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What exactly is white tea and does white tea contain caffeine? This is a frequently asked question and it is a common misconception is that white tea has the lowest levels of caffeine of all the teas. The truth is that the caffeine found in tea is a very complex subject with many variants affecting the levels present in each cup.
Here in this guide, discover white tea, the history, how this unique tea is grown, harvested and processed. Plus everything about the caffeine in this delicate tea. Oh and not forgetting how to make a lovely hot or iced cuppa!
White tea is a mild, gentle and delicate type of tea that is grown, harvested and processed in a special way. Here are some questions and answers to help you discover and learn about this elegant tea:
What is White Tea?
White tea is the least processed of all the tea types. White tea leaves are young tea buds and tea leaves that have been harvested just before the tea leaves unfurl or just after the leaves unfurl. The young leaves and buds are then quickly and carefully withered and dried. Some minor oxidisation occurs to white tea during the processing which makes the leaf less green and more brown-orange in colour. As a comparison, green tea is not oxidised at all. It is steamed or pan fried to halt any oxidisation, it’s this stage that keeps the leaves green, hence the name green tea.
The History of White Tea
Legend has it that tea was first discovered by Emperor Shen Nung over 3000 years ago when a stray tea leaf accidentally blew into this pot of boiling water. Records show that tea has been enjoyed as an infusion as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE). Records further show that the very first production of white tea dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and became more popular during the Song Dynasty (960-129). Tea was produced differently then and the leaves were baked and compressed into tea-cakes. These cakes were roasted into a tea powder and often other herbs were added when steeped. During the Ming Dynasty in 1391 these compressed tea cakes were replaced by the loose leaf tea that we know and love today.
Where is White Tea Grown?
White tea is predominantly grown and harvested in the northern district of Fujian, China. In particular Fuding, Jianyang, and Songxi are all white tea growing regions. These areas are known for having hilly terrain and mild climates that account for the uniqueness of white tea. There are other white tea growing regions in and out of China. White tea is also grown and processed in India, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. White tea is also grown in Japan and is known as ‘golden sencha’.
How is White Tea Harvested?
The young white tea leaves and buds are harvested during the early spring on days where the weather conditions are perfect. White tea is minimally processed to retain its delicate and fresh nature. Each young leaf and bud is hand plucked, withered and dried within 72 hours in carefully controlled conditions. The end result is a mild and light leaf with a gentle and mellow taste that is exclusive to white tea.
Why is White Tea Furry?
White teas are naturally dried and minimally processed which helps each leaf retain its original texture. On close inspection the leaves will still have those fluffy tiny white hairs called ‘hao’ from the young tea buds. It’s these white hairs that give this type of tea its name, white tea.
Is White Tea Naturally Caffeinated?
Tea, from the camellia sinensis plant, naturally contains caffeine. Many plants naturally produce caffeine as a natural insecticide. It’s a way for the plant to protect itself. It is difficult to calculate the exact amount of caffeine in tea due to varying factors such as how the tea is grown, harvested and how it is brewed. For the longest time, it was thought that white tea contains less caffeine than other types of tea as it is the least processed. However, this may not always be the case. White tea can contain caffeine levels of up to 75mg per cup. That’s more than black tea which contains around 40mg per cup.
How Does L-Theanine Affect Caffeine?
Tea contains a compound known as l-theanine. L-theanine can help create a sense of calmness. The l-theanine works with the caffeine to create calm and relaxation whilst still aiding in focus; one compliments the other. It is thought that the l-theanine in tea can positively counteract the negative effects of the caffeine. As white tea is mainly made from the young buds and leaves and is the most minimally processed of all the teas, it contains higher amounts of l-theanine. This is possibly one reason why it was long thought that white tea contains much less caffeine than the other types of tea.
What Affects Caffeine Levels in Tea?
Many factors affect how much caffeine is found in white tea and other kinds of tea, these factors include:
Species of tea plant: There are two main species of tea plant; Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. There are over 3000 varieties of tea, each with its own special characteristics including varying caffeine levels.
Growing conditions: Different growing regions, climates, soil and terrain will all affect the growth of the tea plant and therefore have an influence on the levels of caffeine.
Type of tea: Each type of tea, whether it be green, black or white, is processed in a particular way.
Oxidisation: The oxidisation levels of all teas will vary, black teas are the most processed and fully oxidised. White teas are minimally processed and so only a small amount of oxidisation will occur. Generally, the more the tea is oxidised, the darker it will be. And the darker the tea, the higher the caffeine content. While this is true, there is no scientific evidence to back up the claims that the caffeine level is linked to the level of oxidisation.
Hydrophobic hairs: Some tea buds have something called ‘water-fearing’ hairs also known as hydrophobic hairs. Silver needle tea is generally lower in caffeine than other kinds of white tea, when steeped at lower temperatures. This is due to the silvery white hairs that make it more difficult for the caffeine to be extracted in the infusion. Higher temperatures will help hydrate these hairs and will increase the caffeine level.
Age of the leaf: Since the caffeine in tea acts as a natural insecticide, the levels are much higher in the younger leaves and buds. White tea is made from young tea leaves and buds, and therefore the caffeine levels are higher compared to other types of teas where the leaves are plucked at a later stage. It is also true that the new buds and leaves contain higher amounts of antioxidants and l-theanine.
Leaf size: Larger loose leaf tea will contain lower amounts of caffeine than tea bags. Smaller broken, crushed or torn leaves will have a larger surface area to infuse which will allow for more caffeine to be extracted into the infusion.
Aging tea: Aging tea will slowly loose oils and degrade over time. The caffeine, antioxidants and l-theanine will also gradually reduce with age. Although, tea doesn’t technically go off, it will lose flavour and will go stale the older it is.
