White tea Henrietta Lovell

White tea demystified

by Henrietta Lovell 9 November 2015

Black tea may be the most popular, but the sweet, delicate flavour of white tea is starting to get noticed. Henrietta Lovell, also known as the Rare Tea Lady, makes the case for this very special leaf.

Henrietta Lovell left a career in corporate finance to found the Rare Tea Company in 2004 and is now known around the world as the Rare Tea Lady.

Henrietta Lovell left a career in corporate finance to found the Rare Tea Company in 2004 and is now known around the world as the Rare Tea Lady. Since establishing her award-winning brand, she has been at the forefront of the tea revolution and works with chefs and sommeliers to pair tea with food. She has created bespoke blends for some of the best restaurants in the world including Noma in Copenhagen, Momofuku in New York and Claridge’s in the UK and her teas are available globally from Waitrose to China.

Henrietta travels the world working directly with small independent tea gardens from the Shire Highlands of Malawi to the foothills of the Himalayas. By sourcing direct from the farms, she is able to secure unique harvests and ensure that they are crafted using sustainable practices to benefit both the land and the people who live on it.

Many people believe that different tea comes from different plants. But like all wine comes from grapes, all tea comes from the same tea plant – Camellia Sinensis. What gives us the many different types we enjoy is not only down to differing varietals but two key factors: when the leaves are picked and how they are crafted.

The best white tea is sweet, delicious and very delicate. It should be extremely elegant and subtle. In order to supply large volumes, some brands use leaves harvested throughout the year but the finest white tea comes from leaves that are picked for just a few short weeks in the early spring. The most celebrated come from Fuding in the Fujian province of China, which is known as the Champagne region for white tea.

White tea undergoes the least amount of processing; it is simply plucked and dried which allows it to retain the most delicate flavours and the highest amount of health-promoting antioxidants.

It is important when making white tea to use water heated to 70°C to bring out the sweet, grassy notes. This can be achieved by adding 50ml of cold water (around two dessert spoons) per 150ml (a tea cup) into the teapot before adding boiled water. The sweetness is due to amino acids dissolving at lower temperatures whilst higher temperatures bring out the tannins and astringency.

White silver tip

This is the most prized of all white tea. White silver tip contains less tannins and caffeine than other tea and is surprisingly sweet. The plants have not begun to photosynthesise when they are picked, using sugars stored over the winter to produce the first tender tips instead.

White whole leaf

Also known as white peony or Bai Mu Dan in China. The best peony is entirely hand-made from tender spring buds and new leaves. Like white silver tip it has a gentle sweetness, but the open leaves give a deeper flavour and a hint of peach.

White tea leaves
White whole leaf tea
Tea plant
The delicate buds of jasmine flowers

Jasmine silver tip

You can make jasmine tea using any leaf and is often made with a cheap black tea that’s been flavoured to disguise the poor quality. For something very special, look out for good quality white silver tip tea that has been scented with fresh jasmine flowers. Originally created as a tribute tea only for the Chinese Emperor, it was forbidden outside the Imperial household. Thankfully we can all enjoy it now and it is truly celestial.

Malawi antlers

There are some extremely rare and delicious white teas grown outside China. My favourite is an incredibly special tea from Malawi made not from the leaves but the velvety stem of finely plucked spring shoots. This tea wonderfully expresses the unique terroir of the tea garden, and only a few kilos can be produced a year. The result is a deeply delicious tea with remarkable apricot and peach flavours.