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White Tea Quality – Tasting The Difference

White tea has caught the wide attention of tea lovers, nutritionists, and scientists. The many studies indicating that white tea is rich in anti-oxidants, anti-viral and anti-bacterial 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 vital to know that there are fantastic 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, clarifies how to distinguish the quality of white tea by its most vital 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 gorgeous silvery white down that covers the young leaf buds. But, 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 Fuding 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:

• Bai Hao Yin Zhen (White Downy Silver Needles, or simply Silver Needles) – made entirely of young silver leaf buds
• Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) – consists of the young silver leaf bud and the two lower leaves
• Shou Mei (Longevity Brows) also called Gong Mei (Tribute Brows) – nearly 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 make 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 comprised of 100% silver leaf buds, are therefore more expensive and considered a higher grade. But, 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 delight in 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 loved white tea for its taste and texture long before scientists started 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 nearly 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.

Bill Lee advises, “Look for a traditional white tea that tastes like a white tea. Silver Needles should be tender, supple and serene with a sweet touch. A White Peony should feel comfortingly warm, fresh and crisp like a welcome breeze on a warm spring day.” But, many inferior white teas taste too grassy with a harsh texture. White teas that taste too grassy are inadequately/improperly withered and often resemble coarse green teas.

White tea is a distinct category of tea that is processed differently than green tea. Its unique method of processing makes its warm refreshing character. The freshly harvested leaves are ideally allowed to wither under the sun, then transferred indoors, and finally dried under low heat. Traditional white teas that are prized by tea masters are not steamed or pan-fired to inactivate the enzymes before withering, and are not rolled for fermentation. If white teas are steamed or panned before withering, they will start to resemble green tea production and taste. The process of crafting white tea can be very simply described, but its control and perfection is far from simple.

Withering is very much affected by changes in the weather. The tea artisan can vary the type and degree of withering, yet all white tea should nonetheless be withered to make a distinct character that is different from green teas. White tea quality can also be hurt by improper heat during the drying stage. These teas will be dull and flat, or taste roasted and be mouth drying when very poor. When white tea has been properly crafted it is best consumed within the same year of harvesting and production. Excellent quality white tea is often wasted on store shelves where it becomes dull and muted when left for too long.

What To Look For
All fine quality white tea should produce a smooth delicate texture. Silver Needles that are made entirely from leaf buds have the most tender body with subtle flavours of honey dew and nectarine. A White Peony should taste warmer with evident notes of almonds and the sweetness of vanilla. It should end crisp and linger gently to show its sweet after-taste. Shou Mei is the most full flavoured style. Although it is considered a modest grade, its aromas of toasted grains and lotus leaves gives a warm and satisfying taste.

There are large differences in the character and quality of white tea being offered. “To appreciate fine quality we must have truly premium teas for reference. In today’s market it is simple for quality to be overwhelmed by industrialization. If consumers learn to distinguish tea quality by taste they will less likely be misled by commercialism.”

As the president and tea master of China Flair Tea Inc., Bill Lee uses his experience to ensure the quality control of tea products. He is also the founder of the Institute of Masters of Tea Arts, where he teaches tea lovers and trains industry professionals about Chinese tea and traditional Chinese tea arts.

For more information and articles about tea please visit: chinaflairtea.com chinaflairtea.com
To learn more about the tea certification programs offered by the Institute of Masters of Tea Arts visit: mastersoftea.org mastersoftea.org

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