A study published in Science News on April 15, 2000, revealed that white tea may be up to five times more protective against cancers than even green tea. Here is a general look at this remarkable tea.
In our exploration of the world of tea, we found it difficult to obtain a consistent definition for white tea. White teas often look like green teas, but there is a difference. White teas are the least processed of all teas and are not rolled prior to drying. They are traditionally air dried only, but now are increasingly dried with very hot air to speed up the process. Green teas are picked, withered, rolled, and then fired to stop further oxidation. Rolling is the process by which the cellular structure of the picked leaves is slightly broken to release essential oils and promote oxidation.
White teas are mostly grown in China's Fujian Province. Other provinces that produce white teas are: Hunan and Guangxi, both in south-central China. With flavors that are close to the heart of the tea plant, white teas were the favorite of Emperor Hui Tsung. He was the famous tea emperor in the 1100s who was so preoccupied with his love of tea, and his pursuit of the perfect cup of tea, that he lost his empire to invading Manchurians. Hui Tsung abdicated in 1125 when his attempts to buy off the advancing Jurchens failed. The Jurchens were Manchurians and 1126 the Northern Sung capital at Kaifeng was overrun by the Jurchens and Hui Tsung was captured to and taken to Manchuria, where he died in captivity. The Mongol campaigns against the Jurchens (Chin Dynasty), led by Chingis Khan's, began after 1206. Sri Lanka makes a small amount of silver tips white tea from a different varietal and they are making other styles of white tea in Darjeeling.
White teas are often picked when the buds are tightly enclosed in new leaves. These leaves maintain the silky white hairs that denote new growth. Since they have such little processing these hairs are often intact in the final product. Many believe that the more downy the leaves, the better quality and more delicate tea. White teas are the closest to the fresh taste of pure tea leaves. The tastes can range significantly and is based on the varietal of tea plant used to grow the leaves. Some teas like White Peony (Bai Mudan) have a light amber color (similar to an oolong!) and a sweet flavor. Delicious hot, it also makes a surprisingly refreshing and hearty iced tea.
Yinzhen Silver Needles are a good example of the tight leaves enclosing buds. This is the style of white tea that is most famous in the US, and is well worth that reputation. Yinzhen Silver Needles have a marvelous cup aroma of nuts; the taste is round and richly vegetative. This year we have also begun to drink Silver Needles' cousin, Green Silver Needles, technically a green tea made from a white tea varietal of Camellia sinensis. This green tea mirrors much of a white tea's simplicity, its artichokey flavor is followed by a slight bite.
How to Brew White Teas
White tea is best brewed with warm water, ranging from 170-185 F. Carefully remove the top to your kettle and when tiny bubbles are forming on the heating element or rise from the bottom is when you have achieved this temperature. Generally these teas are extremely light weight and you have to be sure to add enough leaf to the cup or pot. Then the tea needs a good long steep, 4 or 5 minutes for the first one. When you add a minute or two to each subsequent steep, these teas will go for at least 3 steeps. This extended time is necessary to allow the leaves enclosing the bud to open up and release their flavor to the cup. White teas are perfect to enjoy in the evening after a light dinner. Avoid drinking them after eating spiced foods, as much of the delicacy of their taste will be lost. They are also an alternative for people who want to drink green teas for their health benefits, but find the taste of some greens too strong for their palates.
Brewing Iced White Tea
In the summer it can get very hot here in New York City. So we like to make iced tea. Below are some notes on some general guidelines for when you make iced tea and some brewing ideas for ice teas we make here in the In Pursuit of Tea office. There are three points before we begin:
Great-tasting iced tea can be made from all types of tea: white, green, oolong, or black.
The same level of awareness in brewing hot tea is required for iced tea. We don't have an instant solution, but then we are generally skeptical of instant solutions for any food product. A few moments of concentration and focus are always a guarantee of a great culinary experience.
Using large quantities of ice from unfiltered tap water that sits in the freezer is a problem.
One of our favorite iced teas is White Peony. This is a white tea that actually brews a light amber liquor. It makes a very refreshing drink. The point here is that you don't have to restrict yourself to black teas to make great iced tea. You should experiment with all sorts of teas. Oolong teas make especially flavorful brews even when cold. We offer an Iced Tea Sampler including a Ceylon Orange Pekoe Black Tea, Dragon Eyes Scented Black Tea, Scarlet Glow and Wild Mint Herbal, our favorite teas in each category to enjoy cold.
To brew iced tea, we strongly suggest that you do so well in advance of wanting to drink it. You should also brew the leaves in a container large enough to make several servings. You can brew it two ways: double the amount of leaf and the same brewing time; or the same amount of leaf and longer brewing times (see the brewing guidelines below). Carefully pour the infusion into a covered container for refrigeration. Make sure that no leaf residue is poured into the covered container.
Ice will dilute the strength and taste of the tea. But making bitter, overbrewed tea leaves and then diluting it does not get rid of the bitter taste. What to do? Our advice is to cool the tea in your refrigerator either overnight or for several hours, rather than rely on ice. When you are about to serve the tea add one or two ice cubes, to acknowledge the ice in iced tea. We have some customers that will use a portion of the brewed tea to make ice cubes. That is the best solution if you wish to have significant amounts of ice in the glass when you serve the tea.
Another problem with ice cubes is that they are generally made from unfiltered water, and if they sit in the freezer for long periods of time it they will absorb odors and flavors that will be present in the iced tea when the cubes melt. For that reason the first method of iced tea brewing -- double the amount of leaf and keep the same brewing time -- may give you better results. Also, try making ice cubes out of the tea and serving them with the iced tea to keep the flavor from diluting as the ice melts.
Finally, we are more liberal with additives when it comes to iced tea. Honey and/or mint goes very well with many iced teas; we note them in our list below. Remember these are suggestions to begin your own exploration. Try differing amounts, steeping times, and steeping temperatures to suit your own palate.
White PeonyUse 5 heaping tablespoons of tea for 50 oz. of water at well below boiling for 8 minutes, then transfer to a covered container and refrigerate. It tastes great as is, or add a sprig of fresh mint.