White tea is made when the tea leaf is simply picked and then dried, preferably in the sun. First the leaf goes through a wilting stage, where it is place in the partial shade to remove some of the moisture, after that is exposed to full sunlight to dry. After sun drying, the tea is baked to remove all excess moisture , resulting in the finished product, white tea. As simple as it sounds, the process is highly delicate. Traditionally white tea is baked in the sun, but since the sun’s heat cannot be controlled, a steady eye must be kept on the leaves to ensure that they do not burn. Since there is only one step to making white tea, there is not a large margin for error. For example, unlike Yan Cha making where if you mess up one step you can cover it up in the following, with white teas, if you mess up the drying step it is ruined. The best white tea is from Fu Di in the Fujian province. Zheng He is also known for making white tea, but has become less popular in recent years and has become also known for making red tea
White tea is categorized by how and when it is picked. The four main divisions are Silver Needle, Bai Mu Dan, Gong Mei and Shou Mei.
Silver Needle: Silver Needle is the most sought after category of white tea as it usually uses the first picks of the season and is made up of just the bud of plant and no leaves. The bud is the most potent part of the plant and provides the mostly complex flavor and sweetness. A good Silver Needle is subtly complex, staying light yet hardy in its flavor. The flavor range is vast and include flowers, honeycomb, cucumbers, vegetal, honey, sun soaked cotton, and nuts.
Bai Mu Dan: After Silver Needle comes Bai Mu Dan. Bai Mu Dan picking still takes place early in the season, but is made up of the bud as well as the leaves. The addition of leaves cut the flavor a bit. When tasting a Silver Needle and Bai Mu Dan side by side from the same location and year, the Silver Needle will generally have a fuller more complex flavor while the Bai Mu dan will be sweeter with a lighter more refreshing body. Bai Mu Dans tend to have notes of flowers, nuts, honey and vegetalness.
Gong Mei: Gong Mei consists of the same picking as Bai Mu Dan but grows later in the season. As the tea season goes on, the bud of the plant shrinks and the the leaves grow larger. With Bai Mu Dan, the bud is still at a decent size, with Gong Mei, the leaves tend to outweigh the bud. This provides for a bolder flavor, but also results in a lack of the complexity, sweetness or smoothness as the previous two picks. Gong Mei is generally darker as well with earthy and woodsy flavor notes.
Shou Mei: Shou Mei is the last picking of white tea. Very late in the harvest the leaves are very large and there is very little to no bud. Often times when there is a white tea cake, this is the tea they use, since this tea is generally undesired and needs a gimmick to sell it. The least sweet of all the white teas, this tea is earthy, bold and the roughest of the three teas.
White teas are, in this authors’s opinion, one of the most underrated teas. They are often described with words such as light and delicate, giving them the conentation that they are a more or less tasteless or basic tea. The truth is a good white tea is quiet complex. I have tasted notes of honey comb, nuts, honey and flowers all in one tea. This misunderstanding comes from in proper brewing, bad tea, or that damn snapple commercial. (A topic of Wednesday’s first mini post.)
While white teas are soft, they are also very full. The Tai Chi of teas. They should have a round body with confident notes. To bring out these characteristics boiling water should be used. White tea is a big leaf varietal so using less than boiling water will yield a pleasant tea, and while this tea will be sweeter it won’t have the full range of characteristics that the same tea brewed with boiling water will present.
Originally the white tea regions brewed this tea like a green tea, but the gaiwan is now the favored style. As I said before boiled water should be used and the steeps can start at about 3-5 seconds. White teas can go for a long time starting at 10 brews and going longer for the better teas.
Knowing the different types of white tea is important because they are usually sold under the wrong name. I have seen Bai Mu Dan being sold as Bai Hao Yin Zhen, and Gong Mei being sold as Bai Mu Dan. (this is very common). Understanding what the differences are and how to tell them apart will help you recognizing a false tea when you see one.