Silver Needle is a classic white tea from China, but also one of its most misunderstood teas. In this article, get to know Silver Needle and learn how to identify and brew it with confidence.
Common Names: Silver Needle, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, 白毫銀針
Profile: Crisp, energizing character with fruity, floral and sun-dried hay notes
Region: China (Fujian Province; Yunnan Province)
Silver Needle is one of those teas that you can really fall in love with on first sight. It’s a gorgeous tea, with beautiful, downy white buds that sparkle a little in the light, and in the early days of my tea journey I was infatuated with it.
In tea terms (and real life terms, too) I was young, dumb, and easily impressed, so when I saw my first Silver Needle at a Teavana I was doomed. It came with a hefty price tag and a backstory that involved emperors, monks, and secluded mountain monasteries in China, and the salesfolks did me in good. It seemed too cool, too rare to pass up.
I walked outta there with a fat tin of overly expensive tea that I didn’t understand, and looking back now, what I really bought into was the story – not the tea.
And when you have a tea that’s as iconic and famous as Silver Needle, it gets hyped up a lot for marketing purposes. Even in China it’s a tea that people often reserve for gifts and special guests, a status symbol that’s not so commonly enjoyed just for the sake of tea itself.
Because of all that hype, there’s a lot that’s misunderstood about Silver Needle. In this article, get to know the tea behind the romance, and learn how to get the most out of this elegant but energizing tea.
What is Silver Needle?
Silver Needle is a traditional Chinese white tea with subtle, elegant flavors. It’s considered to be the highest grade of white tea in China: the process to make it is expensive and time-consuming.
Unlike most other teas, which can be made with both the leaves and buds of the tea plant, Silver Needle is made with just the buds. These buds are tiny and weigh very little, so it takes thousands upon thousands to make one pound of Silver Needle.
These buds, also known as tips, contain the highest levels of caffeine and antioxidants on the plant. That translates into energy AND flavor: when brewed up, a good Silver Needle is crisp and lively, with a surprisingly punchy energy.
This can come as a surprise if you’ve heard that white tea has the least caffeine of all teas – “Just 1% the caffeine of a cup of coffee!” is the common tag line. In fact, Silver Needle can contain some of the highest levels of caffeine per cup.
There’s another misconception that Silver Needle is a fragile tea that requires cool water to brew. The idea is that the buds are so delicate and ethereal, they’d be scorched by boiling water. To the contrary: by nature’s design, these buds are tender but tough, and it takes near boiling water to get these buds to open up.
Brew this tea right, though, and we can access the best of what Silver Needle has to offer. Silver Needle can come in a surprising range of flavors, light, floral and a little creamy, to more wild, herbaceous, and almost peppery. Common tasting notes include apricot, melon, hay, toasted nut, and marshmallow.
The exact flavor profile depends on how you brew the tea, and on which style of Silver Needle you select.
Nowadays, there are many regions that produce Silver Needle, even outside of China, but there are two main styles: the sweet, refined Fujian Silver Needle and its more wild, unruly cousin, Yunnan Silver Needle.
Types of Silver Needle
Fujian Silver Needle
Of the two styles of Silver Needle, Fujian Silver Needle tends to be more restrained and balanced. The flavor is soft and smooth, with common notes of hay, apricot, vanilla bean and light florals. It tends to be light on texture, with a crisp mouthfeel and a slightly dry finish.
Fujian Silver Needle is produced in Fujian Province, a temperate region with a long history of tea production. It’s known as the birthplace of white tea, and some in China consider Fujian Silver Needle to be the only authentic style.
Silver Needle has been made there since at least the early 1800s, and over many generations the local teamakers have developed a deep knowledge of the tea. Specific tea plants are used to produce the best white teas possible, with particularly thick, downy buds.
As a result, Fujian Silver Needle tends to look very consistent, with downy, thick buds and a silvery, pale green color.
Within Fujian Province you’ll find many distinct tea-making areas. Each has its own unique microclimate, culture, and tea-making techniques, so no one place makes tea the same way.
That’s given rise to two subtypes of Fujian Silver Needle: Fuding, and Zhenghe. Fuding Silver Needle tends to be more light, sweet, and fruity, with a character like creamy oats. Zhenghe Silver Needle tends to be more deep, herbaceous, and satisfying, with a pleasant aftertaste.
The two types often look very similar, but there are some differences. Fuding Silver Needle is often the more “pretty” tea, with plump, even buds and a bright, pale green color. On the other hand, Zhenghe Silver Needle tends to have thinner buds with a dark, olive-green color due to a longer processing time (and higher levels of oxidation).
Zhenghe Silver Needle can also sometimes have a savory, slightly smoky character. Perhaps this is influenced by nearby Wuyishan, an area known for producing dark roasted oolongs.
