White Teas : Perfume in Your Cup

Please give a warm welcome to Andy Gerber, who will be joining Bois de Jasmin’s team. Andy is a student with a love of reading, writing, cooking, collecting and drinking tea, and growing plants of all kinds. At a young age, he has developed a natural affinity to everything botanical, and his fascination with scents has never waned since. As Andy says, “I will always remember the day when I fell in love with the amazing world of fragrance, which happened, coincidentally, in a greenhouse. As I stood, sniffing, among a collection of scented herbs, violets, and roses, I felt an unexpected wave of euphoria–I came to a sudden realization of how moving and joyful fragrance is.” He will be sharing his knowledge of teas, fragrant beauty care, and aromatic plants with us.

If any edible could be deemed the closest link between food and fragrance, it would have to be tea. Teas display aromatic profiles that often rival perfumes in complexity, containing many of the same volatile compounds as a bottle of fragrance. Notes of honeysuckle and peach might sound more fitting in a fragrance description, but in the world of tea, recognizable floral, woody, and fruity notes like these occur naturally and add interest and subtle depth. It comes as no surprise that perfumers like Jean-Claude Ellena of Hermès and Mathilde Laurent of Cartier are self-admitted tea enthusiasts, who reach for tea as both a satisfying beverage and as an artistic inspiration.

Of all teas, though, white teas are one of the most interesting options available on the market. White teas, grown primarily in China’s Fujian province, are made from the downy leaf buds of Camellia sinensis plants, the same plant used to make black, oolong, and green teas. The leaf buds emerge early in the harvesting season and must be plucked within only a few days before they unfurl into new leaves. After plucking, the buds are allowed to wither for a few days in the sun before they are dried. After drying, the processing is finished and the final product is a long, thin and silvery bud covered with fuzzy hairs. The handling of white tea is delicate and very minimal, in order to preserve the gentle flavors of the tea and keep the leaves intact. The plant material allowed in the production of white tea is thus chosen with the utmost care and attention to quality, as no broken, blemished, or mature leaves are used.

As a result of this centuries old process, white teas are arguably the most subtly nuanced teas of all, with a delicate flavor to match the light processing methods used in their production. Unlike the harsh, bitter black tea one might brew from a grocery store teabag, white tea is mild, smooth, and delicate, with a pale colored brew and leaf. Many, upon trying white tea for the first time, remark that it tastes bland and watery, but to me some of the most interesting flavors are found in white teas. The flavor of most white teas is subtle but lingering, and all of the beautiful natural nuances become increasingly apparent the more one drinks this special class of teas.

If you are unfamiliar with white tea or aren’t sure which kinds to try, I have selected four varieties below that are good starting points. As always, make sure to buy quality, loose leaf tea, as this will produce the best result. I especially recommend the teas from Art of Tea, which offers all of the types of white tea I have described below at a great price. In brewing white tea, I recommend steeping the tea leaves in filtered or bottled water that is 170-180° Fahrenheit (76-82° Celsius); hot, but not boiling. Water that is cooler than this will not allow the flavors of the tea to properly infuse into the water, and water that is hotter will destroy the delicate flavors of the tea. I also advise against putting the tea into a tea ball, as these do not allow the leaves to properly expand and infuse into the water, resulting in a less flavorful and bitter cup.

Instead, start by heating your water, using a thermometer to check that it is at the correct temperature. Then, rinse a teapot or heatproof cup (I personally like to use a gaiwan, a traditional Chinese tea brewing vessel) with the water, swirling around until the exterior of the vessel feels warm. Next, scoop in about 2½ teaspoons (about 2 grams) of white tea for every 8oz (about 240mL) of water used, and then pour the water over the tea. Allow it to steep for 1-3 minutes, according to taste. When you are satisfied with the flavor, strain the tea as you pour it into cups. I like to use a small mesh strainer for this. When tasting, use both your nose and taste buds to enjoy the full spectrum of flavors in white tea. Enjoy!

