One of the first teas I tried that wasn’t a familiar black tea was white. It was a Darjeeling spring white tea that shone a pale cream, just a hint of colour to tell it apart from a cup of hot water. I expected it to taste bland, or at best so subtle that my untrained palate would fail to pick up any flavours. I didn’t expect the hit of flavour, a cup so refined, so smooth and not at all shy of displaying its best side.
Like many other great teas, the tradition of white tea making too began in China. Young buds were plucked and allowed to wither naturally. The name itself references not the liquor but the dry leaves and the silvery down that covers the tea buds. Sometimes only the buds are plucked and sometimes the bud is plucked with the leaves. Among white teas, there are many variations, so let’s take the most popular types: the silver needle or bai yinzhen, the white peony or bai mudan, and the moonlight white or yue guang bai, each of which is known for its intrinsic flavours. In our parts, white tea making is fairly recent, just a little more than a decade old. The high-elevation tea regions of Darjeeling and the Nilgiris took up white tea production and now have their own fan following.
What makes white tea special is that it’s barely processed, making a cup that’s as close to the natural plant as possible. There’s no room for mistakes so great care goes into the selection of the right leaves and buds. What takes the white tea to the league of speciality teas is the craftsmanship of the tea maker, who can recognize the right leaves, knows how much sun is too much or too little, and dries it right.
The white tea to start off with would be the white peony. These are made from the bud and either one leaf or two. They have an attractive wildness to them that the posher silver needles don’t, their flavours and aromas are fuller and discernible and therefore very enjoyable. The silver needles are all buds, velvety in appearance, with striking good looks. The tea opens up in flavour on the second and third steeps. If you have progressed to the silver needles, you are ready to indulge in the moonlight whites, the true “champagne" of teas. They are made from bud and leaves, plucked early in spring, and handled with more care than any other tea. These are among the most expensive of teas (this year, spring white tea from Darjeeling’s the Badamtam tea estate sold for ₹2 lakh per kg, which is ₹500 a cup) and demand a well-trained palate.
White teas also stand longer steeping times, which make them perfect for solitude. Choose your white tea, use boiled and slightly cooled water (boiling hot water scalds the leaves), and allow it to steep for 4-5 minutes. Allow for one or two steeps to savour the flavours that develop.
Choose from the spring white teas from the gardens of Castleton, Thurbo, Makaibari, Margaret’s Hope, Badamtam in Darjeeling, and winter white teas from the estates of Billimalai, Chamraj and Kodanad in the Nilgiris.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.