Tea fans, it is time to face an uncomfortable truth about our passion, and the truth is as follows:
Some of the very teas that make us really happy when they dance about our taste buds can also have unpleasant side-effects when they work through our blood stream and beyond.
For instance, you may love the rich and malty finish of an orthodox black tea but the bitter tannins tie your tummy into knots.
Or you swoon over the grassy, umami mouthfeel of a shade-grown green tea but the high levels of caffeine make your head spin like a top.
Side-effects such as these can be so potent that you may have ditched a tea type altogether.
Now that is a tragedy! You have lost the parts of a tea that you enjoy and along with it all other benefits.
There is an alternative to throwing out a cherished tea. Today I will explore a rising star in the tea world, the white teas. This special type of tea, which I describe in detail, may be a solution to some common tea complaints and at the same time offer delightful taste and aroma sensations.
Later in this post I will offer my recommendations for where you can find the best white teas on the market at affordable prices.
Skip ahead in the content if you’re short on time and want to see the teas that I recommend.
The White Tea Alternative
Tea drinkers all over the world are beginning to devote more and more cupboard space to white teas, and for good reason. White teas offer a unique flavor profile that open a sip with a floral and fruity note and finish with a delicate yet soothing mouthfeel.
That’s just one compelling feature of white teas that tea drinkers appreciate.
Another special quality of white teas is reduction or elimination of undesirable side-effects. In particular, those tummy-aches from too much tannins or the head-spins from too much caffeine are much easier to control through mindful consumption of white teas than in other teas.
There are many other benefits of drinking white tea. Here is a quick list that highlights benefits that I consider significant.
Benefits of White Tea:
To understand the source of these amazing benefits and why white tea stands apart from other teas, let’s look at the details of its manufacture.
What is White Tea?
As with other true teas, the white teas are derived entirely from leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea tree. In the broadest terms there are two styles of white tea. One style is white peony (or pai mu tan in Chinese) where farmers pluck the top two or three leaves on a stem along with the leaf bud at the tip.
Another style of white tea is silver needle (bai hao yin zhen), where farmers harvest only tightly closed leaf buds. In fact, white tea gets its descriptive name from the downy, silvery-white hairs that often cover young buds and so give the appearance of silver needles.
Silver needle is considered among the highest grades of white tea.
White teas are lightly processed
After harvest of camellia leaf, the first stage of tea processing is withering. During withering the tea maker piles fresh leaf into shallow heaps under the cover of a leaf house (yes, that’s where this blog borrows its name).
Over the course of several hours, or an entire day, the tea maker may periodically rearrange the leaf to ensure uniform wither.
Once the proper amount of moisture has been lost—this takes skill to recognize—the leaf is then carefully dried in either the sun or a hot oven.
The final steps in manufacturing are sorting and packing of the finished leaf. Therefore, when you put it all together, withering and drying is all there is to processing of white tea.
A pretty simple procedure, right?
The white tea difference
In comparison to other types of camellia tea, manufacture of white tea is indeed very simple. For example, black, green, and oolong teas each have a step in which withered leaf is physically manipulated, or rolled, by either hand or machine.
There may also be additional processing steps in these teas that include heating by pan-frying or steaming.
The point of all the added handling is to release phytochemicals from within leaf tissues. Rolling and heating ruptures cell walls and cell organelles, which in turn mixes together plant compounds such as enzymes and antioxidants.
These plant compounds react with each other in the presence of oxygen and yield many of the oxidized substances that give black, green, and oolong teas their flavor, mouthfeel, and liquor color.
The White Tea Secret: Less is More
By now you’re probably asking how white tea can be worth drinking since it gets so little processing.
Good question, but the answer is pretty simple.
It turns out that withering of leaf does in fact rupture cell walls but to a much lower degree than rolling or heating. Also, the hot water that we pour over tea leaf further releases phytochemicals that are otherwise locked inside plant cell walls.
What you get in your leaf are slow-release plant compounds, and that’s the glorious secret of white tea! The slower the release of naturally available tea goodies such as polyphenols, flavanols, and caffeine, the more control you have over total intake.
There is one minor tradeoff, however. You won’t have the same rich, deep reds and oranges to color the tea liquor. The reason is because much of those colorful hues come from oxidation products and tannins, and since there are few tannins in white teas the color tends towards pale green or yellow.
The upside of low tannin levels is that white teas do not have the bitterness of other teas. Even long steepings, up to three or four minutes total, do not have a bitter finish. So, in reality, you aren’t losing much and your tummy will thank you for choice of tea!
