What is white tea?
Of all the categories of tea, white tea is the least processed and most natural type of tea. It is usually made with the bud and one or two young leaves, packed with nutrients, and covered with a protective layer of white fur.
We love that white tea can taste both bright and crisp at the same time as soft and deep. It brings to mind the sensation of walking through a forest as the sun is re-emerging after the rain.
There is an incredible variety of white teas from all over the world, and they come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes. There’s a lot to explore, so go on, put the kettle on, and dive into the world of white tea with us!
White tea: the origin story
There is some controversy in the tea world regarding the origin and history of white tea, with some sources citing it as the first type of tea to ever exist, and others saying it’s the most recently invented type of tea.
The general consensus is that the ‘white tea’ (白茶 bai cha) mentioned in Lu Yu’s “The Classic of Tea” in the eighth century refers to varietals of tea with a light colour.
Modern day tea, however, is categorised not by the colour of the varietal but by the processing method, and the minimally processed white tea we know today first appeared only about 200 years ago, in Fujian.
Fujian enjoys a subtropical climate and lots of rainfall — ideal conditions for year-round agriculture. Its mountainous regions, including Wuyishan, are perfect for tea cultivation, and Fujian tea producers are known for their ingenuity in crafting artisan teas.
Today, white tea is produced in many countries around the world, and in many provinces within China, although the majority of China’s white tea is still produced in Fujian.
As it is a relatively recent invention compared to other types of tea, there are fewer varieties of white tea on the market, making it more of an easy-to-understand category.
White tea: how it's processed
White tea goes through the least amount of processing of all types of tea. Just two steps:
The tea leaves are traditionally left to wither under a controlled amount of sunlight in an open, airy space, sometimes for days, until the water content falls below 10%. A small amount of oxidation occurs in the withering process, which changes the flavour profile from grassy to sweet and releases a beautiful aroma.
Once the desired level of withering and oxidation is reached, the leaves are dried using various techniques, such as oven-drying which allows for more control and a more consistent result.
Types of white tea
Because there is such minimal processing involved, the quality of white tea is directly related to the quality of the leaves themselves.
The most prized part of a tea plant are the buds, because they are soft, tender and contain the most nutrients. And the best time to pick tea buds is in early spring, usually in March before Qingming festival, while the buds are still plump and juicy.
As the weather warms, the tea plants are exposed to more sunlight, which speeds their growth. The buds become thinner and the leaves larger. This also changes the flavour profile of the tea.
White teas are named after their picking grades. The four main types are, from highest to lowest:
White Hair Silver Needle 白毫銀針
🍃 Buds only
⛅️ Hand-harvested in early spring (pre-Qingming)
White Peony 白牡丹
🍃 One bud and two leaves
⛅️ Hand-harvested throughout spring
Gong Mei 貢眉
🍃 Mostly leaves with thinner buds
⛅️ Hand-harvested in spring and autumn
Shou Mei 壽眉
🍃 Mostly leaves with very few buds
⛅️ Machine-harvested in late spring and early summer
We always say that personal preference doesn’t have to follow quality. It is up to you which type of tea you most enjoy, on any particular day. While White Hair Silver Needle can fetch exorbitant prices on the market, many people prefer the deeper, more robust flavours of the lower picking grades.
Our collection of white teas
From Fuding, Fujian, China
Unity White Tea
An aged Gong Mei white tea pressed into balls with a deep flavour reminiscent of honey and dark chocolate.
Forest Wild White Broom Tea
An eclectic bunch of wild leaves with a woodsy, herbaceous flavour and sweet aftertaste. Very fun to brew!
From Puerh, Yunnan, China
Yunnan Wild Buds
A rare, precious gift from Mother Nature, these purple-ish buds have a delicate sweet flavour and a hauntingly floral aroma.
From Darjeeling, India
A crisp, citrusy white tea with muscatel undertones and a bright, sweet aroma.
Ageing white tea
White teas, especially those pressed into a ball, bar or cake shape, are great for ageing. In fact, there is a saying in Chinese: “一年茶， 三年藥，七年寶” - “One-year tea, three-years medicine, seven-years treasure”.
Since whites teas undergo minimal human intervention and oxidation, there is room for continuous change in flavour over time as oxygen interacts with the tea.
We find that fresh white teas taste more herbaceous, then get mellower, deeper and sweeter over time. Also, caffeine levels tend to drop with age in inverse proportion to value.
To experience the difference ageing makes for yourself, try some of our White Peony Tea Cake as soon as you get it, then after a year, two years, three years, and so on. It’s helpful to take notes each time so you can look back and see the difference in flavour over time.
White tea: The health benefits
TCM properties: Cooling, detoxifying
Research shows that white tea is also packed with health benefits: it contains more antioxidants than any other type of tea, and it has been shown to aid the body’s immune system against various diseases and bacteria. Its high concentration of polyphenols have also been shown to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and fight fatigue.
Brewing white tea
In our experience, white tea tends to handle hot temperatures well and is quite resilient to over-steeping - relatively ‘slow to bitterness’.
We recommend experimenting with different temperatures to see the full spectrum of flavour each tea exhibits. At hotter temperatures (95℃), good quality white teas can deliver bright, full-bodied flavours, and at lower temperatures (85℃) the flavour becomes more complex and nuanced.
A few points to note with different forms of tea:
Our Darjeeling Moonshine, for example, has smaller leaves with more surface area for faster flavour extraction - which also means it can get bitter if over-steeped. So we prefer to brew this one at 80-85℃ and make sure to not over-steep it.
For pressed white tea, like a tea cake, bar or our Unity White Tea balls, it’s a good idea to ‘rinse the tea’ first with hot water, throwing out the first infusion, as this will help loosen the leaves and release the flavour faster.
It’s likely that you’ll have some broken leaves from a tea cake or bar, so be careful not to over-steep it as the tiny leaf bits can get bitter!
You can try boiling an aged pressed white tea, like our Unity White Tea, to get a deeper, stronger flavour. Just pop in a ball to a pot on the stove or a kettle on a burner, simmer for 20-30 minutes, strain and enjoy!
Curious about other types of tea? Read on!