One of the most common things I hear about white tea is that, since it's made from tender tea buds, it should be brewed at a lower temperature--around 160º to 170º Fahrenheit. Lately, though, I've heard murmurings from a number of sources that white tea is not actually as fragile as some Western sources would have us believe.
To challenge the popular notions about white tea brewing, I decided to try an experiment of my own: I brewed our Silver Needle tea at three different temperatures--170º, 190º, and 200º, each for 4 minutes, and a fourth cup at 200º for 2 minutes, in case the 4 minute cup was too strong.
The results were pretty surprising--none of the cups exhibited any of the bitterness associated with, say, an over-brewed green or oolong tea. At 170º (the cup on the far right) the tea is almost predictably light--silky smooth, with flavor that fills your mouth gradually after several sips. At 190º (second in from the right), the flavor is much more up-front, registering in all parts of the mouth at the very outset of the drinking experience, and lingering much longer. Additionally, the body is significantly fuller and the cup color significantly darker. At 200º, the flavor is similar to the 190º cup, if slightly stronger, and the body is full to the point of astringency--after sipping, I can definitely get the slightest hint of a "too much flavor" bitterness, but it isn't uncomfortable. It turned out that the 2 minute 200º cup was not really necessary--the 4 minute steep was not unpleasant, and 2 minutes was too short.
What surprised me the most was that the three teas were really not that different in flavor or body, despite a 30º temperature variation. Body-wise, the 170º cup produced the most pleasant experience, but the 190º cup wins the flavor prize hands-down. After contemplating why it could be that white tea is much more resilient to very hot water than its green tea counterparts, my hypothesis is that the slight oxidation produced by the tea's extended withering must be the key. That slight chemical change produced by the tea's enzymes likely takes the edge off those "greener" aspects of the tea buds, altering the bitter and tannic elements that come out with really hot water. For gong fu brewing of white tea, I'd definitely recommend using hotter water to extract bold flavor bit by bit, revealing a variety of characteristics from the buds. This experiment also reminded me of one of the most important aspects of tea preparation--experimentation is key, and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to brewing tea! Some tea vendors pass down brewing recommendations like they're set in stone, but everyone's tastes vary, and a tiny bit of experimentation with temperature and brewing time could produce a tea that you appreciate much more than the "recommended" method.