Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Silver, White, & Green

I have often used terms such as “downy” and “fine white hairs” in reference to tippy teas.  With the earliest pluckings from spring, we have a wonderful opportunity to see just what these terms refer to.

In this close-up, you can see the fine silvery hairs on the tea buds. (This is a Yellow tea.)

This soft, feathery effect is most evident in early spring teas:

Here is a White tea that shows plenty of fine downy hairs.

Curiously, in Black teas, downy tips show up as gold rather than silver.

A second purpose in this post is to re-visit the topic raised in one of my earliest posts, about White and Green teas and the frequent confusion of the two categories.  Given the greater marketability in recent years of White teas, it is easy to assume that when once sees plenty of silver in the leaves, then the tea must be a White tea.  The teas shown below are from the first lots produced this year and have in the common many tips in their composition — lots of silver and therefore, potential for mistaking one category for the other.

This Green tea shows plenty of silver.

Here are Silver Needles White tea, perhaps the image most people hold when White teas are mentioned:

Silver Needles White tea, top grade

Here is the same tea but in a lower grade:

Silver Neeldes White -- all downy buds & budsets

And here is one grade lower yet:

Less silver in this lower grade

Then there is this tea: from appearance alone, it might be taken for either a Green or a White tea:

This Silver Tips tea is a Green tea.

but it is a Green tea.

Next, consider this:

Another Green, one that might be taken as a White tea

which is also a Green tea.

Here is another Green that resembles a White tea, perhaps because the very same varietal is made into both Green and White teas:

From the "Big White" cultivar; in this case, made into a Green tea.

The next one might be easier to read:

White Peony tea (Bai Mudan)

If color were the sole criterion, one would say this was a Green tea.  If one had an understanding of how White teas are made, then this is recognizable as a White tea: no rolling evident, and open leaves because of simple drying in the production.

For authenticity’s sake, it is prudent to bear in mind a point that I have repeated often:  White and Green teas may very well have come from the same bush; it’s the processing method that defines the outcome.  Recapping very briefly: leaves destined to become Green teas are withered, de-enzymed, rolled, and dried.  Leaves for White teas are withered, dried naturally, then dried again over a heat source.

It is easy to conclude from the Silver Needles White tea that the silver sheen is the source of this tea category’s name.  Proceeding from this assumption, there is a disconnect when one encounters other White teas such as White Peony or Shou Mei; these teas have plenty of grey-green and tan colored leaves, with a moderate to minimal quantities of the silver strands that make this category so appealing.  The flat, flaky, brittle looking leaves do make sense, however, if understood in the context of how White teas are made.

As a caveat, it pays to be attentive to White tea blends.  It is one thing to have ingredients such as flavors, fruit bits or petals added to White teas; it is quite different to label a tea as a White tea when it is in fact a blend of White and Green, and a little knowledge about processing will help you distinguish one tea category from the other.

If what you are after is a White tea, there ought to be no confusion when making a purchase.  Terms such as “silver,” “snow,” or even “white” in the tea name do not a White tea make.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung