Interestingly enough, many people have experienced white tea – although most likely unknowing and not as a drink. But more about that later.
With this article I aim to shed some light on this rarest type of tea: its history, processing and amazing research findings about its anti-carcinogenic, anti-ageing and other health-improving properties.
History of white tea
White tea was traditionally a type of tea exclusively produced in China, although other countries have started producing white tea in recent times as well.
Some sources see the beginnings of Chinese white tea in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) based on a verse by Emperor Hui Zong. As it turns out, the tea he was refering to as “white tea” was most likely a green tea produced from leaves with a white appearance. It is more likely that white tea has been first produced during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the processing of tea leaves based solely on sun-drying was first recorded.
White tea as we know it today – Silver Needle and White Peony – wasn’t produced until the mid-19th century in Fuding and Zhenghe Counties in Southern China’s Fujian Province. Initially, much of it was exported and enjoyed overseas. Through the impact of World War I and II, the export of white tea from Fujian Province almost came to a halt. A long period of almost dormant exports has given rise to the rumour that white tea was only ever available in the area of its manufacture. In the last 10 years or so, white tea has gained some momentum again and is now available at good tea stores throughout the world.
Types of white tea
Although there are 4 types of white tea, only the two highest quality levels have any importance in Western markets.
Silver Needle (Yin Zhen or Baihao Yinzhen)
The term Silver Needle refers to the appearance of the silver-downy, unopened leaf buds that entirely make up this highest grade of white tea (see picture at the beginning of this post). The flavour is subtle and pure, with a slight hint of natural sweetness. Silver Needle is only harvested during a period of a few days at the beginning of spring just before the fat buds open.
White Peony (Bai Mu Dan)
White Peony is the second grade of white tea that contains the youngest one or two leaves in addition to the leaf bud. In the highest quality White Peony, the buds and leaves are all covered with silvery hair. White Peony usually has a slightly stronger flavour than pure Silver Needles through the inclusion of the youngest leaves. Like Silver Needles, it is only harvested during a very short period in early spring.
The other varieties produced in China are Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei) and Longevity Eyebrow (Shou Mei).
Many other tea-producing areas – like Darjeeling and Assam in India, Malawi in Africa and Sri Lanka – have started producing high quality white teas in recent years that possess the unique character of these regions.
Processing of white tea
The manufacture of white tea is tea processing in its most basic, purest form. In short, the tea is picked, withered and baked. That’s all. But of course it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.
The buds (or bud/leaf-systems) are picked early in the morning and spread out for withering. Unlike other types of tea, white tea does not go through a rolling and enzyme-killing heating (kill-green) phase but is left withering for up to 3 days. During this time, the moisture content of the leaves is reduced to about 20%. The tea-master’s control during this time is crucial since the goal is to produce the desired changes in leaf chemistry while keeping oxidation to a minimum. (Some oxidation will occur naturally during this phase, so white tea is not an unoxidized tea like green tea.) When the desired characteristics are reached, the tea is quickly oven- or sun-dried to reduce the final moisture content to less than 5% and the tea is ready for consumption or storage.
Medical research shows great potential of white tea’s anti-cancerogenic, anti-aging and other properties
The reason for the recent interest in white tea doesn’t come exclusively from tea coinnoisseurs, but also from people searching for natural ways to improve their health. While many tea-related health studies focus on more widely available green tea, very few studies have investigated the health benefits related directly to white tea. Although the body of research is quite limited, the results are always pointing towards a similar conclusion: white tea is even better for you than green tea!
One of the main institutions studying the effects of white tea consumption is the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. They found white tea to be more effective than green tea in cancer prevention and found very high levels of polyphenols (a powerful antioxidant contained in all types of tea) in white tea.
Studies at Pace University found white tea to have strong anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties as well as beneficial effects on dental caries prevention.
White tea has been also found to boost the immune system, to repair cell damage after over-exposure to sunlight, slow down the aging process (anti-ageing) with its high levels of antioxidants neutralizing age-accelerating free radicals in our bodies, lower blood pressure and the risk of heart attack, as well as lower cholesterol. Last but not least, its high contents of EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) and caffeine – which have both been proven to help with increasing the level of energy expediture – will assist with weight loss.
White tea – found in unusual places
As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, many of you might have already “experienced” white tea, possibly without noticing it. In recent years, white tea has gained some popularity in the cosmetics industry. After the discovery of positive effects of antioxidants on skin damage, cosmetic companies have been investigating vigorously into natural sources of these antioxidants. As it turns out, white tea contains the highest concentration of very powerful antioxidants contained in any plant, so it is no wonder that it attracted interest from this industry. This article gives a nice overview about this subject.
So, if you’re using any skin-care products – especially ones labelled “anti-aging” – have a look through the ingredients list. In many cases, you’ll find white tea listed there.
Since the active compounds of white tea are best absorbed when ingested, drinking white tea should be preferred to applying it externally. This way, you can enjoy the the wonderful flavour as well, of course! When consuming white tea for health reasons, you should avoid sugared versions (many ready-made drinks contain sugar) and ideally consume it freshly prepared.
Well, I think I’ll retire now and have a cup of our fantastic Organic Yinzhen (follow this link if you’d like to order some for yourself).
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[techtags: white tea, weight loss, silver needle, yin zhen, bai mu dan, anti-aging]