeine levels than other tea types, and to have a milder taste. However, this is not true! White tea can pack a punch caffeine-wise (see below for more on this) and can taste strong and woody too.

White Tea Liquor

How is white tea made?

The secret to making white tea is in the processing: namely, that it’s not. Unlike green tea, which is either pan-fried or steamed, or black tea, which is roasted, white tea is simply harvested, withered, and dried. Result? A completely different flavor of tea, and super high antioxidant levels as they haven’t been damaged during processing. [1]

Tea Processing Chart

Where is white tea grown?

White tea is originally from China, but now many nations produce it. That being said, Fujian, China is still ‘the home’ of white tea: where it is originally from and also where the best quality white tea is currently grown. [2]

White teas from Fujian are made to exacting standards and the production process is more homogenized, and so you will find more consistency in leaf type and flavor across producers (i.e. if you buy two Fujian Bai Mu Tans, they are likely to be of a similar grade and quality). The second most famous white tea region is Fuding, which is actually a sub-region of Fujian, China. Fuding has more smaller producers and considerable variation between methods and cultivars. [2]

White Tea Fuding Loose Leaf

What are the types of white tea? 

There are three main types of white tea:

1. Silver Needle (also known as Bai Hao Yin Zhen, or White Pekoe Silver Needles):

This is perhaps the most famous of all white teas (and also the most expensive), and is made using only the bud. The buds are plucked in the spring, and it is therefore considered a First Grade tea (the grades follow the harvest date). Normally it is harvested in the spring too, so buds + new growth means it has quite high caffeine and L-Theanine levels. [2] (Theanine is an amino acid that induces relaxation, antagonizes caffeine, and can help manage anxiety by reducing excitatory brain chemicals. Green tea is famous for it!)

Because the buds are quite tough little guys as they need to protect themselves from pests, silver needle brews best in near boiling water (90-95C or F). It brews into an incredibly clear, light gold liquor and has a light, delicate floral taste. A pot of this in the evening will ensure you are awake to see the dawn.

Silver Needle Looseleaf Fuding White Tea

2. Bai mu tan (also known as Pai Mu Tan and White Peony)

A common type of white tea made using a 50/50 mix of buds and older leaves. It is harvested after the Silver Needle harvest, and so is a Second Grade tea. Like with Silver Needle, it is usually brewed using quite hot water (95C or 200F), and often the leaves have been broken up a bit. We often find twigs and stalks, plus a range of leaf sizes, are common, even in the finest tea houses. We think the woodiness is often desired (it's delicious).

It brews a full-bodied tea with a powerful dark honey hue, and tastes – to me anyway! – like talking a walk in the forest. White Peony is considered to be a Second Grade white tea – not First Grade like Silver Needle, but still damn good. And often preferred by tea drinkers who want more flavor or body in their cuppa. [1]

Bai Mu Tan White Peony Tea

3. Sowmee (also known as Shou mei or Longevity Eyebrow!)

A lesser-known white tea made using mostly older leaves with a few buds. It is harvested in the summer and is considered a Fourth Grade tea. Again, it brews best in very hot water (95C or 200F, basically just below the boil) and the leaves are usually broken, but because it’s primarily older leaves it has less caffeine. It is sometimes compressed into a ‘cake’ of tea (like a puerh cake), which is then chipped apart for brewing. It produces a strong golden tea, with a rich, creamy, almost buttery taste and nose. [3]

Sowmee White Tea Looseleaf

There are other lesser known types of white tea, that don’t usually make it onto the main lists. In addition to below, different countries are experimenting with making their own versions of white teas (though serious tea experts will argue that true white tea must be from Fujian, from specific tea cultivars):

4. Gongmei (also known as the Tribute Eyebrow):

Harvested later than Bai Mu Tan, and therefore has a stronger flavour and is considered to be a Third Grade tea. It is quite similar to Sowmee in flavour, and can be difficult to find. It’s made from the Da Bai cultivar, a specific type of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis tea bush, and is often sold compressed into cakes. [4]

 

Gong MeiSource: http://teapedia.org/eng/images/e/ee/Gong-Mei.jpg

5. Moonlight White (Yue Guang Bai):

Quite a new tea, and an interesting one at that! It was invented in the 1980s and introduced to the international tea market in the late noughties. It is from Yunnan, China, the home of puerh (a type of fermented tea) and using the same white tea processing method as in Fujian, but with two big differences: a shorter withering time (24 hours vs 36 hours for Fujian white teas) and ‘dark’ withering. ‘Dark’ withering is laying out the fresh leaves either indoors or at night (hence the name Moonlight White), which apparently softens the tea. [5]

Moonlight White Tea Seven CupsSource: https://sevencups.com/2019/09/the-complex-identity-of-yue-guang-bai-white-moonlight/

 6. Non-Chinese White Teas

Yes, I know this is a ridiculously broad category, and yet… In our travels, we have tried many white teas produced outside of China, and definitely argue that the term ‘white tea’ should apply just due to the processing, not the geography.

