A cup of Bao Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle White Tea)

How a wimp wrestled with white tea

Guest Blogger: Geoffrey Norman

Most people begin their tea journey with the obvious – the square-ish, unimposing teabag, complete with black tea fannings. I tried the stuff once or twice but never took a liking to it, outside of the usual sugared-to-heck/diabetic coma iced teas we Americans consume by the gallon. No, my true tea appreciation began on the lighter side. As was my approach to life, I only dipped a toe in the tea realm rather than plunge head first. I started by sampling the lightest (and whitest) tea out there.

In a typical, highbrow fashion, I developed a palate for the best. All articles pointed to Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yinzhen) as being the downy-fuzzed queen of the white tea world. The first time I tried it was at a Chinese-themed tea shop, and I loved it. Granted, the taste was subtle, but the wonderfully floral/nutty/melon characteristics shined through. And it was just soft enough to even curb my “cuppa” cowardice.

I decided to pick some up for home-brewing. The results? Pure spinach. There was some of the requisite softness there, but none of the subtlety I came to adore. A friend of mine mailed me some Yinzhen from the Chinese mainland, and the same thing happened. My personal brews turned out vegetal.

Perplexed, I kept my Silver Needle pursuits away from home. At most tearooms/shops I frequented, it was usually quite divine. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. Maybe I was too brusque in my brewing practices to tackle so dainty a tea. For a few months, I scaled back a bit and went down a grade to White Peony (Bai Mu Dan).

Here was a tea with not quite as velvety a character as Silver Needle, but it possessed one trait Yinzhen never could. I could brew the hell out of it. White Peony was a burly mistress – the rustic barmaid to Silver Needle’s noble hauteur. It could stand up to my more unsophisticated steep approaches, and every cup just screamed: “GRAPE!”

Sometime later, I finally learned what I’d been doing wrong with poor little Yinzhen. A girl five years my junior imparted sage advice through a simple question: “Do you adhere to specific brewing temperatures?” I simply blinked. Brewing what?

Apparently, certain teas required certain water temperatures. One couldn’t just boil every pot o’ leaf they came across. That happened to be exactly what I was doing. What’s worse? I went two whole years without knowing differently.

In time, I finally corrected my infusive practices. By then, I’d moved on to less temperamental teas to prepare. My heart still belonged to White, though. I returned to it to remind me of my leafy roots. Then I ran into a white tea that gave me the best of both worlds. It could take near-boiling water, possessed the fruity profile of its other fuzzy cousins, and imparted something…spicier. Darjeeling White Tea; it is THE white tea for the lazy.

If I’m feeling fancy, I still stick to Silver Needle. If I’m feeling fancy but rushed, White Peony takes the cake. If it’s late afternoon, and I’m in my out-of-season holiday pajamas (as I am while writing this), I turn my head toward India. Darjeeling white teas have a resilience to put up with anything – even me.

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