White teas are a class of teas that you usually only encounter after a fair bit of experience in the world of Camellia Sinensis. There’s a sense of mystery, an aloofness almost, associated with these teas. Everything including the name, the production method, the taste, and even the price of them seems to add to the intrigue.
The term “white” refers to the white hairs or down that is found on the buds and young leaves that white tea is comprised of. White tea retains these hairs due to the minimal processing it undergoes – in essence simply withering and drying. The hairs are usually removed due to the way other types of tea are produced, namely all that shaping, rolling, pan frying and roasting, etc.
Silver Needle white tea, or Baihao Yinzhen as it is known in Chinese (literally White Hair Silver Needle), is a tea that is often included in lists of China’s best teas.
The tea is comprised of unopened leaf buds from the Da Bai (Large White) tea tree cultivar. The name of the cultivar begins to make sense when you consider that the buds that go into Silver Needle are actually larger than the mature leaves from the cultivars used in other teas.
The fact that it is made up of buds alone means that this is a tea that requires a skilled hand when it comes to the pluck, which usually takes place in early spring. Consider too the fact that those precious buds must not be bruised at all, as that would release the leaf juices and start unwanted oxidation.
The manufacture of white teas may be the simplest of all classes of teas, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. The pluck must be judged to perfection, with the buds as dry and moisture free as possible in order to keep the withering time short.
The tea master must keep a watchful eye over the buds as they are then finish dried at low temperature in order to keep oxidation to a bare minimum, 5% at most.
This, then, is a true artisan tea, and yes, that is reflected in its cost.
I bought this particular Silver Needle at Five O’clock Te here in town, and paid 295 Swedish Crowns for 110g, which at the time of writing is the equivalent of £24 GB, or $35 US.
Considering the quality of the product, however, this is far from expensive in real terms, and is actually quite a bargain, as I explain here.
This is a seriously beautiful tea to look at. Don’t just scoop it out of the caddy, and dump it into your steeping vessel. Take a few moments to admire the long, slender, lightly coloured buds, each one a tiny sculpture in its own right.
The aroma of the dried leaf is hay-like, but delicate, with a subtle hint of dried flowers.
Until you are more familiar with this tea, it might be best to weigh out each batch as you brew it, as the leaves are deceptively light for their size. This means until you have a good idea what “X” number of grams actually looks like, you’re likely to be a bit out if you try to eyeball the weight you’re after.
As far as water temperature goes, because this tea is almost completely unoxidised I opted for water at a slightly cooler 80°C.
With a tea this superb my first instinct is to always steep it Asian style in a gaiwan. Using this method, I weighed out 5g of leaf to the gaiwan’s 150ml capacity.
If you go down the path of Western style infusion, I recommend that you refer to China Life’s excellent steeping guide for best results – see my “Resources” page for the link.
I started off with a 5 second infusion, making each subsequent infusion 5 seconds longer than the previous one.
One important thing to remember regardless of which steeping method you utilise – this tea has a delicate taste and aroma, so in order to avoid losing them to the air keep the distance between steeping vessel and cup to an absolute minimum when pouring the tea.
Another vital point of technique that is infusion-style independent – please ensure that the lid of the gaiwan or teapot is removed between infusions. This will allow any residual steam / heat to escape, therefore cooling the leaves, and so prevent “cooking” them, and thereby spoiling their flavour.
So, what did it taste like? I was immediately struck by a wonderful sweetness. This was not the kind of sweetness that comes from refined sugars, however – think of it as similar to what you might taste if you were holding a slice of green apple in your mouth – a light, natural, fresh, grassy sweetness.
There was a distinct but again delicate floral note, with that slight background suggestion of green apples.
With this particular batch of tea I managed 8 infusions before the flavour started to fade.
Even then the tea keeps on giving. The leaves are still gorgeous to look at, looking as though they were picked from their bush mere minutes ago, fresh and green and perfect. Every time I steep this tea I’m reluctant to throw the finished leaves away, it almost seems disrespectful to place them in the bin. They look so good it seems impossible that they can have given up all their flavour and goodness, which I suppose is a true tribute to the care that went into their manufacture.
Personally speaking I wouldn’t try to pair this tea up with any kind of food. For me this tea is in a category I like to call “stand-alone meditative“, along with other teas which I drink for their own sake and nothing more. On a purely practical basis, consider that the delicate flavours and aroma of this tea would more than likely be smothered by almost any foodstuff you might attempt to associate it with. Best to approach it with a clean palate, I believe.
In conclusion, this is a superb tea that will repay its cost and the care you should put into its preparation with a wonderful tea experience.