White tea is one of the most popular kinds of tea in the world. Every day, customers write to us wanting to learn more about white tea’s history and health benefits, and falling in love with white tea through classics like our Yunnan White Jasmine and Bai Mu Dan White Tea and limited offerings like Budset Bai Mu Dan. But what is white tea? We take it step by step, from the technical details behind how it’s made to the folk stories and legends behind white tea.

Technical Process

White tea is perhaps the closest you can get in flavor and integrity to picking a leaf right off a tea plant and eating it whole. Unlike green tea, white tea’s oxidization process is stopped as soon as the leaf is picked. Just like after slicing an apple, it browns with exposure to the air: tea gets darker and earthier as it reacts with air. With an apple, this process can be stopped by sprinkling a touch of lemon juice on each slice. With tea, you simply need to apply sufficient heat.

When making green tea, the leaf is allowed to wither and react with the air for several hours before being tumble-dried. White tea by contrast is flash-steamed to halt the oxidization process after picking and then either tumble-dried or allowed to sun dry. The steaming process locks in the natural quality of the leaf and the full potency of flavor.

What Kind of Tea Plants Make White Tea?

Some Fujianese purists assert that only “da bai” varietal plant is true white tea. In fact, white tea as defined by the National Tea Institute in Hangzhou as any tea whose oxidization process is stopped before a withering or drying process instead of after. Any varietal of leaf can be used- from tea plants in Laoshan to wild Yunnan tea.

To extend the apple comparison- apple pie can be made with any varietal of apple. Some may work better than others, but everything is fair game. What defines an apple pie is the process and final form, not the “varietal” of ingredients used. White tea is exactly the same. White tea is a category like green or oolong that can apply to tea from any region. The He family in Laoshan push the boundaries of what teas can be made with what leaf, having tried a white tea, green tea, black tea, and oolong with their leaves.

The True Story of White Tea

Any discussion of white tea has to reference the origin of the word to help illustrate how humble and non-pretentious tea actually is. The original story of white tea traces its roots back to times when the spirit of hospitality ran strong in the countryside of China, but poverty plagued the land and many could not afford the luxury of tea leaves. Despite the cost of tea, each host was honor-bound offer the hospitality of a pot of tea to their guests.

Farmers of days past would bring out their finest teapots and cups, passed down for generations. The host would build a fire and heat freshly-drawn water to a boil, carefully and ceremoniously pouring the water into their tea pots and letting the water “steep”. The clear water poured into each cup, as the host respectfully invited each guest to join in the ceremony: “Please drink this white tea.”

In Chinese, the word bai – white – is similar in meaning to clear or bright, so the pun is meaningful.

Too often, white tea (and tea in general) is discussed in such elevated terms that people forget its humble origins rooted equally in nature and human culture, miraculous happenstance and ceremonial artifice. On one side, tea is the ultimate expression of hospitality, a symbol of the sacred relationship between guest and host. On the other side, tea is a humble plant picked by the hands of a farmer – a real person – and crafted with respect and care.  White tea is a great reminder of tea’s simple origins as living plant because the natural taste of the leaf is so carefully preserved through the steaming process.

How do Tea Buds Effect the Flavor of Tea?

White tea is one of the easiest ways to discover the effect of buds in the taste of tea. Most teas on the market are made with leaves, which have amore robust intensity to them. Some teas are made entirely or partially from buds which have a very different flavor and texture to be aware of.

The bud of the tea plant essentially represents potential energy. That bud had stored up energy in the form of sugars that it planned on converting into large leaves. If those leaves never develop and the bud is picked, the flavor of the bud will be sweeter than the flavor of leaves, simply because there are more sugars stored in the bud.

A bud also has a much smaller surface area to volume ratio. This means that there is less space available for the same amount of matter to infuse in the water. This physical effect of slower steeping means a more delicate infusion and a different extraction of the flavor compounds in the tea.

Finally, buds are usually coated in a fine silvery down, which dislodges in steeping and remains suspended in the tea liquor. This down makes for a thicker “chewier” texture to the tea.

