As I mentioned in the last entry, in the world of Chinese white tea, there are really two primary types of white tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. Since the processing methods (extended withering) are very similar, the main difference between these two teas is which leaves are selected during plucking.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen means "White Hair Silver Needle." The name describes the soft, white down that covers the buds of the tea plant. Many tea drinkers are familiar with Silver Needle tea, which is the classic white tea--it's produced from large, fat tea buds only, which makes it the more expensive of the two white teas. Of course, there are variations in quality between grades of Silver Needle--generally, the larger the buds the better, and the bud should appear green underneath the down as a sign of freshness. Silver Needle has an extremely delicate flavor--like some of our premium Chinese green teas, its flavor will blossom in your mouth a few seconds after sipping, and the aftertaste will continue long after the tea has been swallowed. The flavor is naturally sweet (thanks to the extended withering process), and good Silver Needle tastes to me of fresh hay and honeysuckle--if it's fresh, it also has delicate beany notes. If a Silver Needle tastes smoky, overly nutty, or fishy, it's likely old and has been re-roasted or it had flaws in the initial production. Like most bud-based teas, the best Silver Needle harvests occur in the spring, when the plants put on the most buds.
Bai Mu Dan means "White Peony." Unlike Silver Needle, White Peony is produced from leaf selections that include the bud and the first two leaves. Although the finished leaves tend to be a bit brittle, you can still usually find a few complete leaf sets. The leaves are a pleasure to look at--the leaves are bright green on one side and brown on the other, and the buds, though not as large as those in Silver Needle, are nice and plump. Because fewer buds are used, White Peony is cheaper and often considered an everyday white tea. The inclusion of leaves makes the body quite a bit more robust (and the liquor darker) than the Silver Needles', and the flavor is bolder as well. I think White Peony tastes earthy but sweet, and it's easy to draw a connection between its flavor and Silver Needles'. If it's a nice fresh grade, you'll also notice a nice bean- or pea-like sweetness that lingers especially along the aftertaste.
You may come across a large number of white teas with different names, but they're generally lower grade than these classic teas and less widely-known. We've seen our fair share of "other" white teas at Miro Tea; they generally exhibit some of the flaws I mentioned earlier, and though their names may differ, if you look closely, they're usually of the same appearance as Silver Needle or White Peony, or a combination thereof, which only serves to reinforce the assertion that there are two primary Chinese white tea types!