Friday, March 03, 2006

Silver Needle Teas

For me, this time of year is filled with anticipation of the fabulous spring teas. While the weather always dictates the precise timing of the harvest; Chinese Yinzhen or Silver Needle teas are going to be first out of the garden. White tea has a rich history steeped in cultural importance. White teas vary in type and quality, so we will focus on the Yinzhen or Silver Needle white teas of China.

Health

This little known, somewhat rare varietal is gaining recognition and popularity, due in part to the highly publicized potential health benefits. These incredible teas have shown great health promise and have been found to;

Strengthen the immune system, warding off colds and flu.
Have a high content of EGCG the powerful antioxidant known to help prevent certain types of cancers.
Fight free radicals both internally and externally, making it a great topical for skin.
One of the most recent studies, to be presented at the 104th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, May 23rd, 2006, suggests that white tea may have preventative applications in retarding the growth of bacterias that cause infection; specifically Staphylococcus (staph) and Streptococcus (strep) infections, pneumonia and dental caries. White tea may have an anti-viral effect on human pathogenic viruses as well as anti-microbial effect on oral bacteria. In lay terms this study indicates the powerful disease and infection fighting properties of white tea.

Historical Overview

As early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), some compressed forms of tea were referred to as "white teas" and consisted of first flush teas with little or no processing. In the early Sung Dynasty (960 - 1280 A.D.), tea was distributed primarily in loose form in order to preserve its freshness. White teas' popularity among the royal courts elevated it's status and these teas were often presented as gifts of "tribute" to noble courts. Considered a tea connoisseur, Emperor Huei Tsung (1101-1126 A.D.) proclaimed that "white tea" was the most rare and delicate.

Later in the Sung Dynasty powdered teas became fashionable. Harvested and quickly steamed to preserve their unique character, powdered teas were ground and whipped with boiling water resulting in a frothy brew. This early utilization of powdered tea is thought to be the inspiration for Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, brought to Japan by Buddhists monks studying in China. Chanoyu, still practiced today, is a refined adaptation of the early Chinese tea ceremony blended with Zen philosophy.

The production, manufacture and brewing methods have also evolved over time. From the Song Dynasty through the late 1700's white teas were harvested only from specific bushes adding to their obscurity. During the Qing Dynasty, 1796, white teas were harvested from a mix of bushes, producing thin small buds with little white hairs. Production shifted once again the late 1800's and white teas were only plucked from specific varietals. The Big White and Narcissus varieties produced the finest white teas, Silver Needle. The first of these rare teas was exported out of China in the 1890's.

White Tea Today

Still a specialty of the Fuding and Zhenhe districts in Fujian province, there are many factors that result in a superior cup of white tea. Standards of selecting and plucking play an important role in the final production. Only early spring buds of the Big White or Narcissus bushes will become Bai Hao Silver Needle. If picked with the presence of leaf or stem they will become a lesser grade of white tea referred to as White Peony.

Modern day white teas are not steamed as often thought, but are slightly withered and dried. Withering, the removal of moisture from the bud/leaf, is crucial to the process. Humidity and temperature play an important role and the tea maker's ability to balance outdoor conditions with indoor withering is key to quality.

Characteristics of a quality dry Silver Needle; bright in tone, uniformly shaped buds, soft and slightly pliable to the touch, covered with white hairs with no leaves or stems.

Proper Brewing

A lot of debate has centered around proper brewing of white teas, frequently a hot topic in our office. At the end of the day it's your tastes that matter most. Some believe that white teas should be brewed like green teas while others claim brewing times of up to 15 minutes are best. Here is my personal guideline to successfully brewing white tea.


Always start with cold, filtered water.
Bring water to a temperature of approximately 180 -190 degrees, I like it on the lower end.
Use a heaping teaspoon of tea per 6 - 8 ounce cup.
Pour prepared water over the tea and allow to steep from 2 - 6 minutes, depending on your personal preference. The longer the brew the more body and caffeine in your cup.

Once brewed, depending on the brewing time, the liquor will appear pale yellow to dark golden with a glistening tone and will have a fresh somewhat nutty note and a slightly sweet undertone.

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