This Bai Mu Dan is Bai Mu Delicious!
That old saying about how you shouldn't wear white after Labor Day is nothing more than an outdated piece of fashion advice (like, really outdated: circa 1950), so we thought we'd just remind you tea lovers out there that white tea is delicious year round!
And then we thought we'd refresh your memory about what white tea actually is. And we're gonna get a little scientific here, so hold on to your hats, tea lovers, but we'll try to make this easy reading. Black, green and white tea all come from the camellia Sinensis plant (the top two leaves and bud, which make the best tea, of course), and what makes these teas different is how those leaves are treated after being plucked. Here's a fun word to toss into your everyday vocabulary: Oxidation. That's the effect oxygen molecules, floating around in the air we breathe, have on various substances. Your apple slices turn brown when they're left out because of oxidation, and the Statue of Liberty is green because it's made of copper, which turns green when oxidation occurs. What does oxidation have to do with tea? Here's what: tea leaves start to wither and oxidize as soon as they're picked.
Green tea is allowed to oxidize the least — in tea production, you make green tea by rolling the leaves gently and then immediately halting oxidation through heating, and with Japanese-style green tea (like Organic Tamayokucha) that means gently steaming the leaves, or in Chinese-style green tea (like Jasmine Petal Green) that means pan firing the leaves, and then drying them. When you eventually steep these leaves, the tea is green, just like the leaves that grew on the plants.
Leaves for black tea go through the most oxidation. For whole leaf tea like our bestselling Organic Assam Breakfast, the plucked leaves are rolled gently to break the cell walls of the leaves, exposing enzymes and essential oils in the leaf so that oxidation can begin, and then the leaves are laid out to rest in the open air for a few hours, turning a reddish-brown color in the process, and then finally it is fired to lock in all that flavor. This is all starting to make a lot of sense, isn't it?
Light and lovely in the cup ... it's white tea!
But wait, we're here to talk about white tea. The leaves that are used to make white tea actually undergo less processing than green tea, and less oxidizing than black tea (but they are oxidized just a bit). Basically, the youngest tea leaves are plucked in the early spring (some of the fanciest white teas, like Silver Needles, are from leaves and buds that are so new they still have a bit of fuzz on them, indicating their high quality). From there, the leaves are spread out and allowed to wither until they're completely dry (maybe with a tiny bit of warm air if the weather isn't cooperating), and that's it. So you end up with a white tea with a flavor profile described as light, floral, delicate and sweet. The color in the cup is where white tea gets its name. It's barely green and not quite brown; to us it often looks like a light beige. One of our favorites used to be called White Peony, but now goes by its traditional name, Bai Mu Dan.
Lots of people think of white tea as a sophisticated cup of tea, since it's not going to hit you over the head with big flavor, but when done well, is subtle, nuanced and smooth.
So. If you're a fashionable housewife from the 1950s who's in the middle of packing up her white shoes and dresses after Labor Day weekend, don't pack up the white tea. And to the rest of you, steep it like you mean it, perhaps wearing your favorite pair of white jeans. We promise not to tell Good Housekeeping.