The original name, and one still in use, is Flowery Pekoe White. These downy white needles, of course, embody all that comes to mind when “white” tea is mentioned. Not many tea consumers, it seems, are able to bridge the apparent disconnect between “white” and the tan-brown leaves of, say, a Shoumei White.
The fact that Silver Needles (White) is comprised entirely of buds makes it a lavish tea and beautiful to behold, but also means that is not a particularly flavorful tea: young, closed buds will not yield as much as tea made from open leaves.
These plump buds are the same material that goes into making blooming or flowering teas, but these are usually made into Green tea, not White tea. This possible confusion is emblematic of general confusion surrounding the White tea category and its defining attributes.
- Leaves with lots of white do not make a tea a White tea.
- White teas are not steamed.
- Not all White teas are non-oxidized.
- The key defining feature of White teas is that they are not de-enzymed.
When inspecting Silver Needles White, it will become evident that some samples are more silvery and thicker than buds in other samples. The best quality comes from Fuding (northern Fujian); the varietal is the Da Bai Hao (“big white sprouting”). Less expensive Silver Needle White comes from Zhenghe (also northern Fujian) where the varietal is the Zhenghe Bai. Placed side by side, the differences are readily evident to the eye: the Zhenghe type is not as white, has darker hues, and the buds are thinner.
After plucking, the withering time for making Silver Needles White is 26 – 32 hours (indoors). White tea dates from around 1850 in the Qing dynasty, and was not traditionally one of the more popular teas in China. Nowadays, the limited production of an all bud tea has propelled Silver Needles White into the costlier sphere where it joins other precious comestibles for gifting. After withering, the tea is dried. Water temperature of 90°C for brewing is recommended by the producer.
Moving a bit farther down the tea plant and along the calendar, the next standards are Mudan White (Bai Mu Dan) and Shoumei White teas. We usually see 3-4 grades in the Mudan group and two in the Shoumei group. (“Mu Dan” are the characters for peonies but there are no flowers in the tea.)
Withering time for Mudan White teas ranges from 28 – 35 hours (see photo above) depending on the moisture of the leaves and ambient conditions during processing. There is air circulating in the rooms (windows, fans) during this period, and the leaves are rotated.
The main factor accounting for the different grades of Mudan White is time of plucking. Leaves plucked earliest in spring become Special grade Mudan; there are more and sturdier buds with more tender leaves. Mid-spring plucking yields 1st grade Mudan, and later spring for the next grade (fewer and thinner buds and less tender leaves), and so forth.
Again, there is no steaming and no rolling in making White tea. (The “no rolling” ought to make it easy to recognize what is a Green tea and what is a White tea.) None of these teas – – Silver Needles White, Mudan White, Shoumei White – has been oxidized. The only White tea that intentionally undergoes some oxidation is Gongmei; most of this tea goes to Hong Kong, where it is a popular tea on dim sum menus. Very little Gongmei comes to the U.S., where Shoumei is the White tea of choice in dim sum restaurants.
If the all bud Silver Needles White may be forgiven for producing a very delicate taste, there is compensation in its visual appeal. The “lower” White leaf teas do offer more flavor: Mudans give a good balance of liveliness (something green and fresh) along with a nutty finish. Shoumei is closer to a light Black tea, also displaying a toasty note; the orange-apricot cup is not as hearty as Black tea but has enough strength to accompany those dim sum “delicacies” that can be quite rich by meal’s end.
Text and photographs courtesy of Lydia Kung