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What is White Tea? 

What is White Tea? 

Gentle, delicate and light, white tea is the least processed of the teas. Its floral or fruity flavors make it a soothing, deeply pleasurable tea to drink. 

Traditionally, the art of making white tea is a highly skilled endeavor, requiring the mastery of sun and wind to naturally dry the tea leaves to perfection. Consequently, white tea has always been especially prized, and more expensive than other varieties. 

In recent years, this has led to a profusion of white teas that are not made in the traditional way, but rather undergo a mechanized process to create larger batches of tea. While this has brought the price of white tea down, allowing more people to experience this gentle, soothing variant, it has also meant that some of the quality has been lost. True tea connoisseurs may wish to seek out traditionally made white tea for the most authentic tastes. 

Why is it Called White Tea?

Like most teas, white tea is made from leaves and leaf buds of the the tea bush, Camellia Sinensis. Some white tea varieties contain no leaves at all, only buds before the leaves have developed. Others include both bud and new leaves. 

Either way, the leaves are harvested early, when barely open, and they still have a white fuzzy appearance thanks to the presence of fine downy hairs covering the bud and new leaf. Many attribute the name of the tea to this fuzzy white down – although others point to the light almost white color of the tea itself. 

How is White Tea Traditionally Made?  

Unlike green tea, which is heated upon picking to halt oxidation, and black tea, which is fully oxidized, white tea does not undergo any rigorous processes. Instead, the newly hand-picked leaves and buds are first left in the shade to lose moisture, then are sun dried. If the sun is hot enough, just this process alone is enough to make white tea; the sun heats the leaves, which are angled to get the right amount of light on them, while wind is funneled under the leaves to cool them down. 

The process is a very delicate one. If the sun is too hot and the leaves still too moist, the leaves will over-ripen, giving a sickly taste of over-ripe fruit. Conversely, if the sun is too cool the leaves will simply rot, turning into green mush. Mastery of the sun and wind in tandem is therefore needed to produce a perfectly sun-dried tea. 

On days when the sun alone is not hot enough to dry the leaves, the tea is instead laid on bamboo trays and baked over charcoal ash. Again, this is a delicate, gentle process, quite unlike the wok or oven cooking used to produce green tea. 

In recent years, white tea has exploded in popularity, yet this traditional method is highly skilled and time consuming. To keep up with demand, mechanical processes to pick and dry the leaves have been developed, allowing more people to enjoy white tea at a lower price point than would otherwise be possible. 

White Tea lends itself well to pairing with other herbal and floral flavours (Image: Olena Bohovyk / Pexels

The Health Benefits of White Tea

The tea bush, Camellia sinensis, is naturally packed with antioxidants that can help fight the effects of aging, protect against cancer, and much more. All true teas, including black, yellow, green and oolong, contain these antioxidants, but the processing that the teas go through results in differing amounts of antioxidants and other compounds in each of the teas. 

As the least processed of the Camellia sinensis teas, white tea is especially loaded with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant known to convey health benefits. This, together with its soothing taste, makes it an ideal option for those who drink tea for health reasons.

Let’s take a look at just some of the health benefits white tea can offer: 

Reducing Inflammation: Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection. While acute inflammation is a crucial part of the healing process, chronic inflammation can be harmful and contribute to various health conditions, including arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. 

White tea contains polyphenols (a type of antioxidant), particularly catechins and flavonoids, which have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. These bioactive compounds scavenge free radicals and inhibit the production of inflammatory molecules in the body. By reducing inflammation, white tea can help alleviate symptoms and potentially prevent the development of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, certain cancers, and heart disease

Reducing the risk of heart disease: Studies suggest that the antioxidants in white tea can contribute to heart health by reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These antioxidants help protect against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is a significant contributor to the formation of plaque in the arteries. By preventing plaque buildup, white tea may help lower the risk of heart disease and promote a healthier cardiovascular system.

Protection against brain degeneration: The high antioxidant content of white tea also benefits brain health. Research suggests that white tea’s polyphenols may help protect against age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These compounds have been shown to inhibit the formation of plaques and tangles, characteristic of these conditions.

Anti-aging properties: In addition to causing disease, free radicals in the body are linked to the aging process. Antioxidants in white tea help protect the skin from damage caused by harmful free radicals, as well as UV rays, pollutants, and other environmental factors. Regular consumption of white tea may aid in reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots, promoting a more youthful complexion.

Digestive aid: White tea has been traditionally used to aid digestion. It contains tannins, which possess mild astringent properties that can help soothe and alleviate digestive discomfort. White tea’s anti-inflammatory effects may also contribute to a healthier digestive system by reducing inflammation in the gut.

Weight loss aid: White tea may aid in weight loss efforts due to its potential metabolism-boosting properties. Research suggests that white tea can increase fat oxidation and thermogenesis, leading to increased calorie expenditure. Additionally, its low caffeine content makes it a suitable alternative to other caffeinated beverages for those seeking to manage their weight.

