Whether a tea leaf winds up in a cup of white tea, green tea, black tea, or oolong tea depends entirely on what happens to it after it is plucked. Black tea derives its dark color and full flavor from a complex fermentation process that includes exposing crushed tea leaves to the air for a strictly defined number of minutes. Tea leaves meant for more mellow tasting green tea are not fermented at all, but merely withered in hot air and quickly steamed or pan-fried. A gentle rolling and final heating stabilizes the tea’s natural flavors. Oolong teas fall somewhere in the middle: partial fermentation gives them a distinct reddish colour and a “flowery” flavor.
So, where does white tea fit into the picture? White tea is made from immature tea leaves that are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened. The tea takes its name from the silver fuzz that still covers the buds, which turns white when the tea is dried. Unlike green tea, white tea is not heated to kill the enzymes that cause oxidation. Although this means that white tea is less processed than green tea, the lack of heating allows some oxidation to occur, creating a slightly darker color than most green teas, and less of the vibrant green color.
Let’s Try to Define White Tea
There is no universally accepted definition of white tea; the classification of teas as either white or green can be subjective, especially for intermediate types of tea such as snow buds (xue ya). Sometimes, white teas are classified as a sub-type of green tea, since most white teas are mostly unoxidized, but we believe that classifying them in different categories is more accurate because their production process is distinct, and because they are often more oxidized than typical green tea. Some organizations, including some tea companies, define white tea so as to only include teas including leaf tips or buds, which excludes most of the darkest-colored white teas; we do not use this definition since these teas are still minimally processed like other white teas.
If we had to define white tea, it’d read something like this: “White tea is a lightly oxidized tea which comes from the buds and leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.”
Flavor & aroma
White tea is often described as having a very subtle and delicate aroma, but this is not always true. White teas are quite diverse, with some styles being rich and dark, often described as similar to oolong.
Lighter white teas have aromatic notes, like melon, that are uncommon in other types of teas. White teas often lack the grassy characteristics of green teas, and they lack both the toasty character of pan-fired or baked green teas, as well as the vegetal characteristics of steamed teas. Darker white teas often have aromas resembling autumn leaves.
The flavor and aromas of white teas are particularly diverse if you look at types outside the historical centers of production in Fujian province.
Origins and production
White tea originated in China, and most of the world’s white tea is produced there. However, in recent years, due to the surging popularity of white tea, white teas have become available from numerous other regions, including Indian tea estates, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) tea estates, Kenya tea estates, and Malawi tea estates.
Some of these teas emulate traditional Chinese styles, especially silver needle, and sometimes white peony. Others, however, are novel, fitting into the broader traditions and production methods of white tea but taking on a character of their own.
Caffeine content of white tea: myths & reality
Many websites claim that white tea contains less caffeine than black or green teas. This is a widespread myth; the caffeine content of white teas, like other teas, varies greatly from one tea to the next. White teas with a large portion of buds, such as silver needle, tend to have more caffeine than those with a larger portion of mature leaves, as the young tips are highest in caffeine. As white teas, particularly those made exclusively of tips, are very mild in flavor, they can also be brewed very strongly, resulting in a very high caffeine content of the brewed cup.
Until recently white tea was virtually unknown outside of Asia, but not anymore. Today, everyone from chefs, health freaks to medical researchers is praising white tea’s delicate flavor and purported health benefits. Market researchers predict consumers will soon share their enthusiasm, turning white tea into one of the hottest new food trends.