It’s not uncommon for teamakers to trade techniques or to produce batches in neighboring regions, so tea is constantly evolving! It can be fascinating to taste that evolution in the cup.
Yunnan Silver Needle
Yunnan Silver Needle is produced in Yunnan Province, a region known primarily for pu’erh. The landscape is warm, wild and often tropical, which gives rise to bold, punchy teas. For those used to subtle white teas, Yunnan Silver Needle can be a bit of a surprise.
Compared to Fujian Silver Needle, Yunnan Silver Needle packs some strong, exotic flavors, with common notes of fragrant wood, malt, wildflowers, melon, and pepper. The buds are sight to see, too: huge, extremely downy (like a puppy, but drinkable), and incredibly aromatic.
If the jumbo buds aren’t a dead giveaway for Yunnan Silver Needle, look for a yellow tint with black undertones, a result of higher heat and oxidation.
These huge buds are a characteristic of Yunnan’s tea plants, which are mostly big leaf varietals. These offer potent flavors but sometimes more bitterness, so Yunnan Silver Needle tends to be more sensitive to brew.
Yunnan Province doesn’t focus on white tea production either, so processing can be less consistent than in Fujian Province. Tea quality can vary wildly depending on the producer, the region, and the tea plants used.
One of the most reliable origins for Yunnan Silver Needle is Jinggu, a mountainous region with a temperate climate.
Cool, high mountain environments can help develop the subtle flavors that work well for white teas, so Jinggu is an ideal growing region. It’s known for another famous white tea, Moonlight White (Yue Guang Bai).
Jinggu Silver Needle often has a honey-like sweetness and a lush floral aroma, with a thick silky texture that makes the tea quite satisfying.
Aged Silver Needle
Silver Needle is awesome to drink when fresh, but like other teas, it can be aged too!
It’s undeniable that fresh Silver Needle has this lively, vibrant character that you can’t find anywhere else. As simple as white tea processing is, Silver Needle offers the pure essence of the tea plant, with more vibrant notes of florals and fresh-cut grass. This character eventually evens out over the next 1-2 years.
On the flipside, some people prefer the taste of aged Silver Needle. When fresh, Silver Needle can be a little too crisp and grassy, and a few years can help develop a more mellow flavor and new complexity, with hints of citrus and baking spice. This distinct character can’t be found anywhere else, either, so it’s all a matter of preference and experimentation.
When aged, Silver Needles develop a more reddish, almost rusty tint to the leaves. The liquor will also brew up darker, with a rich, burnt orange tone, and any bitterness or roughness in the tea becomes more subdued.
Aged Silver Needle can be found in loose-leaf form, or more rarely in compressed cakes, which make them easier to stack and store for aging. In China, some folks will store white tea specifically for medicinal purposes, although other grades of white tea are more commonly used, like White Peony and Shou Mei.
Comparatively speaking, Silver Needle is not aged as often. The buds tend to stay more stable over time, so the change you’ll see in an aged Silver Needle is not as dramatic as in an aged White Peony of the same age.
Still, the tea will not go stale as long as the right storage conditions are there (mostly airtight with no exposure to light or odors, ideally in a large batch), and it’s worthwhile to keep a batch of Silver Needle on hand and see what happens.
What about Silver Needle from other regions?
China isn’t the only region to produce bud-only white teas. Other countries like India, Nepal, Indonesia, and Kenya have begun to create their own Silver Needle-style white teas, which offer an exciting exploration into new flavor profiles and terroirs.
However, it’s arguable that tea plants, processing styles, and environment are so different outside China that any new bud-only white teas shouldn’t be categorized as Silver Needle. For example, Chinese Silver Needle is made from a specific cultivar, Da Bai, with downy buds and sweet, crisp flavors. Would the Nepalese “Silver Needle” below offer the same experience, when it’s using completely different plant materials?
Even visually, the thin buds of this Nepalese white tea suggest a much different flavor profile than Silver Needle. They open up the possibility of completely new teas, without the need to become a Silver Needle mimic.
In any case, these other regions haven’t produced enough Silver Needle to define a new subtype, so for now, we can focus our discussion on classic Chinese Silver Needle.
How It’s Made: Processing
White tea, including Silver Needle, is often said to be the most simple of all teas, which is true in terms of processing. In short terms, the raw tea leaves are picked, sorted, withered, and then dried. The aim of white tea is to capture the pure essence of the tea plant with minimal change.
However, because of the simple processing, the leaves used to make white tea must be very high quality. It’s a little like cooking: the simpler the dish, the better the ingredients need to be, allowing quality ingredients to really shine.
It may take many more steps to make oolong tea, but that also means there’s space to cover up some mistakes: damaged leaves or bad processing can be hidden underneath a roast, for example. If a teamaker tries to cut corners with a Silver Needle, though, there’s no turning back: that will show through in the cup.