Silver needle tea is a popular white tea variety (Image: Creative Commons)

Ways to Enjoy White Tea

White tea’s lack of bitterness, low caffeine content, and fruity, floral flavor profile make it the perfect summer tea, whether drunk hot or cold – or even used as an ingredient in sweets and cocktails

The Traditional Way

The traditional way to prepare white tea involves a simple and delicate process that compliments the simplicity of white tea, allowing the flavors and aromas of the tea to shine. Here are the steps to prepare white tea in the traditional manner:

  1. Start with high-quality white tea leaves: Choose loose-leaf white tea that is of good quality and preferably from a reputable source. Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) and White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) are two popular types of white tea.
  2. Measure the tea leaves: Use approximately 1 to 2 teaspoons of white tea leaves per 8-ounce cup of water. Adjust the amount according to your taste preferences and the strength of the tea.
  3. Preheat the teapot or cup: Rinse your teapot or cup with hot water to warm it up. Discard the water used for preheating.
  4. Boil water: Heat fresh, filtered water to a temperature around 175°F (80°C). Avoid using boiling water as it can scorch the delicate white tea leaves and result in a bitter taste.
  5. Add the white tea leaves: Place the measured white tea leaves into the preheated teapot or cup.
  6. Steep the tea: Pour the heated water over the tea leaves and let them steep for 2 to 3 minutes. You can adjust the steeping time based on your preference for a milder or stronger flavor.
  7. Strain and serve: After the desired steeping time, use a fine mesh strainer or tea infuser to strain the brewed tea into a cup. If using a teapot, pour the tea into cups for serving.
  8. Enjoy the pure flavor: White tea is appreciated for its subtle and delicate flavors, so it is often enjoyed without any additives like milk or sweeteners. Take the time to savor the flavors and aromas of the tea as you sip it slowly.

Iced White Tea

The delicate, refreshing flavor of white tea makes it the perfect choice for a cooling iced tea on a hot summer day. It’s also ideal for pairing with fruit juices or fruit pieces – although add sparingly to avoid overpowering the taste of the white tea. 

Iced tea can be made two ways: the tea can be brewed in the traditional way as above then left to cool, or can be cold brewed overnight. A cold brew tea typically has a more nuanced flavor profile, and is ideal for making ahead if you’re expecting guests. (Find out more about cold v’s hot brew iced tea). Once you have your tea, add ice and a little sugar to taste, plus your choice of additional ingredients

Flavor that pair well with iced white tea include: 

  • Fresh tarragon
  • Star anise
  • Elderberries
  • Lemon or orange slices
  • Mint leaves

White Tea Latte

The gentle flavors of white tea brings an interesting twist to the traditional latte flavor profile. The combination of creamy milk, a touch of sweetness, and the subtle floral and mellow notes of white tea can create a delightful and comforting beverage. 

White tea lattes are quick and easy to make

  1. Bring a cup of milk to a gentle simmer
  2. Add two tablespoons of white tea leaves, and allow to simmer for four to five minutes. Alternatively, you can use white tea buds, which should only be simmered for a minute or two. 
  3. Pour the mix into a french press and use the plunger to froth the milk. The french press will also filter the leaves from the latte. 
  4. Serve the latte with a dash of cinnamon powder on top.  
White tea makes an excellent food ingredient. Try it in ice cream! (Image: Valeria Boltneva / Pexels)

White Tea Ice Cream

Like matcha, the delicate, gentle flavor profile of white tea makes it excellent for use as a food ingredient, adding floral, earthy notes to dishes. In particular it lends itself well to sweet dishes such as ice cream. 

Why not try this tasty recipe from The Yum Yum Club

  • Heat two cups of heavy cream and a cup of milk in a small sauce pot until it simmers (not boiling)
  • Remove the pan from the heat, add six tablespoons of white tea leaves, and let it steep for around 30-35 minutes.
  • Strain the tea and discard its leaves and buds.
  • Whisk four egg yolks along with three-quarters of a cup of sugar, and set aside.
  • Simmer the milk-cream-tea mixture, add a cup to the egg-sugar mixture, and whisk until well-combined. This is called tempering.
  • Add the tempered egg mixture to the rest of the milk-cream-tea mixture and stir continuously to prevent the eggs from turning scrambled.
  • Place a bowl in the freezer.
  • Remove it once frozen and transfer the mixture to this bowl. Put it back in the freezer and let it freeze.
  • Churn it using an ice cream maker for around 15-20 minutes. Then, put it back in the freezer for another six to eight hours or until completely frozen.
  • Serve it with fruit or a dash of chocolate syrup on top.

White Tea Cocktail 

The fruity notes of white tea make it a perfect ingredient in crisp summer cocktails. Try this recipe for a White Tea Shot with Rum from Home Cooked Harvest using white peony or silver needle white tea. 

Ingredients: 

  • 1 ounce white rum (blanco rum)
  • 1 ounce brewed white tea, at room temperature
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 1 slice of lime peel for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Add ice to a cocktail shaker.
  2. To the shaker, add in rum, cooled tea, juice and syrup.
  3. Shake for 10-20 seconds.
  4. Strain into two 1.5 ounce shot glasses. Garnish with lime peel.

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