Silver Needle (Baihao Yinzhen)

Silver Needle white tea is among the most prized of all white teas for its excellent flavor and quality. The dry leaf smells woodsy and sweet, and appears as long, thin, fuzzy and silvery in color. When brewed, the resulting light golden infusion has a mild, slightly sweet aroma of fresh hay with a refreshing taste. The flavor is mild, and exhibits the same dominant hay-like notes of the aroma, with a peachy dryness and a delicate sweet aftertaste that lingers nicely. This white tea is very nice at any time of day, as it has a soft and lasting flavor that seems to be well liked by all, even those who are typically non tea-drinkers. A quality silver needle tea should not taste too green or grassy, as this is indicative of lower quality. In addition, another sign of quality is indicated by the downy hairs present on the tea leaves, which should float on the surface of the freshly brewed cup. I highly recommend this tea to anyone who is new to white tea, as this is the quintessential white tea, serving as a good standard of comparison to other types, such as those described below.

Jasmine Silver Needle

As the name suggests, this white tea is made from silver needle tea that is scented with fresh jasmine flowers. The aroma of the dry leaf is of dry, sweet jasmine. While the dry leaf smells heavenly enough, the aroma significantly opens up when the tea is brewed, showcasing a green, banana-like sambac jasmine note that lingers in the air beautifully. The white tea serves as a nice, refreshing base to the dominant jasmine flavor of the tea, which tastes fresh, bright, and crisp. It is impossible to try to drink this tea without wishing its beautiful scent could be bottled. The jasmine flavor and aroma is so smooth and natural, and comes across so purely set against the almost nonexistent background flavor of white tea. I highly recommend this white tea especially, as it is simply too beautiful to go unnoticed.

White Peony (Bai Mu Dan)

White Peony differs from Silver Needle in that this tea is comprised of not only leaf buds, but also the uppermost new leaves below each leaf bud. This difference results in a richer, deeper flavor than Silver Needle. I was just introduced to this type of white tea recently, and I found that I liked it as much if not more than Silver Needle. As the name suggests, it does have a slight peony aroma and flavor when brewed, which is very lovely, but it should be noted that this flavor note is naturally occurring, not added as for a jasmine tea. This tea is nicely floral and slightly earthy, with a beautiful subtle depth. What I loved about this tea especially was its lasting, sweet finish, which lingers even better than the finish of Silver Needle.

White Monkey Picked

This interesting tea derives its name from legends, which suggest that trained monkeys once harvested the leaves. While today this is certainly not the case, this tea is delightful and extremely refreshing. The leaves of this tea are slightly green in appearance, and the flavor of the tea is likewise very similar to a very light green tea. This tea tastes grassier, greener, and more astringent than other white teas I’ve tried, but it retains its similarity to white teas in its striking floral notes and relatively mild flavor. One of the predominant notes of this white tea is honeysuckle, which tastes beautiful against the green overtones. White Monkey Picked tastes extremely fresh, and I think it would be wonderful as an iced tea.

What about you? Do you enjoy having a cup of tea? And if so, what is your favorite kind?

PS: Andy is a student, so he will reply to your comments when he gets home from his lectures in the evening.

Photography by Andy Gerber (except for #1, which is by Victoria).

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52 Comments

  • Alyssa: It took me forever to appreciate white tea! I was always an oolong person. Finally, I went into a tea shop in San Francisco and said “convince me.” The SA shared a special harvest of Silver Needle with me that had a delicate floral scent and was amazingly soft in my mouth. I’ve been drinking white teas ever since. October 3, 2012 at 7:57am Reply

    • Barbara: I discovered Ceylon teas this way. I went to a tea shop where the SA was so passionate about them that she got me hooked. She didn’t give me a silly sales pitch the way perfume SAs do but just guided me and explained the proper way to brew, how to warm up the tea pot, what to look for when I buy teas and so on. I still think of her whenever I make my cuppa! October 3, 2012 at 8:37am Reply

