Many people believe that white tea has the least amount of caffeine because of its light color and flavor and because it has been *wrongly* advertised as such. The truth is that many factors determine the amount of caffeine in white tea and although we might not know with certainty the exact amount of caffeine that we’re consuming, we need to understand a bit more about how it originates and the differences between several types of white tea.
What is White Tea?
White tea is made from the youngest leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. It is the tea type that goes through the least amount of processing, resulting in a light and delicate tea. It is made from unopened buds and the newest, young leaves from the tea plant and it is harvested at the start of the season (March-April). Once harvested, the leaves are withered and sun-dried to prevent oxidation (the chemical process of soaking up oxygen, which results in the creation of new compounds at a molecular level, generating flavor and aroma).
One of the main differences between White tea, Green, Black, Oolong and Pu-erh is how long they are allowed to oxidize. Fermented tea like Pu-erh is left to oxidize the longest while most white teas are lightly oxidized.
Another key difference is the age of the leaves and buds used to make white tea. Generally, young leaves and unopened buds are used almost exclusively to produce white tea.
White tea’s name comes from the silvery-white follicles that are present on the unopened buds of Camellia Sinensis plant.
Origins of White Tea
It appears to be some debate as to when white tea was first developed. Some sources claim white tea was developed during China’s Song dynasty, while other sources assert that it was in the 17th or 18th century when white tea first came into being.
Regardless of the era reputed to have produced white tea first, the Fujian province of southern China is often considered to be the place of origin for white tea and is still an important region for white tea production today.
What Affects Caffeine Levels in Tea?
The following factors cause caffeine to be higher:
• Tea derived from buds and young first leaf tips.
• The tea bush strain. Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica tends to be higher in caffeine content than Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis (Thus, African black tea tends to be higher than Chinese black tea).
• Clonal bushes tend to have higher caffeine than seedling ones.
• Nitrogen fertilizer.
• Fast-growing seasons.
Although it’s extremely hard to know all the details listed above for a specific tea because of transparency issues, it’s important to be at least educated.
Also, the way you brew your tea can affect the resulting caffeine levels in your cup (cold-brewing, steeping times, amount of leaves, etc).
The many different factors that affect caffeine levels in tea makes it hard to standardize which tea type has more caffeine. A certain type of white tea grown and processed under specific conditions might have higher caffeine levels than a black tea, although generally black teas might be more caffeinated.
Myth-busting: White Tea is Low in Caffeine
Like many myths in the food and beverage world, companies and marketing methods to move products are often to blame for developing, promoting and sustaining myths about certain foods or ingredients. White tea is an example.
While white teas are usually lighter in taste and coloration than their more oxidized cousins, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lower in caffeine. Another myth is that white tea possesses the most free-radical fighting antioxidants.
The origins of both of these ideas come from certain Fujian white tea plant variants. While some very specific white teas from Fujian are lower in caffeine and possess a heavier dosage of antioxidants, this does not apply to all white tea produced everywhere. The fact that certain specific Fujian white teas possess lower caffeine and higher antioxidants pertains to that certain tea plant variant, harvesting, and process rather than white tea as a whole.
The idea that companies could have spun this one example to broadly apply to all white tea, demonstrates big businesses’ willingness to take advantage of consumer’s lack of knowledge about a particular food or beverage.
Tea is like wine, wildly diverse. And even within one tea type, such as white tea, factors like region, temperature, altitude, climate, varietals of the Camellia Sinensis plant, harvesting, and processing methods play a role in the final product. Different processing methods can also make a difference in the flavor, aroma and caffeine content of a particular tea leaf.
So, to give this myth a simple refutation, ‘white tea’ broadly speaking is not lower in caffeine than other types of tea. White tea can range from 6 to 75 milligrams of caffeine, depending on the type of white tea one is brewing and the brewing methods used. (For reference, green teas can range from 12-75 milligrams of caffeine per cup, Oolong 50-75 milligrams per cup, black teas range from 40-120 milligrams per cup, and coffee: 80 to a whopping 200 milligrams of caffeine per cup).
For example, a white silver needle tea from China might have more caffeine than another Chinese black tea, but less than an Indian or an African black tea.
Let’s take a look at some specific white tea types and their caffeine levels.
Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle):
At the top of the list is Chinese Silver Needle, the highest white tea picking grade. It is produced in Fujian province and it’s not low in caffeine content.
This variety of white tea is considered one of the most expensive white tea leaves, due to being produced almost exclusively in Fujian, and comprised of the rare and ephemeral early harvested buds. Silver needle has a soft aroma, and a delicate, light liquor.
Don’t let its delicate form fool you, because the buds of the tea leaves are packed with caffeine. Silver Needle tends to be a caffeine powerhouse because of its tea leaf bud constitution.
Bai Mu Dan (White Peony):
This type of white tea uses a combination of a young tea bud and tea leaves, and it’s the second grade of white tea. When harvesting the leaves for this tea, typically only the top two leaves of each available tea shoot are plucked.
Bai Mu Dan’s flavor is characterized as having a full-body, hints of floral notes and a faint nutty after taste. White Peony also has the special distinction of being a white tea type that contains a decent amount of caffeine, though not as much as Bai Hao Yinzhen or Silver Needle but not as mild as Shou Mei.
Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrows):
A white tea cultivated mainly in Guangxi and Fujian provinces and harvested much later than other white tea varieties such as Silver Needle. While a white tea like Silver Needle is more expensive and rarer by being comprised of only the premium recent buds, Shou Mei uses slightly more mature buds from later in a harvesting season (if any) and mostly leaves so it’s considered the fourth and lowest grade of white tea.
This grants Shou Mei a bolder taste that has a darker liquor than many other white teas. Since it’s technically a by-product of Silver Needle, it’s a much cheaper tea so it’s often used for tea bags and blends. This dark color and later harvesting also result in a white tea that is, in fact, lower in caffeine content.
Flavor-wise, a side by side comparison of Silver Needle and Shou Mei will contrast a lighter, but fuller and more complex tea versus a heavier and duller tea.
Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow):
This type of white tea is also mainly cultivated in Fujian and Guangxi, China and it is harvested later in the season than Silver Needle tea. It is the third grade of white tea. The later harvesting gives Gong Mei a flavor that is strong and fruity.
To sum up, it’s important to note that white tea is not, by default, lower in caffeine content when compared to other teas, nor it is necessarily higher in its antioxidant content either.
White tea is a broad category, so knowing what variety of tea you are enjoying, its terroir, the region it was cultivated, how it was processed and how you will prepare it all play a role in the amount of caffeine your tea will have.
So, with all this information, I encourage you to do some firsthand research into as many white tea varieties as you can find to determine which one you like the most. Subscribe to my newsletter and get exclusive discounts through my TEA VAULT to buy tea online. Happy brewing!
FAQ: Can you recommend some White Teas to buy online?
(Please note some are affiliate links. I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for supporting my blog!)
– Masters by Adagio – White Silver Needle
– Tealyra – Premium White Silver Needle
– Yunnan Sourcing – Various
– Rishi – Silver Needle
– In Pursuit of Tea – Bai Mu Dan
– Special Tea Company- Bai Mu Dan Superior Organic
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