White tea is made from the same plants that are used to make green and black tea, Camellia sinensis. The difference between white tea and green is that white tea is harvested much sooner, just as the first buds and leaves appear on the plant. Historically, white tea is considered to have become popular during the Song Dynasty, beginning in 960 CE.
Initially the drink made from white tea was considered the province of emperors and the royalty. They invariably drank a version of the tea made from the buds only. Less “important” people might drink white tea made from the first leaves of the plant.
Today, white tea made from buds is still considered the most luxurious form of the tea. It is thus far more expensive than variants including the leaves. Yinzhen, Bai Hao Yin Zhen or Silver Needle white tea is still the finest grade of tea, and will cost a significant amount. A pound (.45 g) usually costs at least 50 US dollars (USD).
Less expensive white tea can certainly be purchased. In fact, companies like Lipton are now marketing white tea made from leaves. Traditional varieties in China often use a mixture of bud and leaf, or of leaves alone, like Shou Mei. Generally the white tea from only leaves is stronger in taste than tea made from bud and leaf combined.
Silver Needle tea has been described as tasting clear, sweet, and mellow. Teas like Shou Mei usually share the same taste but are generally stronger and sweeter. Most white teas are amber in appearance, but Shou Mei tends to be slightly darker when prepared.
There are a few white teas that are non-traditional and are produced in India. Both Ceylon and Darjeeling white tea are extremely popular and may be far more expensive than black Ceylon and Darjeeling. These, too, may come in numerous grades depending upon what part of the leaf or bud is used.
White tea has recently gained in popularity in the Western world because of its antioxidant benefits. Green tea has already been shown to possibly minimize risk for certain forms of cancer. In studies on rats, white tea delayed development or even killed stomach cancer cells. These studies and others have created a high demand for white tea, which is mainly being met by large tea resellers. There have been few studies, which examine whether the different grades of white tea or processing methods might render the tea less or more effective.
One study on white tea, however, should put those with stomach problems on alert. White and green tea may actually inflame the lining of a stomach, which is called gastritis. Those with previous bouts of gastritis are most susceptible to this side effect.