The lightest, least processed of all the true teas, white tea is made from leaves plucked while still young enough to be covered in silvery down, and steam-dried almost immediately. Its flavour is soft, mild and honey-like, although only slightly sweet; it has little of the astringency, and almost none of the bitterness, of green and darker teas. The infusion, too, is honey-yellow - only the unbrewed leaves are tinged with white hairs. Once brewed, there is little to distinguish the leaves from infused green tea leaves.

White tea is even richer in antioxidant polyphenols than green tea; the short time for which green tea leaves are withered, or the fact that they are typically plucked later in the season, seem to make a big difference to the amount of health-giving catechins available to the body.

White tea retains a reputation for extreme rarity, but as word has spread of its unique flavour and exceptional health properties, more and more suppliers have started selling what they describe as white tea. Some of this apparently increased availability is down to questionable selling practices - with 'White Monkey' green tea, for instance, being sold as white; there is certainly also more white tea being produced, though. A Chinese invention - originating, like oolong and lapsang souchong, from Fujian Province - white tea is now also produced in Japan, Darjeeling and Sri Lanka.

White tea is forgiving of a wide range of brewing techniques, being as it is so mild; I favour about a heaped teaspoonful per cup, brewed for something like three minutes, using water which is well shy of boiling point - around seventy or eighty degrees centigrade. You might find your own preferences vary.

With its pleasant but unobtrusive flavour and its well-attested health benefits, white tea is also a very popular base for blends. Here's one I just now came up with. It's intended to be good for the brain, particularly against dementia, and it also has rather powerful anti-cancer properties, but the main thing is that it's delicious. I made a pot for three using 2tsp white tea, a section of fresh grated turmeric root (probably about 5cm long, 1cm thick), a bit of ginger, one whole stalk of freshly beaten up lemongrass, a sprinkling of lime rind and a few drops of its juice. Brew for about five minutes using water not too much hotter than 80°C.

'White tea' can also be used to refer to plain boiled water - 'silver tea', as the Swedes call it - or to 'English tea', which is to say black tea with milk. I wouldn't recommend it though.

A proper British Tea

I was introduced to the pleasures of white tea as a beverage many years ago by a British college friend with an almost comically stereotypical tea fetish. In addition to being an absolute fiend on the footie field, and a handy way to meet attractive women, he was insistent on making and serving a proper British Tea a few times a week, when we lived in the college dorms. 

This being Southern California in the mid 1960's, tea wasn't the most currently trendy stimulant on offer, but Richard found a ready acolyte for his tea companion in me. I've always appreciated those who take what they do seriously, no matter what it is and Richard treated the creation and serving of tea as an art form, comparable in rigidity and understated elegance to the Japanese tea ceremony.  After establishing that I was worthy of instruction, he took me on a grand tour of tea, encompassing the entire oeuvre from Oolong to Lapsang Souchong, Lung Ching to Jasmine, Herbal tea to Chai.  All prepared meticulously and served with an obsessive reverence.  

This interesting and tasty journey culminated with the ceremonial presentation one sunny morning of what Richard called the finest and rarest of all the teas: White Tea.  He explained that most White Tea was Chinese and that it comes from the Camellia sinensis plant just like black and green teas.  Unlike other teas, it is harvested before it reaches full maturity and the leaves have fully opened.  The tea buds are covered with thin silver hairs and are steamed and dried immediately after harvest to reduce oxidation.  Once harvested, the leaves are scrupulously kept away from sunlight to prevent the further production of chlorophyll. The brand we had that day was Star of China White Tea, a blend of Bai Hao Yinzhen and Bai Mu Dan teas from the Fujian province.

I was surprised to learn that you never used boiling water to make White Tea because it "bruised" the flavor. Richard delivered my first sample in a Japanese ceramic teacup and watched expectantly as I took my first sip.  I have to admit to being underwhelmed at first because the flavor was so light.  I thought for a moment that he'd pulled an elaborate joke on me, but I held the second sip a bit longer in my mouth, as you might do when drinking a good wine, and enjoyed a more subtle sensation that was as much aroma as taste.  An envelope of experience.

After graduation, I lost touch with both Richard, and tea.  Many years of messing around in boats steered my taste towards coffee.  Later, with the demands of kids and careers, I became less and less fussy about the provenance of my caffine: hot and black and close at hand.  The rise of the Starbucks era and a modicum of fiscal viability started me back on the path to caffeine cred, but I never again wholly realized the subtle joys of a proper English Tea, much less the gustatory pleasures of White Tea.

An intoxicating fragrance

It's interesting how smells, much more than tastes or sounds, can become associated with emotions and persistent memories.  I was recently reminded vividly of my British friend, and our morning teas when I opened a copy of  The New Yorker magazine. In fact, I found it inexplicable that I should be thinking of Richard that afternoon, because nothing in the article I was reading was remotely related to either tea or England or Richard.  An anomaly, duly noted and politely ignored.  

When it happened again, a week or so later I was jerked to attention.  What was going on?   I was once again sitting in a window seat, sipping a glass of Australian Merlot and reading, Wired magazine.  Richard, and tea drinking were suddenly front and center in my consciousness, annoyingly so, and I didn't have a clue as to why.  It was only when I turned the page in front of me that I understood.  I saw a glossy advertisement with a scratch-n-sniff strip and the words "White Tea," proclaimed at the top.  Suddenly I became aware of that unmistakable thin and clean fragrance. When I pulled open the scent strip, I was engulfed in a perfect cloud of White Tea gas that simultaneously bellowed off the page and summoned up an almost hallucinatory memory of Richard, and the ceramic cup and that first sip. Enveloped in experience once again, only more so because the scent of real White Tea is faint and subtle and this was almost overpowering.  

It turns out that the Westin Hotel chain is mounting a major advertising campaign hoping to associate their hotels with the scent of White Tea.  According to Diedre Wollard on the Luxist.com website, Westin will be hosting ads for the campaign in Vanity Fair, Simple and Gourmet as well as The New Yorker and Wired magazine, where I had stumbled onto them.  Given the powerful memory association that I experienced with the fragrance, I think they may be on to something.  

It's also fortuitous that the general character of the White Tea scent is fresh and a little soapy, evoking a clean batch of laundry dried in the breeze.  Whether or not it will catch on with the general populace is anyone's guess, but I noticed dozens of website sources for very high quality, and pricey White Tea in researching this piece.  I also got a chuckle out of the following breathless consumer's first impressions:

I can't believe they were moronic enough to introduce this new scent and not have it part of the Westin store they're already running to sell other stuff ranging from beds to dog gear. Why not get me used to this smell at home so that being in their hotel feels like being at home? Good lord. They saturated the market with this odor (which I happen to love and would seriously overspend to get), but haven't made it available for consumers. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.


More info?

1 http://www.luxist.com/2006/03/25/will-a-scent-make-you-choose-a-hotel/
2 http://coffeetea.about.com/od/typesoftea/a/whitetea.htm
3 The E2 nodes Tea and The Schools of Tea are excellent background reading, and be sure to read Making a decent cup of tea for an example of E2 at its most delightfully idiosyncratic.

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