White tea is lightly oxidized tea. It's made by directly drying (sun-drying or roast drying) and withering tea leaves, without killing the enzymes in the leaves. Since the enzymes in the leaves are not killed, oxidation happens to a small degree before the leaves are thoroughly dried. This is the case of traditional white tea only. I've had some Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) white tea, made in colder climate zone, and therefore with almost zero degree of oxidation.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫銀針 Bai Hao Silver Needle) is probably the most precious white tea. After the tea leaves are harvested, only the leaf buds are used to make the final product, and the extra leaves will be used to make Gong Mei (Tribute Longevity Brow, 貢眉, whose lower grade is Shou Mei / Longevity Brow, or Sow Mee, 壽眉). When making Bai Hao Yin Zhen, all the imperfect buds, even those with tiny bug bites or smallest discoloration, will be removed - this is the ideal standards and nowadays there are actually Bai Hao Yin Zheng products of various grades.
Compared with other tea categories, white tea category is smaller, with relatively fewer varieties. Besides the most famous Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), there are also Shou Mei (the lower grade of this tea is often seen as Sow Mee sold in Chinatown grocery stores as an inexpensive white tea), Gong Mei (貢眉Tribute Longevity Brow) as previously mentioned, and Fujian White Jade Bud (also called Fujian Green Snow Bud, as its leaf color greener than other Fujian traditional white teas). These are all the traditional white teas recorded in the tea books I've seen. Besides, Yunnan, Anhui and other provinces make white tea of various kinds, but large scale production has started only since recent years. Fujian province has started producing a New White Tea (新白茶) since 1968, mainly to supply Hong Kong and overseas markets. It's less expensive than traditional white tea. But sometimes Beijing Wu Yu Tai Teahouse carries a King Grade of this New White Tea, the annual production of which is said to be only about 100 pounds.
About White Tea, also worth mentioning is the Seattle White Peony Homemade by Brett of Black Dragon Tea Bar!
There are several names affiliated to white tea that are quite confusing and therefore worth some scrutinizing.
1. Silver Needle is not necessarily a white tea. For example, Jun Shan Silver Needle (Jun Shan Yin Zhen, 君山銀針), one of the ten most famous Chinese teas (there are various versions of the "top ten", but Jun Shan Yin Zhen seems to show up in most of those versions), is a yellow tea. Besides, Gui Lin Yin Zhen is a green tea from Gui Lin region.
2. If a tea's name include "white tea", it may or may not be a white tea. For example, An Ji White Tea (An Ji Bai Cha, 安吉白茶) is a famous green tea from Anji, Zhejiang province. White Monkey (Bai Mao Hou, 白毛猴) of Fujian province is mostly said to be a Green Tea. But White Monkey is an odd case. Most people say it's a semi-oxidized Green Tea. But theoretically if a tea is semi-oxidized, it's not a Green Tea. White Monkey is also called White Green Tea in Fujian. So I guess you can categorized this tea in whatever way you like. The confusion is understandable though. After all, when people started to invent a tea, nobody would think, "Today we are going to invent a white/green/red/yellow tea." The tea just came out in whatever way it could be.
3. If a tea's name include Bai Hao (or "silver tip", 白毫), it may or may not be a white tea. For example, Yun Hai Bai Hao is a green tea from Yunnan.
4. Recently, I read about the most confusing white tea names ever. It's in 品茶圖鑒 by 陳宗懋 Chen Zongmao et al. (2009). Traditionally, Bai Hao Silver Needle comes from Fuding (tea is roast dried there) and Zhenghe (tea is sun dried there) of Fujian province. White teas from these two regions use slightly different techniques, but the final products are quite similar. In all the other sources I've seen, white tea from these two regions is consistently called either Bai Hao Silver Needle or Silver Needle Bai Hao, which are treated as the same name. But in this book, the authors claim that the white tea from Zhenghe is called Zhenghe Bai Hao Silver Needle, while the white tea from Fuding is called Silver Needle Bai Hao. That's to say, Bai Hao Silver Needle and Silver Needle Bai Hao are two different names. On the one hand, the first author of this book is an Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering. So I think I should take him seriously. On the other hand, I feel the authors didn't give thorough explanation on the two names. I have yet to see if there are other people who share this view.
Besides the name confusion, the discrepancy of various versions of white tea brewing methods is larger than in many other teas. My understanding of white tea is, it was very gently processed, without rolling or squeezing, and its cells are better maintained than cells in other teas. Therefore, it takes higher temperature (newly boiled water) and longer infusion time (5 minutes or longer) for water to infuse into the cells of white tea, especially for Bai Hao Silver Needle, whose leaves are nice and complete. Initially, it actually surprised me to see some sources suggest using lower temperature (180 F or lower). But after all, there are no fixed rules about tea brewing. Higher and lower temperatures may work for different people. I've seen people who were somewhat intimidated by the temperature restriction and thought that using very hot water for white tea was not "right". Therefore I sometimes just can't help urging people to give boiling water at least one chance. It may or may not work for each person, but it does no harm to try it at least once.
In Chinese medical theories, white tea is deemed as one of the teas with strongest cooling power. It's a great beverage when the body is annoyed by cold sores, dry throats or dry eyes. It's also a great relaxing drink when one feels anxious or worried. For people whose "inner heat" is weak (for example, if hands and feet easily feel cold in winter days - I sometimes feel that way), white tea may not be a daily drink, but can still be an occasional enjoyment, especially in days when the air is warm and dry.
Recently, there was breaking news about White Tea. Last year (2009) in Xi'an, intact tea leaves of White Tea was discovered in a newly explored Song Dynasty (about 1000 years ago) tomb! Initial analysis indicates that the leaves are Bai Hao Silver Needle, same tea as what we drink today!
From the following photo (from Tea Time magazine), the tea leaves look pretty much drinkable!
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