What is white tea, exactly? Originally grown in China's Fujian province, but now produced in India and Japan as well, these delicately rich, spring-harvested teas owe their name to the pearly white hairs on the buds of the tea plant which emerge after drying, or withering, in the sun.
Only lightly oxidized, white teas never undergo fermentation or roasting processes, so they retain a much greater subtlety of flavor and an abundance of tea's natural antioxidants.
Types of White Teas
White tea can appear in highest-quality, bud-only form, like the prized Silver Needles (Yin Zhen Bai Hao), or in mixed bud-and-leaf form, like White Peony (Bai Mudan). White teas that come as only buds take longer to wither after picking, and also take longer to steep in water than do white teas with more leaves present.
Tea tip: whole leaf tea is almost always going to be preferable to bagged tea, because of both the quality of the tea inside (whole and not broken shards or dust) and the amount of room the tea will be given to expand while steeping.
What You'll Need
For a practical everyday white tea device, you'll need a small pot like a ho-hin (or a gaiwan) that allows for expansion of the leaves, decent temperature control, and the pleasures of reinfusion. (It's for these reasons you'd want to avoid, say, a big tea-thirsty British teapot or a stylish modern pot that constrains your tea to a filter basket way up high.)
How to Steep
Rinse the steeping vessel first with hot water to clean and heat it.
White teas like a temperature of 180 to 185° F, so be careful not to scald the tea with too-hot water. Some electric kettles can be set to turn off before the water reaches a boil. If you're using a stovetop teakettle, measure the water with a thermometer to get comfortable with how long it takes to heat to 180°, or how long it takes to cool off to the correct temperature after reaching a boil.
Be generous with the tea—use at least 2 tablespoons per 8 ounces of water. For leafy white teas, steep 4 to 5 minutes. For bud-only teas, add another minute or two for the flavors to truly develop.
What You'll Experience
White tea offers a greater dimension of body, and lack some of the bitterness that you may be familiar with in other teas. Soft, delicate flavors range from buttery to sweet, fruity and floral, and of course each tea is different. Since white tea has lower levels of caffeine than other teas (and higher levels of catechins) go ahead and enjoy a few more cups!