Blog 85: Door Threshold and White Tea Withering
I have to admit that the title is quite odd. How can white tea withering have anything to do with a door threshold?
If you’ve visited China, you might have noticed that all old buildings, especially main gates at large estates, have tall thresholds. (please see picture below)
In ancient China, a door threshold (门槛, pronounced: mén kǎn) represented more than its typical architectural use. A tall door threshold is a symbol of wealth and power. Prominent families commonly had tall and thick door threshold at the front gate of their estates. Royals and nobles would even cover the threshold with a piece of metal to further distinguish themselves from “commoners”.
The door threshold became a social class divider. People inside and outside the threshold lived completely different lives. They operated in two parallel universes that would never interact with each other.
There is also a “door threshold” in white tea withering: outdoor withering and indoor withering. The same fresh tea leaves can have very different characters if they’re withered differently. Just as people were divided into different social classes by a door threshold, fresh white tea is also separated into different quality grades by a physical “threshold”. In modern days, this “threshold” can just be a regular door between the outdoor and the indoor space.
In general, white tea withered outdoors has a light grassy taste, and white tea withered indoors has a sweet nectar taste.
Outdoor withering involves sunlight. During the withering, the inner substances of a fresh tea leaf are in constant contact with sunlights to generate new inorganic substances. (please note that “inorganic” here is a biology term. It doesn’t mean that white tea isn’t an “organic” product.) This allows white tea leaves to keep more “beneficial” contents and eventually release them into the tea soup.
Indoor withering doesn’t have sunlight involved. Fresh leaves are withered and transformed indoors, thus generate a certain amount of high aroma (“high aroma” is a professional term used in tea evaluation. Chinese: 高香, pronounced: gāo xiāng).
Commonly, outdoor withering is the preferred way for white tea (or any other teas).
In white tea’s case, since withering is the only major tea-making step, where we wither fresh leaves become the most important thing.
Leaves withered indoors would develop a tranquil sweet-scented osmanthus fragrance. Compared to leaves that are withered outdoors, indoor withered white tea lacks multiple layers of flavors and aromas.
A standard outdoor withered white tea has a “resounding” aroma. The aroma comes at you as if tea leaves are proactively generating it as you smell. Outdoor withered white tea also has a more complex aroma such as gardenia flower fragrance and mangnolia flower fragrance. Outdoor withered white tea can also develop the “herbal medicine aroma” more easily during the aging process.
Although sunlight is a key factor, it’s not the ultimate reason why outdoor withered white tea is favored by more tea drinkers.
The air circulation is much slower indoors. Therefore, the withering is slower, too. Fresh leaves take more time to reach the same withered level. During the prolonged withering time, many nutrients and fragrance substances would be lost.
Outdoor withered white tea has sunlight to accelerate the process. A more rapid process means substances in fresh leaves can be preserved better. More theanine, tea polyphenols and polysaccharide are maintained at a more optimal level.
One thing worths mentioning is that in many online posts, tea lovers think indoor withered white tea generates a stronger “grassy” smell. The reality, however, is the opposite. Indoor withered white tea generates much less grassy smell because the lack of sunlight reduces the presence of theanine, thus less grassy smell.
From our “door threshold” perspective, even though the withering is only separated by a door, the final quality is just as distant as the ancient social classes.
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