Brands: Each tea estate, plantation or brand will have different techniques including harvesting methods, processing methods, choice of packaging and ways of blending. All of these will have an impact on caffeine levels.
Brewing temperature: Due to the delicate nature of white tea, a lower steeping temperature is recommended for a tastier tasting tea. Lower steeping temperatures will extract lower amounts of caffeine verses higher temperatures.
Steeping time: Just like the temperature, steeping time can impact the amount of caffeine. Delicate white tea should be steeped for less time than bolder types of tea. Less time will equal less caffeine present in your brew.
Caffeine in White Tea vs Other Drinks
Many other drinks contain caffeine, some naturally and some, like energy drinks, contain it artificially. Here is a look at some of the other drinks compared to white tea:
White tea: White tea can range between 15-75mg of caffeine per cup.
Black tea: Black tea contains around 40mg of caffeine per cup.
Oolong tea: Oolong tea is partially oxidised and falls between a black and a green tea and will contain amounts varying between 25-40mg per cup.
Green tea: Green tea contains around 25mg of caffeine per cup. Matcha green tea contains approximately 35mg per half a teaspoon.
Coffee: A regular cup of coffee contains about 95mg. Some strongly brewed large coffees from coffee houses can contain as much as 500mg of caffeine per serving!
Yerba mate: A cup of yerba mate can contain anywhere between 40-70mg of caffeine depending on the brewing method.
Cola: A can of cola contains about 40mg.
Energy drinks: A regular can of Red Bull energy drink contains around 80mg of caffeine.
Hot chocolate: Chocolate also contains caffeine! A cup of hot chocolate will contain approximately 20mg.
Are There any Caffeine Free Alternatives?
There are caffeine free alternatives to white tea including decaffeinated options. Often decaffeinated teas have gone through a chemical process. Chemicals such as ethyl acetate and methylene chloride can alter the taste of the tea and cause side effects for some. Many various types of herbal teas such as rooibos, chamomile and mint are naturally free from caffeine and make great alternatives to tea. Some delicate flower teas are also a good healthy choices.
A lower caffeine option is to cold brew your tea leaves. Whilst lower temperatures will not eliminate the caffeine completely, it will significantly reduce it. To cold brew tea, simply add 1-2 teaspoons of loose leaf per 8fl oz of cold water and allow to steep in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
Tasting White Tea
White tea is a mildly sweet and delicate tasting tea, some notes include floral, honey, vanilla and fruity. White tea is so elegantly subtle that it should be enjoyed without milk and without sugar. Fruit flavours can be likened to peach, apricot and mango. Each tea has been grown, harvested and processed in a unique way and will have different flavour profiles. Tea tasting is a great way to discover lots of different teas including those from single origins and blended teas too.
Types of White Tea
There are many popular types of white tea including these beloved types:
Silver needle: From the Fujian province of China and only hand plucked in spring time, this superior white tea, also known as Bai hao zhen, is made only from young tea buds known as ‘needles’. The silver reference comes from the white-silvery hairs that cover the buds.
White peony: Also from the Fujian Province China and named so because the pretty white leaves resemble the white peony flower. This tea, also called Bai mu dan, contains both buds and young leaves that are unfurled.
Monkey picked white tea: Named so because, once upon a time, it was likely that Buddhists trained their monkeys to hand pluck the leaves! Many types of teas are named ‘monkey picked’. The name refers to the high quality grade of tea rather than actually being picked by exploited monkeys.
Darjeeling: Darjeeling is a single origin tea that can be processed as a black, oolong, green or white tea. Darjeeling is an exquisite Indian tea produced from the Chinese variety of the tea plant.
Blended white teas: Sweet, delicate and fruity white teas work well blended with many other flavours such as peach, mango and coconut. Pomegranate with white tea is a popular blend. Try making a refreshing glass of white tea with fresh raspberries!
How to Make a Cup of White Tea
So how can you drink white tea? There are a few different methods that you can use to get a delicious cup of tea from this amazing plant. Here are the most common ways:
How to brew a hot cup: White tea is a fragile type of tea that should be steeped in a lower brewing temperature of around 175-180*F. More delicate teas require decreased steeping temperature otherwise the leaves will burn and release a bitter tasting tea. Take 1-2 heaped teaspoons of loose leaf per 8fl oz of water, cover to lock in the wonderful aromatic oils, and allow to steep for 1-3 minutes before straining out the leaves. Make a teapot by adding more tea and more water. Cover with a cute tea cozy to keep the pot warm and serve in your favourite cups.
How to brew iced tea: Because of the gentle nature of white tea, it makes a deliciously sweet iced tea. You can either strongly hot brew your tea and pour over lots of ice to cool quickly, or cold brew your tea. To cold brew tea, take 1-2 teaspoons of loose leaf per 8fl oz of cold water and allow to steep in the fridge for at least 4 hours to overnight. Add optional fresh fruit such as peaches or berries and sprigs of mint and enjoy! Alternatively, try making these white tea shots made with sparkling iced white tea!
How to reduce the caffeine: Unlike tea bags, many types of loose leaf tea can be resteeped. The caffeine levels decrease with each steep. Lowering the steeping temperature and reducing the steeping time will reduce the caffeine level. Cold brewing tea will also reduce the caffeine levels.
How to Store White Tea
Just like any type of tea, store it in a cool dry place. Clear plastic and glass jars, are not ideal as the light through the jar will degrade the tea. Avoid sunlight and heat, these will also negatively affect your tea. It is important to keep your tea away from moisture and any strong odors. Tea absorbs smells and dampness quickly. The best place to store tea is in an airtight food safe container, in a dark place away from smells and humidity. It’s best not to store your tea in the fridge. To recap, keep it airtight, cool, dry, dark and away from anything smelly!
What is your favourite white tea? Let me know in the comments below!
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