White Tea Quality – Tasting The Difference

White Tea Quality
White tea has caught the wide attention of tea lovers, nutritionists, and scientists. The many studies indicating that white tea is rich in antioxidants, antiviral and antibacterial benefits, are leading more people to drink white tea. Along with the increasing demand, more brands and even tea producing countries are now offering white tea. But it is important to understand that there are great differences in quality among the many brands that offer white tea products. How can a consumer distinguish the quality and value of the white tea that they are buying? Bill Lee, tea master of China Flair Tea Company and founder of the Institute of Masters of Tea Arts, explains how to distinguish the quality of white tea by its most important aspect–taste.


Styles of White Tea


White tea is a category of tea produced in many regions of China, Taiwan and countries such as India and Nepal. White tea gets its name from the beautiful silvery white down that covers the young leaf buds. However, to be classified as a white tea it must also be processed according to the orthodox white tea method. That is why silvery young leaf buds are also seen in other tea categories such as green teas and black teas, but they are not classified as a white tea.


The most traditional and prized white tea comes from Zhenghe and Funding counties in China’s southeastern province of Fujian. Traditional white teas from China are separated into several grades, each with a different name. Each grade represents the amount of young leaf buds that are included and whether the lower leaves under the bud are incorporated. White teas with more silver leaf buds are generally considered a finer grade. 


The following are the traditional grades of white tea by name:


o Bai Hao Yin Zhen (White Downy Silver Needles, or simply Silver Needles) – made entirely of young silver leaf buds


o Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) – consists of the young silver leaf bud and the two lower leaves


o Shou Mei (Longevity Brows) also called Gong Mei (Tribute Brows) – almost entirely composed of mature leaves, with few silver buds.


The names Silver Needles, White Peony, and Shou Mei represent grades of white tea, but these names more specifically indicate the style of white tea, and not the actual quality of white tea. Each name only indicates the percentage of young silver buds and mature leaves that are incorporated to make that style of tea. Styles of white tea with more silver leaf buds and fewer mature leaves will create a lighter flavour and a more delicate character. Incorporating more mature leaves will produce a warmer and nuttier style.


The reason why these styles are referred to as grades is because producing white tea with more silver leaf buds requires higher costs. White teas such as Silver Needles, which are 100% silver leaf buds, are therefore more expensive and considered a higher grade. However, many people choose grades with more mature leaves because they prefer the richer and warmer taste of those styles, such as the White Peony or Shou Mei.


So the issue of quality is not really about the grade that we choose, but the actual tea we buy within that particular grade. We may choose to drink a White Peony because we enjoy that style of white tea, but we should distinguish its quality by comparing it with other White Peony teas. Many brands now offer a white tea called White Peony, yet the quality of White Peony offered by brand X is not necessarily the same quality as brand Y. Factors that determine its quality such as the time of harvest, the age of the trees, their environment, and the proper processing of the leaves are not indicated by its name.


Taste, Quality & Production


In understanding how to determine the quality of white tea, we should first appreciate that generations of tea masters have enjoyed white tea for its taste and texture long before scientists began chemically studying white tea for its health benefits. High quality white tea is an exquisite style of tea that has held a position in every list of prized Chinese teas by almost every tea master. Its unique flavour profile has gained white tea its esteemed status. It is ultimately in the taste and texture that we determine its quality.

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