Like many things, the more you learn about teas, the more you learn how much you don’t know. I started to write this month’s post on tea and caffeine and realized that maybe I was biting off a little more than I could chew. So instead, I present to you a State of Confusion speech on the world of tea.
The tea world is in such growth and flux right now that I could probably go on and on about all the different topics and conclusions that I find hard to swallow, so let me limit this particular post to white tea.
Everyone seems to want white tea these days. It’s getting a lot of press for being high in antioxidants, the current fad in healthy consumption. When people are looking for the “healthiest” tea, they often expect the answer to be “White Tea to the rescue!” First off, there’s old-style white tea, Silver Needle, or Bai Hao Yin Zhen. But don’t forget the new style – White Peony, also known as Bai Mu Dan. Already this is confusing.
White teas are named thus because they are bud-set teas covered in tiny white hairs. These hairs also show up floating at the top of your cup and the color of the tea water is very light. The first point of confusion is that many high-quality Chinese greens contain tippy leaves and white streaks as well. You can find tippy leaves in anything from an Oriental Beauty to a Darjeeling. Of course, the Asian way of naming teas is based on the color of the brewed tea water, but there are any number of teas in the green and oolong categories that share the same hue with white teas.
If it’s not the bud set, then it must be the process. White tea is picked, put on a basket, withered, then dried. But wait, since the leaves aren’t heated soon after harvest to kill the green, white tea is actually oxidized more than many green teas. That’s right – the antioxidant-rich white tea usually comes in at about 10% oxidization. But the antioxidants in white tea have been shown to be more efficient in slowing DNA degradation than those in green tea. Huh? And speaking of process, have you tried a white tea from Darjeeling? Looks like white tea. Smells like white tea. Tastes and brews up like a light first flush Darjeeling. Weird.
And let’s not forget what started all of this churning in my brain. Caffeine. Try to find consensus on whether white tea is high, or low, in caffeine. Good luck. White tea usually comes from the spring harvest, from which the leaves have been shown to have a higher caffeine content than leaves picked in the summer. But wait, many other high-quality teas are picked in the spring. And white tea has a low surface-area-to-weight ratio. You’ll probably end up getting less caffeine in your cup than from a deeply steamed green tea from Japan. It’s so hard to have any kind of a baseline when it comes to all these nutritional facts. Maybe it’s just easier to focus on the flavor and enjoy tea without thinking about all this healthy, good-for-you mumbo jumbo.