White Tea: Black and White Facts, Plus the Grey Area (Part 3)

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony)

We cannot end a conversation on white tea without mentioning my favorite aspect of white tea processing; the increased levels of sweet and savory amino acids. The concept of amino acids being critical to tea flavor quality cannot be stressed enough. MVP’s of the leaf all day. Amino acids work to offset the bitterness and astringency from polyphenols, and give tea it’s brothy, savory/sweet, and umami flavors.

            If that wasn’t enough, amino acids (notably L-theanine) can provide anti-stress/anti-anxiety effects in the brain [19], which work synergistically with caffeine to provide us with that one-of-kind relaxed focus found only in a cup of tea [15]. A number of studies have shown that white tea contains more amino acids than green or black teas [16,17]. Here’s why;

            Amino acids are building blocks for proteins in the tea leaf (and for all living organisms for that matter), and during white tea’s prolonged withering process, proteins in the leaves break down back into their original amino acid building blocks, causing total amino acid content to rise [18]. Below is a figure from the Hangzhou study measuring the contents of 12 different amino acids over the span of a 36-hour white tea withering period [1].

Figure 2. Changes in amino acid content of over a 36-hour withering period

            As you can see, amino acid content generally increases, leading to a more savory/sweet flavor and greater cognitive/mood effects in the brain.

            So far, we have seen that white tea is a partially fermented tea, containing more antioxidant capacity than a black tea, more theaflavins than a green tea, and more methylated ‘super-catechins’ than either of the two. On top of that, a long withering period breaks down proteins into tasty amino acids, enhancing flavor in the cup and promoting relaxation in the mind. This is not an exhaustive explanation of what makes white tea exceptional, but rather something akin to a white tea highlight reel.

            Let’s take a step back from the molecular profile of white tea and look at the bigger picture. The two most common varietals of white tea are Bai Mudan (or White Peony) and Silver Needle (or Bai Hao Yinzhen). These two tea types vary in that White Peony consists of one bud and two leaves, while Silver Needle consists entirely of buds.

Silver Needle White Tea (BaiHao Yinzhen)

            The bud of the tea plant is precious because it contains relatively more amino acids, which gives it a sweeter and more savory taste than leaves of the tea plant. The first and second leaves, however, contain more total catechins than buds do. Extra catechins provide White Peony with a fuller body than Silver Needle’s lighter, and slightly more antioxidant capacity too. Both teas often are often made using similar cultivars (Fujian Da Bai).

            While some people prefer White Peony due to it’s powerful punch, Silver Needle’s tends to command a higher price due to the more labor-intensive plucking process required for producing a tea made entirely of buds. For this reason, some call Silver Needles the ‘champagne of tea,’ however feel free to use a less pretentious nickname if you’d like. Aside from differences in the catechin/amino acid ratio, which affects taste and mouthfeel, White Peony and Silver Needle white teas are more similar than they are different. Both teas are semi-fermented through a long withering process, then dried.

Amino-rich buds and hairs suspended in a white tea infusion

            Renowned tea biochemistry professor, Huang Yahui, told me recently, “Among green, oolong, and black teas, the closest relative to white tea would have to be black tea.” The closest tea type to white tea is black tea.

            Professor Huang’s reasoning is that white tea contains considerable levels of black tea theaflavins, a polyphenol that even oolong teas do not generally possess in significant quantities. The logic of Professor Huang’s comment is again rooted in the 36-hour withering period, a truly significant stress on a tea leaf which leads to a number of significant biochemical transformations. Oolong tea, by contrast, is normally finished after 12-16 total hours, which does not give rise to black tea characteristics like white tea processing does.

            White tea invites a sense of truthiness, suggesting light fermentation, untouched leaves, and unadulterated metabolites. However, there’s nothing insignificant about a 36-hour withering period. Catechins change, theaflavins are formed, and amino acids increase in number. While there is much more to this topic, for now, one thing can be said for certain; the only thing black and white about white tea is that it deserves a spot in your lineup.

            If you’ve made it this far, good work. This white tea mini-series was a lot of information packed into not that much space. Naturally, I expect you might have questions, comments, feedback, etc. With any or all of those, please slide into my DM’s @WuMountainTea, email me at WuMountainTea@gmail, comment on this post, or call my toll-free hotline at 1-800-222-22222-222-2—2-2-2 extension 2222222.

One

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