White Tea Basics

2/24/20242 min read

White tea is picked from leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. These leaves are harvested when they are very young and the buds are still covered in very fine, white hairs. These hairs are what gives white tea its name.

Black tea is harvested leaves that are dried and fermented before they are finally chopped up for sale.

White tea goes through a light drying, but for the most part, it is not handled; white tea leaves and especially buds have the same high concentration of antioxidants as fresh tea leaves.

White tea is mostly cultivated in China, mostly in the mountainous and fertile Fujian province (white tea has an extensive history in this part). The areas with the most sunshine and rainfall are reserved for the bushes that produce leaves for white tea.

Harvesting involves plucking the very finest tea first. The most delicate and best quality white tea is made from only the buds of the tea leaves. These are harvested by hand over a few days in the spring which can vary from March 15th to April 10th. At the time of the picking, the buds have reached the perfect equilibrium between youth and maturity that gives the best tasting tea, and only the conclusive unopened and undamaged buds are suitable for Silver Needle tea.

Sometimes white tea of lower quality will include leaves as well as buds which have stopped being buds, but have not yet lost the white fuzz. Processing involves withering the leaves and buds for a few hours and then air-drying them.

The traditional techniques calculate temperature, ambient moisture, and so forth, and the art is to hang the leaves for a long while, rather than include them in the solar withering process, and to balance this with indoor withering — enough to stop fermentation at the right point. Much like green teas, the leaves remain unfermented at this point; the residual processes are so gentle and speedy that the buds and leaves remain very near their natural state, allowing the antioxidants that are in the fresh leaves to remain life. It is one of the rarest of teas and is valued by true aficionados of the leaf, often fetching far higher prices than other types of tea.

Very good white tea, when properly made and brewed, should have a pale, slightly gold color, a scent that is also light and fresh, a flavor that is silky and mild with a touch of mild sweetness. There is none of the “grassy” aftertaste that green tea is known for. In fact, this is true to such an extent that a cup of white tea will taste just as good, with the same mild flavor, long after it has gone cold.