We have tried some *amazing* Indian white teas, for example, like the Ripple Silver Needle from Munnar, Kerala - only a few hundred kilos are produced a year, so it was a treasure in our collection while it lasted. Or Ketlee’s collection of wild white teas, harvested from wild tea bushes in India, or even the Portuguese and Georgian white teas we have sitting on our shelf right now!

Caffeine levels in white tea

A few decades ago a rather devious tea publication said that white tea had lower caffeine than black or green tea, and that stuck. It is easy to understand why: when you look at a nice cup of white tea, or take a sip, it is lighter and less tannic than, say, a black tea, and feels calming. Calming, though, is not the same as naturally decaf... [6]

In writing this blog, I ended up taking such an extreme deep dive into white tea’s caffeine content that I inadvertently ended up writing an entire blog on just that! So here’s a quick summary of white tea’s caffeine content, and soon I’ll publish the caffeine levels piece too. ;-) 

  • The tea bush concentrates caffeine in the tender buds and shoots, to protect them from being eaten. Therefore, young leaves and buds have the highest caffeine. However, the buds are so well protected that they only reluctantly release their caffeine, so the highest caffeine levels are in Bai Mu Tan, because it includes young leaves. [7]
  • Because of how minimally processed white tea is, the caffeine molecules aren’t broken or damaged, meaning it takes your body longer to extract them. In layman’s terms, white tea offers slow release energy, versus black tea’s energy spike. Ideal for an all-nighter… [7]
  • The older leaves on the tea bush have more L-Theanine, a calming antioxidant, and less caffeine. Therefore Sowmee is more calming and gives less energy than Bai Mu Tan or Silver Needle. [8]
  • There are many studies trying to assess white tea caffeine levels, with a lot of variation. Overall, it’s safe to estimate that Bai Mu Tan > Silver Needle > Sowmee in caffeine content, and Bai Mu Tan has ~57mg/8 fl. oz., Silver Needle has ~52mg/8 fl. oz. and Sowmee has ~38mg/8 fl. oz. [9]

To learn more about caffeine in general, check out our dedicated post on the subject here.  

 

White Tea Udon Thani Tea House

Source: From our tea travels! When Vientiene and I visited a Chinese tea house in Udon Thani, Thailand in 2019 and tried Fujian Silver Needle, around $40 for 1oz… Eye-wateringly expensive, but absolutely delicious.

 

Forest Dream Bai Mu Tan White Peony by Matcha Alternatives

This is a photo of our Forest Dream Bai Mu Tan White Peony, with our Mulling Over Christmas Chai Blend for company :-)

Antioxidants in White Tea

White tea is packed with polyphenols and catechins, antioxidants that are prevalent in green and black teas. One study found the highest antioxidant levels in white tea are achieved with 8 minutes of brewing, and in general white tea is found to have more antioxidants than green tea or black tea. [10, 11]

Within the world of white teas, antioxidant activity is highest Bai Mu Dan, with Silver Needle coming in second. Interestingly, in one study cold brewing white tea seems to result in the highest antioxidant levels of any brewing method (hot water, warm water or cold water) – and of course has a lower carbon footprint too so is no bad thing. ;-) The only balance is that antioxidants also disappear over time, so the research shows a 2-hour cold brew is the sweet spot for highest antioxidant levels. [12, 13, 14]

How do you brew white tea?

Don’t believe Wikipedia or most tea packages: white tea brews best in hot water! That’s because of its high caffeine and theanine content: both antioxidants are designed to protect the tea leaf, and you need some heat to get through its defences. If you brew at too cool a temperature, you may see little air pockets along your tea leaves, preventing brewing, and will end up with an unbalanced tea that doesn’t taste as good as it could. 

Another challenge is using enough tea. Most white teas are quite ‘fluffy’, and so it’s tempting to use less tea than necessary because it just looks like SO MUCH TEA. If you have a scale, that will be a big help, and if you don’t, double however much tea you think you should use. 

Temperature: 90-95C / 194-203F

Amount: 2 grams of tea for 8 fl. oz using Western brewing (i.e. in a mug) and 3-5 grams for 8 fl. Oz when brewing using the Gong Fu method. You can always adjust to taste too.

Should you add milk to white tea? While of course everyone can and should drink tea however you like, white tea doesn’t take it well. Is it smooth and delicate, and adding milk is like pouring ketchup on a souffle: technically possible, but not recommended! But we’re not tea snobs here, so again, whatever is best for you and don’t let any tea-litist tell you different. 

Fun fact: If you’re worried about staining your teeth with tea, try white tea: It’s gentler on your teeth than green or black tea thanks to its minimal processing. [15]

For cold brewing, as I mentioned above this is where you’ll get the most antioxidants out of your white tea. Using the same ratios as above, infuse in cold water for 2 hours for maximum antioxidant bang for your buck.