All together, buds are going to contribute to a thick, sweet tea with a drawn out aftertaste. Our Budset Bai Mudan has a high concentration of bud material, making it very thick and crisp. Our traditional Bai Mudan is balanced between leaf and bud, meaning a more robust flavor and balanced thickness. Trying teas with lots of buds and less buds is a great way to discover the effect that buds have on a tea’s flavor.

How to Brew and Store White Tea

White tea is very easy to brew. It is almost impossible to oversteep. In China, it is commonly sipped directly out of a tempered glass tumbler. Use under-boiling water around 200 degrees and about 4 grams of leaf. Either sip directly out of a 12oz glass, or use a brew basket to stop the brewing process after about 20 seconds. White tea also performs beautifully in a gaiwan.

White tea does not need refrigeration. Store it in a relatively airtight container away from heat and smells. Some white tea aficionados swear that white tea gets better with age. Its shelf life is much longer than green tea, making it a great tea to stock up on and enjoy every day.

9 Responses to “What is White Tea?”

    • Caffeine content is actually not based on oxidation. Caffeine is determined by bud to leaf ratio. In those forms of white tea which have more bud than is normal (e.g. silver needle), caffeine is actually higher than that of black tea. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation on tea’s caffeine content – the highest caffeine teas are generally Japanese greens and silver needle, and the trends aren’t all that predictable.

      • Lily Duckler

        Thank you for the response, Jan – you’re correct! The question of caffeine is a complex and difficult one, and the answers are unfortunately usually presented as solid, simple proven facts. As you note, whole leaf green teas and white teas have been found to have high levels of caffeine – part of this is due to the fact that these two kinds of teas are more likely to be less than one year old. A high level of caffeine Japanese green teas in particular is not suprising, due to the issue of freshness and the fact that machine-harvested Japanese green teas often contain a higher percentage of broken leaves. Because these leaves have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio, the contents of those leaves (including caffeine) take less time to steep into the warm water.

        The shortest answer is that all teas contain caffeine – the only way to avoid caffeine entirely is to avoid food and drink containing caffeine, including tea, coffee and chocolate. If you’re concerned about your caffeine consumption, take it slowly and take note of the way the teas you’re drinking affect you, and be sure to consult your physician about your questions and concerns.

        In general, the scientific studies currently published are at odds with each other about not only the amount of caffeine in each processing style of tea, but also call into question the idea that caffeine is the main active ingredient in tea. This is in part due to the fact that “tea” is such a varied product.. for example, commodity bagged tea dust vs. high end whole leaf teas.. fresh tea picked a month or so ago vs tea sitting on a grocery store shelf for several years.. add to that variations in processing type, varietals and picking location (China vs Japan vs Kenya vs Indonesia), and we begin to see how complex an in-depth and definitive study of caffeine in tea can be!

        For example, as Jan notes, bud teas are more likely to have a higher amount of caffeine than many oxidized black teas. However, these same teas are also likely to have a higher L-theanine content, and some studies suggest that the interaction between caffeine and L-theanine creates the more complex reaction of focused relaxation rather than a straightforward caffeine buzz.

        David recently wrote an in-depth article looking at the available literature on effects of caffeine in tea which you can find here:
        http://verdanttea.com/whats-the-real-deal-with-caffeine-in-tea/

        Brian – the above article references several of the original studies directly. If you’d like to jump straight to the nitty-gritty of the studies themselves, you can find their abstracts here:

        On the interaction between L-theanine and Caffeine re: sleep distrubances:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22285321

        Caffeine and theanine on sustained attention in humans
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22326943

        L-theanine and Caffeine improving preformance / alertness:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21040626

        Work on EGCG
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16859659
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16457806

        White and Green Tea (an in-depth chemical study)
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20722909

        The comments of David’s article also contain a wealth of information provided by interested readers linking to alternate studies and discussing the various opinions on the effects of caffeine and L-theanine in the human brain. It’s a great discussion – I hope you’ll get the chance to take a closer look!

    • For some reason, it won’t let me reply to your most recent post. Anyway, here’s an article with some discussion of caffeine content. I saw an actual study a while back, but I can’t find it on Google right now. It’s from another tea site – hopefully that’s OK – [removed by moderator]

      [Moderator note: Sorry, Jan. We do not allow links to other websites in our discussion threads. Please refer to the discussion house rules]

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