White tea has arrived in North America. While Chinese tea drinkers have been hip to white tea's benefits since the Ming Dynasty, until recently it was virtually unknown outside of Asia. Not anymore. Today, everyone from chefs to medical researchers is praising white tea's delicate flavor and purported health benefits. Market researchers predict consumers will soon share their enthusiasm, turning white tea into one of the hottest new food trends.
But, what is white tea? Most tea aficionados know that all tea comes from the same source: the Camilla Sinensis tea bush. Whether a tea leaf winds up in a cup of green, black, or oolong tea depends entirely on what happens after it is plucked. Black tea derives its dark color and full flavor from a complex fermentation process that includes exposing crushed tea leaves to the air for a strictly defined number of minutes. Tea leaves meant for more mellow tasting green tea are not fermented at all, but merely withered in hot air and quickly steamed or pan-fried. A gentle rolling and final heating stabilizes the teas natural flavors. Oolong teas fall somewhere in the middle: partial fermentation gives them a distinct reddish colour and a "flowery" flavor.
So, where does white tea fit into the picture? White tea is made from immature tea leaves that are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened. The tea takes its name from the silver fuzz that still covers the buds, which turns white when the tea is dried. The exact proportion of buds to leaves varies depending on the variety of white tea. For example, White Peony contains one bud for every two leaves, while Silver Needles, the creme de la creme of white teas, is made entirely from downy buds picked within a two day period in early Spring.
Of course, an exotic appearance alone doesn't explain white tea's sudden surge in popularity. The secret lies in what happens after the buds are plucked. Tea leaves destined to be sold as white tea undergo even less processing than green tea leaves. Instead of air-drying, the unwithered leaves are merely steamed.
The result? A pale tea with a sweet, silky flavor. People who have tried both note that white tea lacks the "grassy" aftertaste so often associated with green tea. Furthermore, studies indicate that white tea is better for you. Leaving tea leaves so close to their natural state means that white tea contains more polyphenols, the powerful anti-oxidant that fights and kills cancer-causing cells, than any other type of tea.
Need another reason to drink white tea? A 2004 study at Pace University concluded that white tea can help your body's immune system fight off viruses and dangerous infection-causing bacteria. The same study concluded that fluoride-rich white tea helps prevent the growth of dental plaque, the chief cause of tooth decay.
Of course, nothing in life is perfect. Expect to pay more for white tea than other tea types - up to $25 US for a 2-ounce tin (40 to 50 cups) of Silver Needles. And, while many tea shops are starting to carry white tea, shopping online is still your best bet for the more upscale varieties.
How to Brew White Tea
"Tea Complements Drugs in Fight Against Colon Cancer, Linus Pauling Institute