For more about tea brewing, read my Ultimate Guide to Brewing. 

White Tea Gaiwan Brewing

A Note from Elizabeth

Both Vien and I find it counterintuitive that white tea has more caffeine than black tea as well as the whole thing where black tea can be ‘dust tea’ with a lot more surface area plus brewed at a higher temperature (it FEELS like black tea should have more)....but one night this summer we forgot the time. At 7pm we made a pot of Bai Mu Tan, and at 3am were lying awake wondering what the heck was happening. It definitely has staying power! One of our favorites for the morning, or a post-lunch pick-me-up.

Of all the tea types, white tea is one of our top choice because of its versatility and variety, along with oolong for the same reason. And if we had to choose just one all-day tea to keep us company in lockdown, it would be a Bai Mu Tan. It is just so utterly drinkable, and takes herbal blends really well (rose petals are amazing with it, for example). Sowmee is exciting because it tastes similar to an unroasted oolong, and holds its own with powerful flavors, like peppermint.

Now, try for yourself!

Twilight Rose White Tea

Twilight Rose White Tea

Ideal if you need to feel calm and focused, thanks to its antioxidants and high caffeine

Perk Up Peppermint White Tea

Perk Up Peppermint White Tea

Punchy mint takes centerstage, with a reassuring background of strong, smooth Sowmee white tea

Blueberry Lemon Cake White Tea

Blueberry Lemon Cake White Tea

If you want the sweet tea without the artificial flavors or crazy amounts of sugar, check out our collection of delicious, naturally sweet teas.

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Disclaimer

All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.

References for White Tea: An In-Depth Introduction to this Elegant Tea

[1] “What is White Tea?”TeaBox, Jan. 19, 2017. https://tea101.teabox.com/white-tea/ 


[2] Tulali, Rei. “Not Just Fluff: A Guide To Silver Needle White Tea” Teacurious. https://teacurious.com/guide-silver-needle/


[3] B., John “Comparing compressed white teas, shou mei, gong mei, and one freestyle.” June 26,2017. http://teaintheancientworld.blogspot.com/2017/06/comparing-compressed-white-teas-shou.html


[4] “Gong Mei”, Last edited 12/26/2013. http://teapedia.org/en/Gong_Mei


[5] Andrew. “The Complex Identity of Yue Guang Bai ‘White Moonlight’” Sept. 27, 2019. https://sevencups.com/2019/09/the-complex-identity-of-yue-guang-bai-white-moonlight/

[6] Daniel. “White Tea Caffeine Content Is Not Lower Than Other Teas” Nov. 7, 2019. https://www.letsdrinktea.com/white-tea-caffeine-content/


[7] Gabriele. “CAFFEINE IN TEA: WILL I SLEEP TONIGHT?” https://www.nannuoshan.org/blogs/blog/caffeine-in-tea-will-i-sleep-tonight


[8] “Caffeine levels in various tea types” Nov. 12, 2019. https://www.californiateahouse.com/tea-blog/caffeine-levels-in-various-tea-types


[9] “White Tea Caffeine: The Complex Truth“ https://www.amazing-green-tea.com/white-tea-caffeine.html

 [10] Pérez-Burillo S, Giménez R, Rufián-Henares JA, Pastoriza S. Effect of brewing time and temperature on antioxidant capacity and phenols of white tea: Relationship with sensory properties. Food Chem. 2018 May 15;248:111-118. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.12.056. Epub 2017 Dec 15. PMID: 29329833.

[11] A Comparative Study of Antioxidant Potential and Phenolic Content in White (Silver Needle), Green and Black Tea, Author(s): Amandeep Kaur, Sumaya Farooq, Amit Sehgal, Journal Name: Current Nutrition & Food Science, Volume 15 , Issue 4 , 2019. DOI : 10.2174/1573401313666171016162310 

[12] Elisabetta Damiani a, Tiziana Bacchetti a, Lucia Padella b, Luca Tiano b, Patricia Carloni, 2014. Antioxidant activity of different white teas: Comparison of hot and cold tea infusions. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 33 (2014) 59–66. 

[13] Czernicka, Maria & Zaguła, Grzegorz & Bajcar, Marcin & Saletnik, Bogdan & Puchalski, Czesław. (2017). Study of nutritional value of dried tea leaves and infusions of black, green and white teas from Chinese plantations. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny. 68. 237-245.

[14] Peiró S, Gordon MH, Blanco M, Pérez-Llamas F, Segovia F, Almajano MP. Modelling Extraction of White Tea Polyphenols: The Influence of Temperature and Ethanol Concentration. Antioxidants (Basel). 2014;3(4):684-699. Published 2014 Oct 21. doi:10.3390/antiox3040684

[15] Gibbons Dental “Coffee Alternatives that Won't Stain Your Teeth” April 21, 2015. https://gibbonsdental.com/coffee-alternatives-wont-stain-teeth/

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