White Tea is the least processed form of tea, made only from buds and select leaves of the tea plant. The finest quality white tea, Silver Needle, is made only from unopened buds and gets it name from the fine silvery white hairs on the buds. Beautiful and pleasant tasting, white tea was a luxury available only to the emperor of China. Now it has become available all around the world, albeit at a higher price than other teas.
Like green, oolong, and black tea, white tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant. White tea is a specialty of the Chinese province Fujian. The leaves come from a number of varieties of tea cultivars. The most popular are Da Bai (Large White), Xiao Bai (Small White), Narcissus, and Chaicha bushes.
White tea is fast-dried, while green tea is roasted in an oven or pan (while kept moving for even curing). Due to its minimal oxidation process, white tea retains higher concentrations of antioxidant flavonoids (catechins) than green or black tea, and thus is thought to have greater health benefits. While the actual effectiveness of white tea's medicinal properties are still to be determined, it is nonetheless an example of human creativity in making the most beautiful, nutritious food from one of nature's abundant resources.
- See also: Tea: Origin and history
In hard times, very poor Chinese people would serve guests boiled water if they could not afford tea. Host and guest would refer to the water as "white tea" and act as if the tradition of serving guests tea had been carried out as usual. This usage is related to plain boiled water being called "white boiled water" in Chinese.
However, true white tea is a specialty, formerly a luxury reserved for the emperor of China.
A form of compressed tea referred to as white tea was being produced as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). This special white tea was picked in early spring, when the tea bushes had abundant growths which resembled silver needles. These "first flushes" were used as the raw material to make the compressed tea. Steamed, crushed, and poured into molds, and baked into cakes until dry. To prepare tea for drinking these cakes were roasted in the fire until soft enough to be crushed into a powder which was added to boiling water, often with flavorings such as ginger, orange peel, cloves, or peppermint.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) white tea was the choice of the royal court, given as tribute to the emperor. The cakes of tea were ground into a very fine powder and whisked in boiling water to produce a frothy liquid, more subtle flavorings of jasmine, lotus, and crysanthemum flowers replacing the spicier additions of earlier times. A version of this method of tea preparation is still found in the famous Japanese tea ceremony.
Modern-day white teas can be traced to the Qing Dynasty in 1796. Teas were processed and distributed as loose tea that was to be steeped, and they were produced from chaicha, a mixed-variety tea bush. The white tea process differed from other Chinese green teas in that it did not incorporate de-enzyming by steaming or pan-firing. Also, the white teas that were produced from the chaicha tea bushes were thin, small, and did not have much silvery-white hair.
It was not until 1885 that specific varieties of tea bushes were selected to make "Silver Needles" and other white teas. The large, fleshy buds of the "Big White," "Small White," and "Narcissus" tea bushes were selected to make white teas and are still used today as the raw material for the production of white tea. By 1891, the large, silvery-white down-covered Silver Needle was exported, and the production of White Peony started around 1922.