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Introduction to Silver Needle or Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫銀針) - White Tea

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

by Katrina Wild



Monthly we will be introducing one type of tea, covering the foundational knowledge about a specific kind of tea. This time, like in a lot of tea tastings, let's start with a leaf of lighter oxidation: white tea and one of the most well-known and prized ones - Silver Needle.

ABOUT
  • English name: White Hair Silver Needle

  • Chinese name: Bai Hao Yin Zhen (báiháo yínzhēn, 白毫銀針)

  • Origin: Fujian Province, China

  • Type of tea: White

  • Plucking standard: Only buds

  • Other countries that now also produce Silver Needle style tea: Kenya, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, etc.

  • Aroma profile: floral, honey-sweet, herbaceous fine fragrance

  • Flavour profile: delicate, sweet, floral, herbal with a potential for deep complexity


WHITE TEA

White tea, known as bái chá (白茶) in Chinese, has a rich history that dates back to the Song dynasty (960-1279). Initially, it referred to albino tea cultivars, distinct from the white tea we know today. Emperor Huizong of Song celebrated the uniqueness of white tea in his Treatise on Tea (大觀茶論) emphasizing its rarity and exceptional qualities.

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), records of tea-processing methods similar to modern white tea emerged. Grading of Springs for Boiling Tea (煮泉水品) instructed sun-drying as opposed to fire-drying became a key element in white tea production, a tradition that continues today.

Legend has it that the ancestor tree of today's white tea grew inside a cave on Taimu Mountain, used as a medicine for treating measles. It was originally known as "Lu Xue Ya" (綠雪芽, "green snow bud"), later renamed "Bai Hao" (白毫, "white fuzz").

There are two major areas of white tea production in Fujian province: Fuding and Zhenghe. Other teas that belong to classical Chinese white teas are Bai Mu Dan (White Peony; 白牡丹; One or two leaves and a bud), Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow; 貢眉; Two or three leaves and a bud), Shou Mei (Longevous Eyebrow; 壽眉; mostly large leaves). Worth noting is Yunnan's renowned Yue Guang Bai (White Moonlight; 月光白), as well as the category of pressed white tea and aged white tea.

SILVER NEEDLE


The finest white tea, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, is made solely from buds covered with white fuzz, giving it the name Silver Needle. Harvested only in early spring, it takes 70,000 to 80,000 tips to produce just 1 kg of this exclusive tea. With its delicate, and sweet profile, the silvery white pekoe imparts a light umami taste and a unique herbal fine fragrance called haoxiang (毫香). Whiter and more downy buds signify higher quality and stronger haoxiang. Despite its light character, Silver Needle is high in caffeine, L-theanine, and polyphenols since the younger buds have concentrated amounts of goodness as they have to bring new leaves to life after winter slumber. In China, hot white tea is drunk particularly during intense humid heat, because it is known to lower the body temperature.

PROCESSING

Only the bud is hand-picked when it sprouts and flushes before opening up to become a leaf in early spring. Typically, in Fujian province, the large leaf cultivar named Da Bai (Zhenghe Da Bai and Fuding Da Bai; “Big White”) is used, which has very thick and juicy buds. Other cultivars like Da Hao (“Big Hair”), Fujian's Quntizhong (seed-grown heirloom bushes), wild endemic tea plants like in Yunnan, and more unusual cultivars like Shui Xian or Mei Zhan (typically used for oolong production) are also creatively employed. After picking, the leaves are withered and gently dried, a simple process and yet deceptively detailed as the farmer has to work closely with the weather and environmental conditions to make a good tea.

HOW TO CHOOSE GOOD SILVER NEEDLE

To ensure you're selecting fine Silver Needle, prioritise bud-dominant compositions with minimal leaves and stems, seek straight, unbroken buds for meticulous processing to avoid bitterness, insist on uniform bud colour, and opt for teas producing clear, pale gold liquor, steering clear of cloudy brews. Look for a sweet, soft, and smooth flavour profile, as dark, cloudy, sour, or bitter teas indicate lower quality.

CHINESE TERROIRS OF SILVER NEEDLE

Fujian Silver Needle, the classic choice and the golden standard, offers a balanced and elegant profile with hints of hay, apricot, vanilla, and florals. Within Fujian, explore Fuding (plump, downy buds) for a lighter, sweeter, fruity variant, or opt for Zhenghe (thin, dark buds) for a deeper, herbaceous, sometimes smoky and savoury flavour. Yunnan Silver Needle (big and downy buds), originating in the pu'erh-rich province, boasts bolder fragrances of wood, malt, florals, fruit, and pepper. Yunnan's mountainous Jinggu area with its local da ye zhong tea plants creates a particularly interesting infusion with a perfumey, floral aroma and then a honey-like sweetness.

SILVER NEEDLE FROM TERROIRS OUTSIDE OF CHINA

While regions outside of China do produce bud-only white teas, there's a debate over whether they can truly be called "Silver Needle" as the variety refers to a tea originating from Fujian, encompassing the unique cultivars, processing techniques, and growing environment found there. Despite the nomenclature, you'll find bud-only white teas from India, Nepal, Indonesia, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and other countries under the Silver Needle category. Each of these regions offers exciting potential for white teas, but it's essential to approach them as distinct and unique and not merely imitations of Chinese Silver Needle.

AGED SILVER NEEDLE


“First year, tea; Third year, medicine; Seventh year, treasure." - Chinese Proverb


When white tea buds age, they develop a reddish tint and produce a darker orange-toned liquor. Upon successful aging conditions, the process smooths out bitterness or roughness, imparting more deep complexity and a distinct flavor reminiscent of dried fruit, honey, and baking spice. While some prefer the sweet and creamy qualities of fresh white tea, aged Silver Needle not only matures in flavor but also enhances its medicinal properties.


TEA SOMMELIER
PREPARATION TIPS:
  • Brewing temperature: 80-90°C (176-194°F);

  • Classical “gong fu” brewing in a glass teapot or porcelain gaiwan;

  • Rougher surface porous materials don't do so well, although clays like from Tokoname and Nosaka and some woodfired vessels also can work;

  • European style brewing in bigger size teapots: 5 to 10 min or more depending on the infusion strength desired (subject to water and leaf proportions);

  • "Long drink" glass to observe the leaves dancing in the water (“grandpa style”);

  • Cold brew.

PAIRING TIPS:
  • Bai Hao Yin Zhen goes well with dried fruit and dishes that are mild and either savoury or sweet with milky tones, such as rice pudding, steamed tofu, etc.


REFERENCES

Gautier, Lydia & Danies, Joelle. (2018). Portraits de thés: Voyage dans 40 pays producteurs.

Ksepana. Everything You Need to Know About Silver Needle White Tea. [online] Available HERE.

Mei Leaf. How to Choose Silver Needle Tea. [online] Available HERE.

Miranda, Elizabeth. (2020). How do Heirloom Tea Cultivars Affect the Price of Tea? [online] Seven Cups. Available HERE.

Tea Curious. The In-Depth Guide to Silver Needle White Tea. [online] Available HERE.

Teakruthi. (2018). What’s so special about ‘Silver Needle’ Ceylon white tea? [online] Available HERE.

Yung, Catherine. Needles, Peonies & Moonlight: The Story of White Tea.




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