White tea is always tricky for me. I didn’t even attempt to approach it until after I had gotten a temperature-control kettle to more easily try different temps/steep times. At its best, silver needle is one of my favorite teas of all time. But again, it’s tricky. Finding and brewing silver needle “at its best” has been a confusing and frustrating journey.
I’ve had some pretty bad looking silver needle in the past that could occasionally be coaxed into some really great cups o’ tea, even if most of my attempts resulted in bitter astringent abominations. I’ve had really great looking silver needle that seemingly could only result in either bland water or a cup of sour vegetables.
So when I saw a major sale on Adagio’s “Master’s Collection” Silver Needle, I jumped on it. Sure, it’s still the most delicate tea in my rapidly-growing collection and I have ended up with some lackluster cups here and there (mostly while figuring out the best approach). But regardless of my missteps, this is a superb white tea. Every time I feel fancy enough to make a cup, I remember why I’ve gone through so much trouble to find a truly great silver needle.
First off, the tea is beautiful (as long as you look close enough, explained in a sec). Unbroken jade green buds covered in fine white hairs. When I first opened the tin, I actually thought that it was a bit too pale and maybe stale – then I looked a little closer and realized that it was so completely covered by the white hairs that I wasn’t even seeing the true color of the leaf buds! There were a handful of little green/brown leaf pieces throughout the tin, which is really my one complaint since this is supposed to be super premium AAA+++ grade and all that.
The dry tea itself smells incredibly fresh and herbal – like dumping your whole spice cabinet onto a freshly cut lawn. This is probably the best smelling tea I’ve encountered.
After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that 160-165F seems to be the sweet spot for this tea. Even getting up to 167-170 or so has brought out some astringency for me. I start with 2.5 minutes and add 30 seconds for each subsequent steeping. Usually this gives me 3-4 great cups before getting bland. Occasionally subsequent steepings get way overdone just from that additional 30 seconds. Occasionally the re-steeping barely works and I have to put the leaves back in for some additional flavor. But this has given me the best results on average, which is all I can hope. I’m starting to suspect that white tea all has a mind of its own.
Now what about the drink!? I’ve been rambling on for a while, but this is the important part. Aside from the occasional (seemingly random) bad steeping, this is exactly what I look for in a white tea.
The brewed tea, like the dry material, is beautiful when you take the time to look. At first glance, it looks almost like nothing steeped at all. But once you take more than a glance, there’s a very slight yellow-gray tint to this “plain water”, maybe even a pink hue. Light seems to reflect more readily off of the surface. Upon even closer inspection, you suddenly realize that there is an army of little glistening flecks of light dancing throughout the brew – the same shimmering white hairs that made the buds so beautiful!
The tea is so smooth it’s almost like sipping very silky air. Occasionally I’ll get an edge of astringency, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Again, it wouldn’t be a white tea if it wasn’t nearly impossible to “get it right” all the time.
The flavor is always a slightly different mix of the same tastes – sweet vegetables, rosemary, grass – like sipping a cup of springtime where the whether changes from day to day. It’s sweeter than any white tea I’ve had yet, but it’s a very understated sweetness that doesn’t at all get in the way of that herbal fresh white tea flavor. It’s incredibly refreshing and worth slurping to experience all of these tastes float in and out of focus.
This tea perfectly captures that unique essence that only white tea can provide. It can play tricks, it has its off days, but it is hands down the best silver needle I’ve ever tasted. If you have the patience for it, I strongly recommend.