The elegance of white tea with Fujian connections

Updated: 16 Jul 2009
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White tea grown in Fujian


Many people wonder: what makes white tea different from green tea?  White tea is a specialty of the Fujian province in China. This delicate, rare tea originates from the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis, just like all other forms of true tea. White tea is produced when immature tea leaves, or “baby tea leaves”, which are still in bud form, are picked, processed, and dried without oxidation. These tiny tea leaves have not developed their chlorophyll content yet, so they are a very light green in color, and are covered with a downy “fuzz” that gives them a white or silvery appearance, which gave this tea its name.


White tea leaves are picked on dry mornings in early spring, and handled especially carefully, to prevent all bruising and crushing, which would result in oxidation. After harvesting, the tea leaves are spread out in the sun to wilt and dry naturally. The standard and lower quality white teas are also steamed or fired briefly to prevent oxidation. Because white tea must not be bruised, it takes extra skill and time for the tea garden staff to process the white tea crop by hand; the best tea gardens only harvest white tea leaves for about 3 weeks every spring, and the tea leaves are easily bruised and ruined, so white tea can be the most expensive and rare type of tea.


White tea is famous for its delicate and ethereal fragrance and light flavor, being both warm and refreshing. Good quality white tea will have a barely sweet aroma that is fresh and flowery. The flavor of the liquor, or infused liquid, will also be slightly sweet, fresh, and very light. The color of the liquor will be a very light golden hue. The tea leaves will be small, uniform in size, light-colored, and have a white or silvery “downy” appearance. Bad-quality white teas will taste and smell harsh and very grassy, with a dull and flat flavor and aroma and a mouth-drying texture to the liquor.


Like the other types of tea, good quality white teas display character, a desirable liquor quality that permits identification of country of origin and district within that country. Here are some terms that describe some of the most popular grades (or styles) of white tea:


African White: from Malawi and Kenya, mostly as silver needles type made of Indian tea variety buds; usually higher in caffeine and richer in flavour than Chinese white teas.

Assam White: from the Assam, north eastern region of India, a white Assam yields a light bodied, refined infusion that is naturally sweet with a distinct malty flavor.

Bai Hao Yinzen (Silver needle): This is some of the highest quality white tea, from Fujian Province, China. The buds should be “fleshy, bright colored and covered with tiny white hairs” according to Wikipedia. There should be only tea buds, and no stems or separate leaves in the blend.

Bai Mu Dan/ Pai Mu Tan (White Peony): Also from Fujian Province, this is one level down from Bai Hao Yinzhen tea, incorporating the bud and the two leaves that grow directly under the bud. They should have a fine, silvery-white down.

Ceylon White: a high-quality tea grown in Sri Lanka, it has a very light liquor with notes of pine and honey and a golden coppery color.

Darjeeling White: from the Darjeeling region of India, it has a delicate aroma and brews to a pale golden cup with a mellow muscatel taste and a hint of sweetness.

Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow): The third grade of white tea, incorporating silver buds and more leaves.
Shou Mei (Noble, Long Life Eyebrow): A fruity, furry white tea, almost all upper leaves with a few buds, it has a stronger flavor than other white teas. It is the fourth grade of white tea and may be darker in color. From Fujian Province and Guangxi Province in China.

White Puerh Tea: Harvested in the spring from plantations found high on remote mountain peaks of Yunnan Province, China. A luxury white tea that is aged after drying.


Because white tea leaves are smaller than mature tea leaves, it will take more of them to brew a cup of tea, so the caffeine content will often be higher in white tea than in other types of tea. White tea is also more delicate than other types of tea, so it must not be infused with boiling water, but with fresh water that has been boiled, and then taken off the heat and allowed to stand for 10 seconds or so.


It should also be infused only for 2 to 3 minutes, rather than the 3 to 5 minutes appropriate for black tea; to infuse white tea with boiling water, or for a longer time, will result in a sharp, bitter flavor to the brewed tea. A long-ago Chinese emperor once declared white tea to be the most elegant kind of tea, so why not try a sample and see what you think?




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