If you have been used to steeping tea bags in boiling water, and you get your first bag of loose leaf white tea, things can get a little confusing. How do you get started? What do you do with a bunch of tea leaves? Well, don't worry. I’m going to take you through the entire process of brewing the perfect cup of loose leaf white tea.
Before we start, let me say that there are many ways to brew white tea. I will show you one very simple way to get started. I like this method because it is easy, it allows for the tea to go through multiple steeps which bring out more of the flavors, and it requires minimal equipment.
I prefer to brew all my white tea in a traditional steeping cup called a gaiwan. A gaiwan is a small porcelain cup that usually holds around 4-6 oz of water. What makes the gaiwan unique is the curved rim, and a small lid that sits within that curved rim. This design allows you to pour liquid out the cup while using the lid to keep the solid contents within the cup.
A 6oz Gaiwan And A Heaping Tablepoon Of Silver Needle
First things first… Water. If the water is too cool, then it won't extract the full flavor and health benefits of the leaves. Too hot and you get excessive bitterness. The same is true for steeping times. Too short and you get a weak tea with thin flavor. Too much and you get an overly strong and bitter tea. You need it just right. Most tea has a relatively narrow window for brewing but white tea has a relatively broad range of brewing temperatures and times, which make it unusually forgiving among loose leaf teas, and an ideal tea to start out with.
Steeping The Tea
For brewing our white tea, water temperature anywhere from 180-195 can make a great cup. As a general rule, water just under boiling is fine. But high quality silver needle can actually tolerate boiling water and still make a cup that isn't overly bitter. But remember, the hotter the water, the shorter the steeping time. So if you let your water boil, and don’t have time to let it cool, you can still enjoy a great cup of Silver Needle, instead of being left with an undrinkable bitter mess.
Since we know what we need from the water, it is time to talk about the tea itself. Dense teas, like Japanese Sencha and Gyokuro, don't require a large volume of tea leaves to produce reasonably large volumes of tea. Because the leaves are small, fine and compact, even a teaspoon of these leaves can produce a lot of tea. On the other hand, white teas are loosely packed, and since they are withered and dried full leaves and/or buds, they are a lot larger and looser than Sencha, and because of this, you are going to need a bit more in your gaiwan. For our purposes, a heaping teaspoon will do it (around 2.5-3.5 grams depending on the size of the gaiwan).
Once your water is at the right temp, and your white tea is in the gaiwan, fill the cup with the hot water and let it steep. How long you chose to steep your tea is a matter of taste, so to speak, and white tea can tolerate a relatively long steep before it gets excessively bitter. But looking at the tea as it brews can give you a good indication as to how far along it is. White tea tastes really good when the liquid is a light golden color in the gaiwan. Dark amber is typically too strong (not always), and pale straw is typically to weak (not always). Ultimately, you should steep the tea to your own taste.
After steeping, take the lid of the gaiwan and brush the floating leaves to one side of the cup. Place your lid on the cup, and tilt the lid slightly, revealing a small gap between the lid and the cup. As you pour the tea into a drinking cup, the lid will capture most of the leaves and keep them in the gaiwan for the next steep. If you get a little bit of leaf material in the cup, it is no problem. Either remove it, avoid it, or embrace it (eat it).
High quality white tea will continue to make great tea for 4 or even 5 steeps (consecutive steeps, not to be brewed again at a later time). The 4th and 5th steeps need a bit more time to extract the flavors, but if you go off a visual inspections, you will be fine. This way your original 2.5-3.5 grams of tea can produce a good 20-30 ounces of white tea. Remember that these suggestions are guidelines, and as you get more experienced, don’t be afraid to experiment with different brew times and water temps. Enjoy!