Anyone who enjoys a cup of tea will be familiar with the tastes of black and green tea. Both have a strong, distinct character that is easily identifiable, even when combined with other flavors.
Black tea has a bold, rich flavor. It features notes of malt, caramel, and leather, with a metallic, citrusy undertone. It can sometimes be a little astringent or bitter.
When combined with milk, its rougher edges are smoothed out and it has a honeyed, nutty, and earthy flavor.
Green tea has a grassy, umami, vegetal, and herbaceous flavor profile.
But what of white tea? White tea has a more nuanced and lighter flavor than both green and black tea and can therefore be harder to describe. It can even be difficult to identify, unless you have a lot of experience drinking it.
In fact, many people find white tea to have such a subtle character that they wonder how to make white tea taste better, and end up adding in other ingredients to it to give it more flavor.
What does white tea taste like?
Made of young leaves and buds that are only briefly oxidized, white tea has a light, subtle flavor. Each variety has a slightly different taste, but the overall profile of white tea is floral, mild, delicate, and honeyed. It features notes of melon, vanilla, hay, and peach.
There are five main types of white tea: Silver Needle (Yin Zhen Bai Hao), White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), Gongmei (Tribute Eyebrow), Shou Mei (Long Life Eyebrow) and Fujian New Craft (DaiBaiCha or DaHoaCha).
White tea varieties are sold both in their pure form and as multi-variety blends. The most common varieties are White Peony and Silver Needle.
Here is a brief guide to the different flavor profiles of the different varieties of white tea.
The taste of Silver Needle (Yi Zhen Bai Hao)
High-quality white tea is a highly coveted commodity among modern tea lovers. But its popularity is nothing new. It was once so sought after that during China’s Song Dynasty (960–1269) it was not permitted for anyone except members of the royal family to drink white tea.
Throughout history, it has commonly been referred to as “the emperor’s drink.”
Of the five white tea varieties, Silver Needle is said to have the purest flavor. Its fat, fuzzy buds brew a honey-colored drink that is smooth, fresh, and just a little sweet. It features notes of tangerine and has hardly any astringency.
There are two varieties of Silver Needle white tea: Zhenge He and Fuding. Both varieties are hand-picked on just a few days of the year, during spring when the sun is shining. After picking, the leaves and buds are placed in bamboo baskets to dry.
Zheng He Silver Needle is allowed to wither in its baskets for longer than Fuding and is more oxidized as a result. Zheng He is darker in color than Fuding and has a richer body.
Fuding has a shorter drying time and is therefore lighter in color and more delicate in flavor.
Both varieties are sometimes dried between layers of freshly picked jasmine flowers, which is how Silver Needle Jasmine tea is made. Silver Needle jasmine tea is a delicious, aromatic tea that has notes of honeyed apple.
The taste of White Peony (Bai Mu Dan)
The second-most popular variety of white tea is White Peony, otherwise known as Bai Mu Dan.
Like all white tea, Bai Mu Dan is harvested for only a few weeks during March and April in Fujian, China.
White tea is a little like champagne, in that it can only actually be called white tea if it is from Fujian!
The specific flavor profile of White Peony tea is mellow, with a fruity flavor and smooth body. It has a slightly stronger bite than Silver Needle and is even a little reminiscent of a briefly brewed light green tea.
Because it has such subtle flavors, the question of how long to brew white tea for is of less immediate consequence than the question of how to steep black tea for.
Steeping black tea for too long can ruin your tea by allowing to become too bitter and astringent.
While you can create a more refined white tea by nailing down the perfect brewing time, because of its subtle profile, it is difficult to ruin white tea by allowing it to sit a minute or two too long.
The taste of Gongmei (Tribute Eyebrow)
Gongmei, or Tribute Eyebrow, white tea is often considered to be of a slightly lesser quality than Silver Needle and White Peony. This is largely due to the fact that it is more processed than these varieties.
Eyebrow teas are named for their long, thin leaves that are frequently rolled into crescent-like-shapes and are thought to resemble eyebrows.
Because it is only made from leaves and does not contain any buds, Tribute Eyebrow has a dark flavor profile and fuller body than white teas that contain buds.
Gongmei has an aged flavor and is often said to have notes of jujube, which is a red, edible, berry that grows on bushes across Eurasia. It has a vegetal aroma and a lightly sweet taste.
The taste of Shou Mei (Long Life Eyebrow)
Shou Mei is another “eyebrow tea,” comprised of curved, rolled leaves and no buds.
It is difficult to concisely nail down Shou Mei’s flavor profile because there are so many varieties, and tastes can vary greatly between producers.
What makes Shou Mei distinct from other white teas is how late in the year the tea leaves are picked. Because the tea leaves are more mature when picked, Shou Mei contains a higher proportion of coarser leaves than other white teas.
Shou Mei has a darker liquor than other white teas and a full-bodied flavor. It has a mellow, honeyed taste with floral, woody notes and a tangy aftertaste.
The taste of Fujian New Craft (DaiBaiCha or DaHoaCha)
Unlike the two eyebrow varieties of white tea, Fujian New Craft does contain buds.
However, the buds in the DaiBaiCha and DaHoaCha varieties of New Craft white tea are less delicate than those in Silver Needle and White Peony teas.
Fujian New Craft is unique, because it is only collected from two rare cultivars of the Camellis sinensis plant, namely DaBaiCha and DaHaoCha.
The leaves of these plants are processed in three steps. First, they are withered, then they are rolled, and then they are dried. The outcome of this process is a tea made of thin, curled leaves.
Fujian New Craft makes a dark brew, and more closely resembles Shou Mei than any other variety of white tea.
Its flavor profile features notes of fragrant rose water, raisins, and dried apricots. In many ways it resembles a lightly brewed Darjeeling black tea.