To make Silver Needle, it’s ideal to use a tea plant with larger buds, hence the classic Da Bai (Big White), Da Hao (Big Tip) cultivars which are used in China. Imagine trying to make a Silver Needle with tea plants that have very spindly buds – it’d take a lot of buds, and it would become extremely expensive!
Depending on the cultivar, a pound of Silver Needle can contain several thousands of buds, so it’s a laborious process. It’s easy to cut corners and try to make Silver Needle with a little bit of leaf still attached, to increase the weight of the tea, but high quality Silver Needle is made from buds only.
It requires a lot of skill from tea pickers to pick the right leaves precisely, avoiding any with physical damage or discoloration, and picking gently as to not harm the tea plant. If the leaves are picked with too much force, or with a sharp surface like a fingernail or metal shears, oxidation begins to happen prematurely, which changes the flavor of the tea and increases bitterness.
If the first leaf is retained to make tea, the result is White Peony, another classic white tea with a stronger flavor and thicker texture. Using the lower leaves results in Shou Mei, an even more full-bodied white tea. See below to compare Silver Needle, White Peony, and Shou Mei leaves.
How To Pick a Silver Needle
Silver Needle is a tea with a reputation, and like many other famous teas, finding a good batch for the right price can be tricky. There’s only so much good Silver Needle to go around, and the demand is higher than the supply, so there’s a lot of mid-grade and low-grade Silver Needle out there that’s being marketed as the real deal. What should we be looking for?
For any Silver Needle, the tea should be made up of mostly buds with as little leaves and extra stems as possible.
Look for relatively straight, unbroken buds: this means that the tea pickers were extremely careful during the harvest, and that the tea was withered and dried evenly.
The tea should also have minimal breakage. If the buds are broken during processing, they release bitter tannins, which ends up making our tea taste dry and unpleasant. Another tell of broken buds is a dark tea liquor. Typically, lower grade Silver Needle has an almost orange, cloudy liquor, while higher grades look clear and translucent in the cup.
Good Fujian Silver Needle is almost always silvery-green; a yellow color hints at too much heat during processing, resulting in a flat, sharp taste. On the other hand, Yunnan Silver Needle is often a little yellowish, so focus more on the consistency of the buds.
Aged Silver Needle is a little more tricky. You’ll want to purchase something that’s properly matured, not just stale and relabeled!
Aged Silver Needle should have a reddish tone in the buds, a sign of stable age, but this can also be caused by exposure to light. If possible, test the buds for texture; they should be slightly more dry than a fresh Silver Needle, but not too brittle or crunchy. The buds should also still have a pleasant, sweet aroma.
If the tea feels super brittle or lacks aroma, it’s stored poorly and not worth the effort.
Another tell of a good Silver Needle is the price range. The average going-rate (Early 2019) is around $15-$20/oz for a high quality Fujian Silver Needle, and around $6-$10/oz for Yunnan Silver Needle. A particularly high grade, early pick Silver Needle or a reputable aged Silver Needle could fetch even higher prices.
Fujian Silver Needle tends to be a lot more pricey thanks to its reputation, so buyer beware: the more valuable the tea, the more incentive for fakes. Yunnan Silver Needle is less often faked, thanks to the large production area and lower demand. In either case, purchase tea from a trusted vendor or try to sample first.
The more that a vendor is willing to share about a tea (minus a romantic story), the better. It’s a show of confidence in the tea, and of knowledge on the part of your vendor.
Finally, the ultimate test of a good tea is in the brew. It’s a general rule of thumb that the better the tea, the more forgiving it is to brew: that is, if you hit your Silver Needle with boiling water for a couple of minutes, it shouldn’t crash and burn into a bitter, hot mess.
The best teas stay sweet and friendly even with boiling water, while lower grade teas (with all that breakage and poor processing!) tend to be much more finicky.
And about that boiling water: let’s talk about how to get the best from your Silver Needle with the right brewing techniques.
How to Brew Silver Needle
When you’re learning how to brew a tea, it’s important not to rely on the instructions on the label. They’re a fair guide, but just like in cooking, the magic happens when you understand (1) how the ingredients really work, and (2) what you can do to bring the best out of them.
That’s especially important for Silver Needle, a bud-only white tea. Tea buds look delicate, but they’re surprisingly tough – the quicker we can understand them, the better we can brew Silver Needle for maximum flavor.
Our biggest challenge is that pesky myth that white tea is so delicate, it must only be brewed in cool water. This is the bane of Silver Needle, because the buds are covered in a layer of downy white hairs.
In nature, these white hairs protect the buds from physical damage and bug bites, so they’re actually pretty resilient. Cool water isn’t enough to get those buds to open up.
In reality, it takes pretty hot water – at least 195° F (90° C) – to properly brew Silver Needle. High quality Silver Needle will do just fine with boiling water. The hotter the better to get those buds opened up, and releasing as much flavor as possible. Start with a 1 minute infusion, and adjust the time thereafter for taste.
