White tea is a type of tea that has a delicate flavor and is naturally low in caffeine. It is harvested at the start of the season, and is comprised of buds and new leaves. White tea gets its name from the white fuzz on the young leaves that helps protect the tea plant's new growth from insects. Because it is hand-harvested for a short period each year, white tea tends to be more expensive than other teas.
- Origin: Fujian Province, China
- Temperature: 175–190°F
- Caffeine: 6–75 mg per cup
What Is White Tea?
White tea is comprised of young, springtime tea leaves that are traditionally grown in the Fujian province of China. The dried tea is known for its withered small leaves and buds that look slightly fuzzy. When brewed, it is typically light gold in color with a floral fragrance. Depending on the type of white tea, the flavor can range from woody to sweet to floral with light, fruity notes. When brewed properly, it is usually less bitter and assertive than black tea.
Nearly all tea (black, green, white, and oolong) come from the same species of plant: camellia sinensis, or the tea plant. The wide variety of properties exhibited by these types of teas is determined by where the plant is grown, when the tea is harvested, and how it is treated and dried after harvesting. White tea leaves are traditionally harvested in Fujian in mid-March to early April.
After white tea leaves are harvested, the leaves are withered and then dried immediately after harvest using natural sunlight, heat vents, or drying chambers. This helps prevents oxidization, giving the tea a light flavor and color and preserving some of the prized benefits of tea, such as antioxidants. The characteristics of the tea can vary depending on its region of origin.
White tea is typically consumed freshly brewed and hot. Because of its subtle flavor, sweeteners and milk are not typically added, and it is often served on its own or with a light snack. A morning or afternoon tea break is the perfect way to fully appreciate this delicate hot tea.
How to Drink White Tea
White tea should be brewed at a relatively low temperature in order to maintain the tea's fresh characteristics. Use clean, pure water (not distilled) that is not yet boiling, ideally 175 to 190 F. Note that water boils at 212 F, so the water should be hot but not quite simmering. Most white teas will need to steep for as little as one minute or up to five minutes. Some varieties will become astringent and bitter if left to steep for too long, or brewed with water that's too hot.
The amount of tea needed will depend on the leaves—if the mixture is largely compact buds, then as little as a teaspoon for an eight-ounce cup will suffice. If the tea is made up of open, light-weight leaves, use closer to a tablespoon per cup. Taste the tea before adding any sugar or other ingredients—it likely won't need it.
Caffeine Content in White Tea
The caffeine content in white tea can vary depending on its origin. Most traditional Fujian teas are low in caffeine. Brewed at the appropriately low temperature for a short amount of time, a cup can contain as little as six milligrams of caffeine (compared to the 80 to 200 milligrams in a cup of coffee). Because of the tea's lack of oxidization, short brew time, and low caffeine, it is also lower in acidity compared to black tea and coffee.
Some white tea is now being grown and harvested in Darjeeling, India and other tea-growing regions around the world. This tea can be quite different from its traditional counterpart, and some white teas harvested outside of China have been shown to have higher levels of caffeine. These teas can sometimes have a similar caffeine level as green tea and even black tea (up to 75 milligrams per cup).
Buying and Storing
White tea can be found sold as whole tea leaves, tea bags, and occasionally as bottled iced tea. Single-origin teas are available as well as blends. The highest quality tea tends to come in whole leaf form. Store white tea in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from light. Unflavored tea leaves should remain high quality for a year or two kept under these conditions. Flavored teas (white tea with added ingredients like citrus or vanilla) will keep for six months to a year. The tea won't go bad after this time period but will begin to lose some of its flavor and taste stale.
Types of White Tea
There are a few major varieties of white tea available for purchase in shops and online markets. Silver needle is the most prized white tea for its pure flavor, floral aroma, and golden color. White peony is another premium tea that has a nutty, sweet taste and is frequently sold as single-origin and used in blends. The color, once steeped, is slightly deeper than silver needle. Monkey-picked white tea was supposedly once picked by monkeys, but now the name simply means high-quality, young tea picked at its peak.
Other varieties can sometimes be found, such as Darjeeling white tea (grown in India, with very different characteristics) and "eyebrow" white teas, which are harvested later and therefore are of slightly lesser quality.