      • Andy: Barbara, that level of service is what I so love about shopping for tea in person instead of online. I love the relaxed atmosphere of tea shops, and the staff are always full of information. I have been hearing a lot of good things about various Ceylon teas recently, but I haven’t really given them a proper chance. I’ll have to put them at the top of my “to try” list! October 3, 2012 at 3:56pm Reply

    • Andy: What a great story! I know white teas can be a hard sell, especially for those who have never tried them before and are not used to such subtle flavors. As I’m sure you can attest, though, white teas are really delicious and interesting. Do you have a favorite type of white tea? October 3, 2012 at 3:52pm Reply

  • Barbara: Welcome, Andy! What a great article! I drink lots of tea but mostly black. Your description of white teas made me curious to try them. You had me at honeysuckle. October 3, 2012 at 8:18am Reply

    • Andy: Thank you! I am so excited to be writing for Bois de Jasmin. I also drink a lot of tea, and find especially as the temperatures drop in autumn that I begin to crave a lot of robust black teas. And definitely make sure to try some white teas, as they carry such interesting flavors. I too was attracted to the mention of honeysuckle notes in the white monkey picked! October 3, 2012 at 4:02pm Reply

  • Anne: Tea and perfume–my favorite topics! I’m drinking jasmine pearl tea from Ten Ren right now. It’s one of the best I’ve tried, but I’m always interested in more recs.

    Does anyone know of a good green tea perfume? October 3, 2012 at 8:53am Reply

    • Andy: Though I only tried it once, I too like the jasmine pearl tea from Ten Ren. A friend of mine visited Taiwan this summer and brought me back some oolong tea from Ten Ren that was grown right on Alishan, the tallest mountain in Taiwan. I love this tea, but haven’t checked yet to see if it is available for purchase in the U.S. It has a distinctive green marigold top note set against a fruity backdrop, which makes for a very interesting flavor.

      I would try and make a perfume recommendation, but I am not nearly as well versed on that topic as many of the other commenters here! To be entirely honest, the only “soliflore” green tea scents I have actually heard of are Bulgari Eau Parfumée Thé Vert and L’Occitane Thé Vert, but I am sure there are many more. October 3, 2012 at 4:14pm Reply

    • Austenfan: The Bvlgari is the original and I think still the best. October 3, 2012 at 4:33pm Reply

      • Andy: Thanks, Austenfan! October 3, 2012 at 5:12pm Reply

  • Elena: I love tea, especially oolong and jasmine teas, but I definitely drink the cheap stuff that comes in tea bags and pour near boiling water on it. I don’t even own a tea pot! Could you provide more information on what you think is a good basic kind of teapot, perhaps a link? My local Wegmans has a great deal of loose tea, and it may not be the best but it would be a good start. And hi Andy, great article, I am looking forward to more in this vein. This was lovely to read over breakfast. October 3, 2012 at 9:16am Reply

    • Andy: Elena, I am glad you enjoyed the article. Before I was ever so interested in tea, I too started with drinking from teabags. Even today I drink some tea from teabags, and some are very good. A great teapot to start out with would be one that is sturdy (I recommend white porcelain) and is not too big (about 2 cups). One like this is perfect:http://www.amazon.com/Tea-Pot-White-Classic-Teapot/dp/B000O8PRSI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349296293&sr=8-1&keywords=2+cup+white+teapot

      In terms of tea, I would start with the loose leaf teas available at Wegmans, and I recommend starting with one or two different teas at first. Your comment also makes me think that perhaps I should write a post about the basics of brewing various loose leaf teas. I know it can be very confusing! October 3, 2012 at 4:33pm Reply