Does White Tea Have Caffeine?
In its natural state, all camellia tea leaf has caffeine. The function of caffeine in plants is to deter insects that might try to take a bite of the leaf.
Depending on your personal viewpoint, your physiology, or the imperative of an all-nighter, caffeine in humans is either a positive or a negative.
The beauty of white tea, however, is that you can adjust steep durations in order to adjust caffeine in your cup. Leaf compounds are released slowly from white tea leaf and into water; to drink less caffeine use short steeps.
To experiment, start with 30 seconds of steep time per serving and see how that goes. You may have to wait about ten to twenty minutes to start feeling the full effects of caffeine. Let it happen and then make adjustments on subsequent servings.
You can use this technique on any type of tea to adjust caffeine levels. However, you will not get the same flavor rewards out of, say, a 30 second steep of Assam CTC black tea as you will a typical white tea. White teas retain a floral freshness that emerges on even short steeps.
Our White Tea Recommendations: Where to Find The Best White Tea
Now that you have a solid understanding of the benefits of white tea, let’s explore the market.
I have combed through hundreds of online reviews by tea drinkers and perused dozens of tea company websites, all to find the best value in white teas. I lost count of all the different white tea brands that I reviewed. In the end, I settled on five different white teas to recommend here.
To make the list a tea had to satisfy the following criteria:
I’ve sorted out The Best White Tea in each of five categories. These categories are fluid and over time will change, but for now there are five teas listed here that I am excited for you to try.
A good daily tea is a daily comfort. It’s not something that you want to think too deeply about or have to make a fuss over. You want it when you want it, and not a minute later. And your daily shouldn’t break the bank; affordability is a requirement for a good daily tea.
On this score, Organic Positively Tea Company is a tea retailer with a knack for finding great teas at a great price. Their white peony tea is no exception. It is offered in one pound packets of loose leaf that the company claims can be enjoyed for at least 150 total cups of tea.
That’s a lot of tea and if you’re frugal you can probably stretch that to many more delicious servings.
And this white tea reviews well. Tea drinkers say that it is light on the palate while holding a sweetness on the tongue that evolves to a floral note at the finish.
They also volunteer that this white tea is mild, which is usually synonymous with delicate. But if strength is what you’re looking for, then simply increase the amount of tea that you steep.
Some tea reviewers complain of too many stems but stems can be a source of flavor. In any case, it’s impossible to harvest peony style without stem because the two leaves must be connected to the bud by a stem. The stem is also the reason peony tends to costs less than higher grades of white tea.
Never mind though, this is a great value in a white tea.
When you buy in quantity you may want to do more than simply steep a cuppa. Other options for this well-reviewed tea include iced tea (sweetener optional), and kombucha. White tea is especially appropriate when you are seeking a delicate tea flavor that doesn’t overpower the added fruit or SCOBY ferment.
Best White Tea for Special Occasions: Tealyra Premium Organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) from Fujian, China
There are times when you want a special tea for a special occasion. Maybe you want to celebrate a holiday, share an important event with a friend, or just treat yourself to an extraordinary tea.
White tea is perfect for special occasions for two reasons. First, it’s well-behaved in the cup which means that it’s easy to make it just right and hard to ruin. And second, the natural sweetness of white tea often translates into smiles on faces of both novice and expert tea drinkers.
If you are comfortable with spending just a little bit more for a special tea, then a slightly higher-priced white tea is the way to go.
The Tealyra company has filled this need for a specialty white tea for years and tea reviewers appreciate their products. Accordingly, Tealyra’s Premium Silver Needle White Tea, or Bai Hao Yin Zhen in Chinese, is often rated as top quality. The buds are thick and full, with fine silvery-downy white hairs characteristic of excellent white teas.
Reviewers also appreciate that this tea is certified organic (though I’m not quite sure by whom), and that it is fresh-harvested in the spring season. The leaf aroma has hints of apricots while the tea flavor is described as sweetly floral with notes of peach.
If there are any downsides to this tea it is storage. Though it comes shipped in a resealable packet, you’ll want to use a container with solid sides to protect the tea from damage. It is reported that the tight buds do break if handled roughly and you don’t want that. Containerize it!
Tea sampler packs are like going to a tea cafe but without the cafe involved. Instead, from the comfort of your home, you can enjoy several teas from the same manufacturer or distributor. This way the tea drinker gets a feel for the range of what a company has to offer. I really like the concept of tea samplers.
