White tea is the youngest and most delicate
Green tea, black tea, and oolong are generally made out of the leaves of the plant. But white tea, that one’s special.
“White tea is the little baby buds,” says Hattie. “If you can imagine a fuzzy little pea shoot, that's what a tea plant looks like when it's just starting to be picked. Only the very first pick of the year can be considered really good quality white tea. You just pluck them between your fingers. It kind of looks like a tiny little butterfly pod or something. You pick that, and then process it similar to green tea.”
Because it’s plucked at such a young stage and undergoes little if any oxidation, white tea is prized for its soft, fresh-from-the-garden flavor and aroma.
Caffeine levels are relative
When it comes to figuring out which variety will give you the most pep in your step, looks can be deceiving.
“A lot of people associate black tea with being high in caffeine, but pound per pound it's really not,” reveals Hattie. “Most tea companies in the West use a method called CTC or Cut-Tear-Curl, where the tea is basically ground up into the fineness of a tobacco, with all the leaves broken up into really small pieces. That makes for a much more intense steep and a really intense brew, but it’s just because there's more leaves to water. When people drink green tea, it's oftentimes the whole leaf, so you effectively get a little bit less caffeine but that’s because of surface area, not necessarily true caffeine content.”
Tea is loaded with healthy antioxidants
“All tea does contain antioxidants, but white, green, and black teas have different amounts,” Hattie says. “Green tea and white tea are highest in things like epigallocatechin or ECGC, which is a really potent antioxidant that you see in extracts and supplements.”
ECGC is a catechin, a type of phenolic compound that’s markedly high in antioxidant activity and therefore associated with a whole host of human health benefits, including improved cardiovascular and immune system functioning. Oolong and black tea are more heavily processed than their lighter siblings, so they’re considered to have slightly lower antioxidant levels, namely less ECGC, by the time they land in our cupboards.
But try not to get carried away with the health benefits
“In terms of health claims, you do have to be a little bit careful,” Hattie advises. “Tea is definitely good for you, but sometimes you go on these health forums and they'll be like, ‘Oh, this tea cures cancer.’ It's like, ‘Well, let's take this with a grain of salt.’”
Little known fact: Boiling water is not always best.
“If you want to improve your tea experience, experiment brewing with different water temperatures,” Hattie says. “So often when you go to a fast food place or restaurant and ask for anything other than black tea, it's horrible. Like if you go to Tim Horton's for a green tea, it's pretty miserable. You’re thinking, ‘Why would anyone ever drink this?’
“But the truth is when you brew tea with different water temperatures, you bring out different aspects in the tea. Green tea actually burns really easily -- the leaves are really delicate because they haven't been processed very much. So when you steep it in boiling water right off the stove, you're drawing out more of the tannins and more of the caffeine, all these dry and bitter elements, which is not what you want. You want these sweet vegetal notes, asparagus and steamed greens, things like that. With cooler water, say around like 80 or 85 degrees Celsius, you get all those nice components.
“Same thing for oolong, which usually brews really nicely between 85 to 90 degrees Celsius. Basically, the darker your roast is, the hotter you want your water. Something like a black tea, boiling water fresh off the stove is all good. You can boil the shit out of that stuff and it will still taste how it's supposed to taste. But for white tea or green tea, something more delicate, a cooler water temperature will really bring out the character.”