      • Elena: Thank you for your thoughtful response! I went to Wegman’s today and they had silver needle, jasmine silver needle, and white peony, so I got a little of each. Luckily (vs. the perfumes I fall in love with from reading this blog’s descriptions) the tea only cost me a couple of dollars. A teapot is on its way and I picked up a little mesh strainer. I am ready! I can’t wait, I think I am going to love the white peony from the scent of the leaves. October 4, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

        • Andy: It’s so wonderful to hear that you are entering the world of fine teas. It’s true, tea is a much less expensive hobby than perfume, but be forewarned—it is just as addictive! Anyway, once you’ve tried these teas, I would love to hear what you think of them. October 4, 2012 at 4:29pm Reply

  • Saurabh: Thank you for a very informative article. I’m from India and have tried many types of teas which go well with milk and without milk. Here in India people have lot of tea or basically a soup I would say in which the milk is boiled with tea leaves and fragrant fresh ginger and cardamom powder is added and is boiled till the milk turns brownish white in color. October 3, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

    • Andy: How interesting! Brewing the tea in boiling milk is something I’ve never heard of before, but it certainly makes sense. I suppose with that method you can brew a much richer cup of tea than if you added milk to tea brewed in water. The addition of ginger and cardamom must be delicious! I have been adding ginger and other spices to some of my teas recently, and it adds such a nice, warm flavor. October 3, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

      • Saurabh: In India, mostly Assam tea is used for milk which is very strong in taste. I suggest that you should try Darjeeling tea for its aroma and taste which is brewed in water in a very similar way you described white tea. October 4, 2012 at 3:01am Reply

        • Andy: Saurabh, I have tried Assam and Darjeeling teas before, but not extensively. I love both types of tea very much, though I probably prefer Darjeeling for the more delicate flavors. It’s interesting that Darjeeling is brewed similarly to white tea where you live, because here in the U.S., Darjeeling tends to be brewed in a style most similar to other black teas (ie, using boiling or near boiling water). October 4, 2012 at 5:28am Reply

  • Portia: Welcome Andy,
    I am sadly ill educated about tea but I like the tea flowers that open when you put them in a glass teapot and hot water.
    You have just increased my tea knowledge by about 400% I think. Thanks,
    Portia x October 3, 2012 at 9:56am Reply

    • Andy: Thanks, Portia. I’m glad to share my knowledge of tea with you. I realized now that I have actually never purchased a tea blossom before, but I’ve seen them used before, and they are so pretty! October 3, 2012 at 4:41pm Reply

  • marsi: Andy, welcome! I’m a big fan of Bois de Jasmin, and I look forward to reading your posts.
    I’m a coffee drinker and I’m only starting to learn about teas, mostly thanks to Victoria’s enthusiastic posts about them. Wait, are you the same Andy who gave us that amazing rose tea recipe? 🙂 October 3, 2012 at 10:22am Reply

    • Andy: Thanks, I can’t wait to share more here on Bois de Jasmin. I am the same Andy who gave the rose tea recipe, and I’m so glad you liked it! I hope that I’ll be able to help you learn more about tea through some of my posts. October 3, 2012 at 4:45pm Reply

      • Alyssa: Oh, that’s so great to know! I’ve told many people about that combination of flavors! October 3, 2012 at 5:21pm Reply

        • Andy: Alyssa, I feel very flattered to know that you liked the rose tea so much! October 3, 2012 at 6:47pm Reply

  • marsha: Welcome Andy! I look forward to your posts. October 3, 2012 at 11:03am Reply

    • Andy: Thanks, marsha! I look forward to writing more posts! October 3, 2012 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Apollonia: Wonderful, extremely informative article Andy! Thank you! It makes me crave a cup right now, and I know exactly what I’ll brew up – Teavana Lavender Dreams white tea. This company Teavana has a great variety of teas, teapots and accessories, and all of their flavors are full of flowers and fruit – wonderfully scented. October 3, 2012 at 11:39am Reply

