A delicate and highly-prized white tea from Tea2You
“There are four major types of tea in the world: black, white, green and oolong. Silver needle is a white tea,” says Ratan, owner of specialist tea emporium Tea2You. “Something that makes this different from other teas is that it is with the unopened buds from which the leaves would otherwise emerge, and not the leaves themselves, that the tea is made. It is called silver needle because of the shape and colour of the buds. They are long and thin with pointy ends and are covered in tiny, shimmery white hairs that give the buds a silver appearance.”
It has a fresh, light, grassy taste and looks more like dried grass than traditional tea leaves. For Ratan, there is an aesthetic as well as physical pleasure to drinking silver needle, as it comes in such wonderful colours. “I like making and drinking this tea in a glass teacup, where you can see the tea leaves as well as the wonderful colour of the tea itself.”
Good tea has not got a set brewing time, he reveals—you simply brew it to the strength you like. “All the tea we sell is tannin-free, which means you don’t get that bitterness you can get from some teas when you brew them for too long. With our teas all you get from longer brewing is a more intense flavour,” he explains. “The best way to drink this is definitely without milk or sugar.”
Found at the foothills of the Himalayas, silver needle tea is not particularly rare, as the plant from which it comes grows at low and high altitudes, but there is huge variation in quality. “Silver needle from trees grown at altitude is greatly superior to that which comes from lower altitudes—we only sell the tea from high altitudes here,” says Ratan.
During the drying process, fermentation and oxidation takes place. As well as developing the flavours of the tea, there is a direct correlation between the level of oxidation and the level of caffeine. “Our silver needle tea is only lightly dried in controlled conditions under the sun, as opposed to in industrial drying ovens. This means that it has a short oxidation period and as a result, very low levels of caffeine. This makes it a great bedtime tea.”
There is no season for picking silver needle because of the tea plants’ growing cycle: “Once a leaf has been picked, a new bud will then arrive within five days. To get the best tea you have to let the bud develop for a while and pick it just at the point where it is starting to develop leaves,” Ratan explains. “This is highly skilled work that very few people can do—at most five per cent of tea pickers develop the skills to be good silver needle harvesters. Having developed the skill, these pickers have to set off very early as the buds are best picked at the dewy hours before sunrise when the heat of the tropical sun starts drying out the delicate buds.”
It is very time consuming and 50 kilos of buds will only produce two to three kilos of tea, so there is no escaping it is one of the pricier teas on offer—but Ratan definitely thinks it is worth it. “It is a bit of a treat, but silver needle is a wonderful tea. There is a delicacy about it that’s hard to find in other teas. For me, it is a wonderful part of a late evening wind down ritual at the end of the day.”