Blog 139: Making White Tea - Not As Easy As You Think
Recently, one of our friends from Illinois shared a white tea product with us. He said that his local tea shop owner told him that this white tea is made only with “sun-withering”. The tea store owner also told him that it’s a new trend to make white tea products with only “sun-withering”.
“Is this true?” He asked.
The answer is NO. If we look closely, there’re 3 major steps in white tea tea-making: plucking, sun-withering, and drying. The overall white tea tea-making process aims to lower the water content in tea leaves to about 8.5%. With only sun-withering, there’s no way to achieve this goal.
In our previous white tea blogs, we’ve thoroughly introduced white tea’s tea-making (click here for more white tea blogs). In these blogs, we often describe white tea as a simpler tea to make. Indeed, compared to black tea’s 11 tea-making steps and Wuyi oolong’s 17 tea-making steps, white tea’s tea-making seems surprisingly easy.
Sun-withering uses the heat from the sunlight to evaporate water and unnecessary substances in fresh white tea leaves. Despite its straightforward process, sun-withering is a little bit more complicated than just putting fresh leaves under the sun.
When we say “sun-withering fresh leaves”, many tea drinkers would imagine it’s similar to sun-drying clothes. As long as it doesn’t rain, we can just hang and leave all clothes outside until they’re dry.
The real sun-withering, however, has a set of very specific requirements. There is only a limited window in a day which we can wither fresh leaves outdoors. Fresh white tea leaves are delicate and very sensitive to heat. A slight variation in the length and the strength of sunshine can have great effect on white tea withering.
Only the morning and the late afternoon sunlight are gentle enough to slowly wither fresh leaves. In spring, the sunlight in Fuding and Zhenghe (two major white tea producing areas) is mild, but it would still be too strong for tender fresh white tea leaves during the noon. If we put fresh leaves under the noon sun, leaves would be burned and turn into a yellowish red color.
Sun-withering of white tea leaves is merciful and soft. The sun gently shines on fresh leaves as if it’s touching them with a feather. As a result, sun-withering along is not enough to significantly lower the water content in white tea leaves.
After sun-withering, white tea leaves must go through a drying process. Depending on the weather condition of the time, leaves after sun-withering still contain about 10% to 18% of water. This level of water content is way too high. A white tea with this level would easily become damp and go bad in storage.
Therefore, white tea has a drying process. Traditionally, we would use a low temperature charcoal heat to further reduce the water content and stabilize white tea leaves’ characters. Only properly dried white tea products can be aged in storage.
To be honest, a white tea that has only “sun-withering” is possible, except it cannot be a good tea. By eliminating the necessary drying process, a tea producer can potentially save quite a lot time and labor. Unfortunately, customers would pay more (because with higher water content, tea leaves are heavier) for a less-preferred white tea product.
Every step in tea-making has a purpose. A good white tea must go thorough proper withering and drying. We hope this blog can help you understand why a “sun-withering only” white tea is simply a wishful thinking by some insincere tea businesses.
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