    • Andy: I am glad you found this article useful, Appolonia! I too am starting to crave a cup of tea. I have never purchased any teas from Teavana before, but you are the second person who has told me that they like them, so I’ll have to check them out. I tend to shy away from flavored teas myself, but a white tea with lavender sounds really nice and soothing. October 3, 2012 at 4:50pm Reply

  • iodine: Oh great, posts about tea! Thanks, Andy- and Victoria, of course!
    I’m a huge tea drinker, every kind, with a slight preference for Chinese green and Oolong teas. While reading your article I distinctly felt the taste of White Peony in my mouth… I’ve run out of it months ago, it’s time to buy some!
    I’ll be looking forward for more suggestions! October 3, 2012 at 12:30pm Reply

    • Andy: As you might have guessed, I’m a big tea drinker myself! I too love various Chinese teas, and in fact right now a cup of Keemun Hao Ya (black tea) sounds perfect. For next time, I’ll have to make a note to myself to brew a cup of tea before I reply to comments–all this talk of tea is making me crave some right now! October 3, 2012 at 4:56pm Reply

  • NeenaJ: What a lovely article. The Peony sounds lovely enough for me to hunt it down and brew my own cup. Looking forward to reading more of your work, Andy! October 3, 2012 at 2:23pm Reply

    • Andy: The white peony really is excellent, and is probably my favorite white tea of all. It is definitely worth searching for. I am so excited to be featured on Bois de Jasmin, and can’t wait to write more posts! October 3, 2012 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Daisy: Welcome, Andy! What a great post to start with too. Thank you for teaching me more about white tea! October 3, 2012 at 3:04pm Reply

    • Andy: You’re welcome, Daisy! I am so glad to hear that you found this post helpful. October 3, 2012 at 5:00pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Thank you for a wonderful first post here on BdJ.
    I love tea more than I love perfume I think. Favourites include; Wulong, and Yunnan (black). But I will drink green and white tea as well. I recently got some Aiguilles d’Argent from the Palais de Thés in France. The leaves smell absolutely gorgeous dry so I am very curious to try their taste.

    I have always wondered how they used to brew tea before the advent of thermometers. I am sure they had traditions that made them use water at an appropriate temperature. October 3, 2012 at 3:40pm Reply

    • Andy: You’re very welcome, Austenfan. Some of my favorites include Keemun (black), Gyokuro, and, of course, various white teas. I was recently looking at Palais de Thés’ Aiguilles d’Argent, and it sounded so good. Please tell me your impressions of it once you’ve had time to try it.

      I think you are correct. I believe I read somewhere that, before thermometers, people used the amount of steam coming off the water and the size and amount of bubbles forming on the bottom of the kettle to know what temperature to brew their water to. It’s really fascinating to think that they could have learned to do this with great accuracy. October 3, 2012 at 5:07pm Reply

  • Elaine: Hi Andy, what a wonderful post, thank you!

    I have always loved white tea, but have been rather ignorant about my tea. I have just looked at my box of white tea and discovered that I’m drinking silver tips white tea. I suppose that would be the silver needle you mention? Mine is in teabags, so I can’t really compare it with the pictures you have here.

    Would love to see more posts on teas from you! October 3, 2012 at 4:52pm Reply

  • Andy: Thank you, Elaine. I am glad you liked this post!

    I too love white tea very much. The silver tips white tea you are drinking should be about the same thing as silver needle white tea, as this tea goes by several different names. I can’t wait to share more about tea with you and everybody here at Bois de Jasmin! October 3, 2012 at 5:10pm Reply

    • Elaine: Hi Andy, I thought you might like to know that your post inspired me to go shopping for teas, a process that really reminded me of perfume shopping. I’ve bought a lot more teas than I can ever finish, and I think I’ve found a new addiction! One was a white tea called The des Mandarines from Mariage Freres – a tad expensive, but I fell in love with it at first sniff… October 8, 2012 at 7:41pm Reply

  • Kaori: Andy, thank you for a great post and pictures!

