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Last Updated: Friday, 24 September, 2004, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
White tea - pick of the crop

By Chloe Arnold
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Teas at Sri Lanka plantation
White tea comes from the uppermost buds of the tea plant

It is 6.30am on the Kataboola tea estate and six women in waterproof aprons are getting ready to start their day.

They tie white muslin cloths around their heads and pull on soft cotton gloves.

Then they shoulder wicker baskets painted silver and, laughing and jostling with each other, they head up the misty hillside to start picking the leaves that make the world's most expensive tea.

First there was black tea, then came green tea and then the fruit and herbal varieties.

But for true connoisseurs, the Rolls-Royce of cuppas is white tea, comprised of the uppermost tender buds of the tea plant.


"Essentially there are four types of teas," says Udaya Karunaratne, a senior tea buyer, as he sips a cup of Broken Orange Pekoe, his personal brew of choice.

Teas at Sri Lanka plantation
The white tea is never touched by an ungloved hand

"There are the black teas, oolong or semi-fermented teas, green teas, which are non-fermented. And on the extreme end of the scale are the white teas."

Mr Karunaratne says that what makes white tea so exclusive - beloved in the past of English kings and Japanese emperors - is the painstaking process it requires to produce it.

To start with, the tips are harvested exclusively by hand. Or rather glove, because until it reaches your teapot, white tea never comes into contact with human skin.

Sometimes white teas are referred to as "silver tips".

"They are extremely pale in colour," Mr Karunaratne says.

"A silverish white, with the odd few blue undertones sometimes. Or some pale green highlights."

Natural fermentation

At the Kataboola estate factory, the manager, Upali Premalal, tenderly spreads the white tea leaves out on wooden trays.

Teas at Sri Lanka plantation
The tea must dry naturally, not in machines

While black tea is poured into industrial drying machines, white tea must dry naturally in the sun.

"That's the limited quantity that we got yesterday," he says, indicating a small heap of superior-looking leaves.

"Now we'll put them out for natural fermentation, where the leaves become a little more mellow and pungent. They'll rest here for about five hours to get that nice character."

Mr Premalal's plantation produces about 20 tonnes of black tea every week and a maximum of just five kilograms of the white variety.

But who is he selling it to?

"It'll be mostly the high class when they have socials or get-togethers," Mr Premalal says.

"For example the Japanese, the Russians or the English. Serving a silver tea is very prestigious. It makes the entire ceremony successful."


To find out what it tastes like, I caught up with Rajiv Mathangaweera, a tea taster in the capital, Colombo.

Teas at Sri Lanka plantation
Mellow yellow: the brew (bottom) has "fine, subtle fragrances"

He polishes his special tea-tasting spoon - no one but he is allowed to touch it, he confides - and slurps a little of the pale gold brew into his mouth.

"This is a very mellow, very good quality white tea," he says. "This really is a brilliant brew."

White tea is drunk straight, he explains - no milk, no sugar. That would simply be sacrilege, like adding Coca-Cola to a single malt whisky.

"Anything you add would just mask and cloud the very fine, subtle fragrances," he says.

"White tea reflects a lifestyle. It's not a brew that one would drink in a hurry."

And it's not a brew that comes cheap, either.

While black tea costs $3 per kg wholesale, white tea costs $250. And at a retail price of more than $1,200 per kg, it certainly will not be everyone's cup of tea.

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