For a long time, white tea was a complete mystery to me. To make a distinction between a white and a green tea was like comparing apples... to apples. But with a little investigation, a Silver Needle Tea-off at Tea-Drunk, and a lot of drinking, some of the nature of white teas became clearer.
The least processed of the teas, this style most famously hails from the Fujian province of China. Made up of the buds, the leaves, or a combination of both, the plant is withered and baked, traits that it has in common with the production of black tea.
While there are specific varietals and cultivars that may be preferred to others before being processed into a final product, every style of tea can be made from any Camellia sinensis plant. The genetics utilized for a specific style of tea are selected by the manufacturer and are often traditional. Teas from certain plants and unique environments (terroir) contribute to the tea's flavor, body and aroma.
So, for example, you could take leaves from a Tieguanyin varietal (usually made into oolong tea) and process them into a black tea, or any of the others, for that matter. The best white tea, however, comes from the Fujian province.
The development of white teas can be traced back to the end of a long era of consuming tea as a powder rather than, as we're familiar with today, an infusion. It was in these early days of white teas that the leaves were the primary constituent of the tea's pluck - it wasn't until the late 19th century that the buds of tea plants came to be part of white tea production (Bai Hao Yin Zhen, or Silver Needle, is only buds). Other varieties utilize the bud and the first two leaves past the bud (Bai Mudan), or sometimes simply the leaves (Shou Mei, Gong Mei).
Of all varieties of white teas, the first to be plucked is strictly buds, beginning in early March, followed by Bai Mudan and the others.
Developed late in the 18th century, the style is rather young – understandable, possibly, when you consider the relatively simple fashion in which it is processed. Soon after plucking, the leaves are withered on bamboo frames and dried slowly, which helps to preserve the shape and tiny hairs on the buds. The result of the minimal processing of this tea is a bulky, unkempt appearance in the case of the leaf-containing teas, or the striking, platinum beauty and uniformity of silver needle varieties.
When steeping a white tea, you can expect not the vegetal flavors found in green teas, or the astringency. What pervades your palate in white teas is spicy, even herbal - bay, marjoram, oregano and even cinnamon and chicory are invoked; strikingly, the flavor of black tea is also very noticeable. With aging, fruity flavors reveal themselves, such as muscatel grape and apricot. There is a dry nuttiness, like birch bark and chestnuts, that contributes to this once-exclusive tea’s character. Lush, but also somehow dusty, this tea is sharp, yet not affronting. It's luxurious, crisp and refreshing.
'Buching with White Tea
White tea alone can make excellent kombucha, but some aspect of this style can make it difficult to support the proliferation of a SCOBY. Among my favorite kombuchas I've made was with a Silver Bud White Pu-Erh that's been aging since 2003 (true pu-erh or not). I've found that while standalone white tea kombucha can be delicious, I also love this tea in blends.
For example, KBBK's Straight Up utilizes equal parts black, green and white teas. This results in a balanced kombucha that is not too heavily skewed towards the apple and malt flavors contributed by black tea.
One of my favorite ways to use white tea is in a blend with yerba mate. The result is a smoky, herbaceous kombucha that is suggestive of peaches and citrus.
With the addition of other herbs (following some guidelines) the result can be magnificent, uplifting kombucha that trumps anything store-bought 'buch has to offer, the white tea adding some herbal character and nutrients for the culture.
It is important, as a kombucha brewer, to explore the facets of every tea so that you can blend and brew with breadth and comprehensive character that will keep you and those lucky enough to try your brew surprised and delighted. So, try brewing with white tea and start experimenting with blending as well. Clarity and refreshing contentment will be your reward!