It has been a while since we last talked about white tea. Usually, if you come to the store and ask about white tea, I’d give a very brief introduction stating that white tea is one of the easier teas to make.
Of course, this is an oversimplified description. In agriculture, especially tea-making, nothing is truly easy and simple. The overall tea-making of white tea is straightforward by comparison, but the techniques employed can be rather complex.
Today, let’s discuss some very detailed techniques used in white tea’s withering process.
White tea’s withering is not just about reducing the water content in fresh leaves. If we analyze the tea-making from a biological angel, white tea’s withering needs to happen in a stable environment that offers certain temperature and humidity condition. With the decrease of water content in fresh leaves, the cell concentration changes. Therefore, the change in cell membrane permeability and the activation of numerous enzymes lead to a series of formation and transformation in leaves. As a result, they form white tea’s distinct quality characters.
There are 2 steps in white tea’s withering. In this blog, we’ll discuss both.
开青/“Opening Green” (literal meaning)/Kai Qing(pronunciation)
Kai Qing, or “Opening Green”, is the first step in white tea withering, and it’s crucial in white tea’s quality formation. Kai Qing refers to putting fresh leaves on sifters.
After being harvested, fresh leaves are still alive. Over time, the water content in leaves keeps escaping. With the water loss, leaf temperature gradually increases and aspiration activity strengthens. As a result, nutrient substances in fresh leaves get dissolved, consumed and reduced.
In Kai Qing, the thickness spread leaves on the sifter defines the success of the step.
If fresh leaves are spread too thin, leaves would dry too fast, and the transformation of nutrient substances would be insufficient. Under this condition, processed leaves would look yellowish green and taste astringent.
If fresh leaves are spread too thick, the leaf temperature would be too high because of the lack of oxygen. The high temperature causes nutrient substances to transform at an accelerated speed. Processed leaves would look redish brown, and taste too plain.
并筛/“Combining Sifters”(literal meaning)/Bing Shai(pronunciation)
Bing Shai is means combining two or more sifters of leaves in withering into one sifter.
During white tea’s withering, under the catalyzation of multiple enzymes, mainly polyphenol oxidase, nutrient substances that taste bitter and astringent become sweeter and mellower. Low-boiling-temperature grassy smells slowly volatize to allow floral fragrances to become more noticeable. With the decrease of water content, enzyme activity and the transformation of nutrient substances are reduced.
To equally distribute water content, slow down the water loss, and activate enzymes’ activity to ensure the transformation of nutrient substances, tea makers would combine two or more sifters of leaves into one sifter.
How we perform Bing Shai depends on the variety of tea plants. Commonly, there are two varieties – Small Leaf and Big Leaf. Small Leaf’s Bing Shai is performed when fresh leaves are 80% dry. Big Leaf’s Bing Shai is usually done in 2 steps. First Bing Shai happens when leaves are 70% dry, and another Bing Shai when leaves are 80% dry.
One thing worth mentioning is that for Gong Mei/Shou Mei products, they often require another step called “stacking/堆放”.
White tea’s tea-making is an excellent example of just how detailed and complex agriculture can be. To make a perfect whit tea, a tea maker need to have years’ experience in the field. White tea’s “Simple process, Complex Technique” is also a good interpretation of the Taoism philosophy “the greatest truths are the simplest”.
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