The challenge, however, is to find a good sampler pack. You don’t want, for example, five different teas but only two of which are worth drinking. You want five good teas out of five.
I think that Vahdam Teas, based in New Delhi, India, has come pretty close to that high standard. Vahdam’s White Tea Sampler offers five different white teas in its sampler, each with a different flavor profile:
- Imperial Himalayan White Tea – Harvested in late summer and early autumn, reviewers say this tea is low-key and has a delicate sweetness.
- Blue Mountain Nilgiri White Tea – Grown in the rolling hills, this tea is described as having flowery note with a slightly grassy finish.
- Darjeeling Pearl White Tea – From India’s most famous tea-growing district, this tea has a subtle peachy-green complexity that reviewers rave about.
- Imperial Early Grey White Tea – Also from Nilgiri, the bergamot aroma is surprisingly compatible with the lightness and floral flavors of white tea.
- Silver Needle White Tea – Leaf is mostly tight buds as a silver needle should be; the top note is described as mellow while the finish is reminiscent of fresh flowers.
Vahdam has made a name for itself with packing technology that guarantees freshness or get your money back. Truly; many reviewers have lauded Vahdam’s customer service. The company has even included in its sampler a spare resealable pack for tea storage.
Whether you want to lower the risk of exploring a new tea, or you’re looking for a great tea gift idea for friends, this sampler will warm many hearts and put smiles on a thousand faces.
If fussing with loose leaf tea is not your thing, then bagged tea is the way to go. The trouble is, however, that bagged tea tends to be of lower quality than loose leaf tea. In fact, lots of bagged tea is not so much tea leaf as it is tea dust. As you can imagine, dust does not have much flavor or complexity.
Not so with this bagged white tea from Teabox. This company seeks out the best whole leaf for its tea bags and then fresh-seals each bag into flavor-saving “teapacs.” The tea bags are shaped like a pyramid which means that the tea leaf has room to expand and reveal its true flavor profile.
Reviewers rave about this white tea. They agree that it has a silky smooth texture with a slight fruity note that finishes a sip. And true to a good white tea, reviewers also volunteer that Teabox white is permissive with regard to steeping times. That is, if you don’t like what you get the first time, adjust the water temperature and length of steeping time. You will eventually hit the right combination.
An interesting fact about Teabox white tea is that it is produced in Darjeeling, India. This most famous of Indian tea districts is primarily know for its splendid black teas. More recently, however, Darjeeling tea makers have ventured into other tea types, and if this white tea is any indication then there is exciting potential in these other teas. If you want to sample this new wave of Darjeeling tea, then start with what Teabox has to offer here.
Most teas are best when consumed within a few weeks or months after manufacture. There are important exceptions, however, and some white teas improve with age. A lot of age.
To supply an aged white tea, Bamboo Mist Tea offers a white peony that was manufactured—now hold on—in the year 2012.
I don’t know which year you’re reading this article (if it’s 2095, please comment below), but 2012 is seven years before I wrote this post. In other words, this tea has been aging for at least seven years and reviewers love it. They rave about the sweetness and lack of bitterness and how the flavor profile and the aromatics evolve from one steeping to the next.
They also say that you can have perhaps a half-dozen or more servings in each tea session. Drinking tea with such “long legs” may justify the relatively high price tag for this unusual tea.
And that’s not all. A tea doesn’t stop changing just because you buy it. If you keep the tea sealed in the shipping packet and stored within the nifty little tin, there is no telling how many years you could enjoy this tea. Maybe until 2095.
Summary Recommendations: Where to Find the Best White Teas
That was a lot to consider, and maybe you don’t have the time to study each tea. Not to worry because I have put together this summary of our recommendations. I hope you can find a white tea here that makes you happy.
Teaware That You Will Need
Loose-leaf teas are usually twisted when dry and only release their flavor when exposed to hot water. To help your tea expand as much as possible, use a tea strainer or tea infuser. These convenient devices are merely mesh-sided capsules that contain your tea while steeping in water. Water can move through the capsule while keeping the leaf contained within.
When the tea is ready to drink, just pull the capsule out of the pitcher and you get tea liquor without the leaf. To clean out the capsule, open the lid and dump out the leaf. Easy.
A piece of teaware that reviews well is the FORLIFE stainless steel capsule strainer. Up to one cup of tea can be put in this strainer and that’s a lot of tea. I don’t recommend filling the capsule all the way, however; if it’s too full the leaf can’t expand completely.
Reviewers report that the lid is easily removed and the tea shakes right out. Give it a try!