Make sure to pour evenly over the buds to submerge them under water if possible, or gently push the buds into the water with the lid of a gaiwan or tea tool. Some buds will end up floating, thanks to air pockets trapped between the white hairs, but we want to infuse the all the buds evenly to achieve a nice, balanced flavor.
I usually don’t like pouring boiling water directly on tea leaves, since they get scorched, but Silver Needle seems to take the heat pretty well.
If you do find that your Silver Needle performs poorly under heat, then it may be a lower quality tea. Again, broken buds (and any kind of breakage in the leaves) translates into bitterness and sourness, so turning up the heat just helps us identify a bad apple in our tea closet sooner rather than later.
Another thing to remember with Silver Needle is that it’s high on volume, but low on weight. (Just think about how tiny your floofy cat or dog gets right after a shower.) A spoonful of Silver Needle might look like a lot, but it’s actually not much by weight.
In general, we want around 3-5 grams of tea per 100 mL of water when brewing gongfu style, or around 2 grams per 100mL when brewing Western style.
Use twice the amount you think is needed, or better yet, actually weigh the tea so you can get an idea of how the volume matches with the actual weight.
Check out the picture for an idea of how Silver Needle measures up on a scale, and in comparison to more heavy tea leaves.
It becomes apparent where Silver Needle’s reputation for being too bland or weak comes from: tea sessions where folks couldn’t experience its full potential, whether by using water that’s not hot enough, or from not using enough leaf, or both.
With these basics in mind, don’t be afraid to tease out the hidden flavors in your batch of Silver Needle.
Cold Brewing Silver Needle
Because white tea is picked and very minimally processed, it has a tendency to be pretty high in caffeine, so be aware of this before brewing up a batch right before bed. Silver Needle is a great tea in the morning before breakfast, or for when you need to get a ton of work or studying done.
To enjoy Silver Needle with a little less caffeine, you can cold-brew the tea by infusing the leaves in good quality water, around 15g – 30g (0.5oz – 1oz) per liter of water. The thick buds take longer than other types of tea to infuse in water, so give your cold-brew some time to open up – at least 8-12 hours, and up to 48 hours in the fridge.
The flavor will be even more refined, sweetly fragrant, and juicy than a hot brew, and because caffeine is less efficiently released with cooler temperatures, you have a naturally smoother, less caffeinated brew.
Just be sure to use decent quality water for a cold-brew. Water quality is always important for tea, but it’s especially important for a cold-brew since any off-tastes in the water will show through clearly in the flavor.
It’s important to have the right brewing vessels that can highlight our teas, in both practical and aesthetic ways. Silver Needle offers a beautiful visual experiences and some fantastic aromas and flavors, so be sure to pick teaware that emphasizes these aspects.
A favorite for Silver Needle in China is a glass teapot – it’s a great choice to enjoy the beautiful buds dancing in the water, and to show off the clear, sparkling color of the tea.
To highlight flavor and aroma, choose a light-colored porcelain or ceramic vessel, especially a gaiwan. Porcelain heightens the aroma of the tea and doesn’t disrupt the flavor (certain glazes can turn teas sour), and a light color can help show off the appearance of the tea.
Porous clay pots, like many Yixing pots, are often a poor match for fresh Silver Needle. Clay pots usually work best with teas that could use some mellowing out or enhancing, which Silver Needle definitely does not – it’s a bright, lively tea on its own, and most clay pots would take away from the aroma and high notes of the tea.
Do experiment though, as clay pots are incredibly diverse. I’d lean towards a hard clay that’s not as porous, like Zhuni or Tokoname clay, since these tend to preserve the fragrance of teas much better.
Aged Silver Needle may be a better match for clay pots, since it develops a deep, rustic flavor over time. Aged tea becomes less about the aroma, and more about the feeling and texture of the tea.
Finally, choose the right teacups, as this is the final step before you or your guests sip the tea. Silver Needle seems to perform well with porcelain cups with a bell shape or medium-tall profile, which make it easier to enjoy the scent of the tea. However, to enhance the texture, certain thin, shallow cups can work well to double-up on the silky, creamy aspects in Silver Needle.
Avoid dark color cups unless specifically needed for your setup: they are a poor match for the light, ethereal character of the white tea, and fail to showcase the beautiful color and clarity of Silver Needle. Different cups will change the tea’s flavor profile in subtle ways, so pick carefully.
Silver Needle is a strikingly beautiful tea with a nice story, but when given the chance, it has so much to deliver. Experience the essence of the tea plant at its most pure, or use Silver Needle to incite the curiosity of new tea friends.
Enjoy and please leave any questions or comments below!
Many thanks to white tea specialist Ross Allman for peer-reviewing this article.