    I am a tea lover and interested in many kinds, green, black, white, blue and yellow(Chinese). White teas are generally expensive but their flavorers are amazing!

    Looking forward to your next writing.

    Kaori October 3, 2012 at 11:59pm Reply

    • Andy: Thank you very much, Kaori! I too love teas of all kinds, especially white teas, of course. If you find the prices of most white teas a bit too high, I highly reccomend Art of Tea; their white teas are of good quality and are very affordably priced. October 4, 2012 at 5:32am Reply

  • mucuna: The white tea that I have is Muguet from Mariage Freres. I love their tea very much. It is like drinking perfume. I also love Violette the noir that goes perfect with macarons. They have a line of tea that are traditional perfumed with the most popular essence. Fleur d’oranger and Ilang Ilang are also available. October 4, 2012 at 12:40am Reply

    • Andy: Mucuna, I am glad to hear your opinion on Muget tea from Mariage Freres. I have been eying that one up for a while now, wondering if I should try it or not. After reading your comment, I think my answer is a definite yes! October 4, 2012 at 5:35am Reply

  • Ann-Sofie: Hi Andy! It will be interesting to follow your writing here – this tea essay promises much good to come in the future. Although being a hardcore coffeinista, I am on the verge to run out and get me some silvery tea leafs after reading this. October 4, 2012 at 4:48am Reply

    • Andy: Hi Ann-Sofie! Thank you for your kind words! Even if you are not typically into teas, white teas are very different than most, and are definitely worth a try. October 4, 2012 at 5:38am Reply

  • Joan: Wow, I love Jasmine Silver Needle. I used to go to an independent small-town coffee shop (The Lost Dog in Shepherdstown WV), where they mixed it with milk or soymilk. It was fantastic. October 4, 2012 at 4:18pm Reply

    • Andy: I too love jasmine silver needle—the scent is so incredibly smooth and rich. I have never heard of adding milk to a white tea, but in the case of jasmine silver needle, it sounds delicious! October 4, 2012 at 4:34pm Reply

  • Andrea: Interesting article, Andy! I enjoyed your informative and picturesque writing-style.

    I have recently tried white tea, as medical issues prevent me from having black or green teas. The lack of acid (and tannins, I presume) is thought to make it tolerable. It was beneficial for me to learn the process by which it is made, thank you!

    Victoria, what pattern is the china in the photo, if I may ask? I love china and learning to identify the patterns; I’m sure I missed my calling in the wedding-registry business! (It would be fun to one day take a poll of our purchased or wished-for china patterns, silver, etc! I think many of us are a visual and “romantic” bunch who appreciate lovely things!) October 5, 2012 at 1:51am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a Limoges made for the US market, probably from the 50s. The American brides loved this kind of style, so it was popular as a wedding gift at the time. So, these days you can find whole sets at lower prices than some other china from the period. Makes it easy to replace the broken cups too. They are fragile. I’m not sure what the pattern is though. There isn’t much indication on the cup itself. October 5, 2012 at 3:34am Reply

      • Andrea: I am partial to pink roses, and am always curious when I see a lovely pattern. Thank you for letting me know more about it, I feel like scouring antique shops now! October 5, 2012 at 2:38pm Reply

    • Andy: Thank you, Andrea! I’m glad that you liked the article. You’re correct, it is in part the lack of time given for the tea leaves to sit and oxidize (think of how an apple slice browns when left out in the open air) that results in the lack of tannins in white teas. You bring up a good point! October 5, 2012 at 4:32am Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: There must be a connection between the temperments that are drawn to tea and perfume lovers; it seems such a natural nexus! I am in mourning because Chado Tea Room in LA has closed on Third Street and I don’t know where to get their lovely blend of black tea and roses anywhere else.

    BVLGARI does a gorgeous, light, springy fragrance called Au the Blanc that I have been wearing this Summer. It’s so refreshing! October 5, 2012 at 5:34pm Reply

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