Tea World

Lesson 23

Processing of White Tea

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White Tea- Origin

A tea custom developed during the era of early Chinese imperial dynasties (between 600 and 1300) when tea drinking and tea culture was flourishing across the country. As per the custom, citizens were to pay a yearly tribute to the Emperors of the time in the form of rare and fine teas, somewhat like a tea tax. This imperial tea tribute was typically made from the youngest, newest and most delicate buds from the finest tea plants. Imperial tea gardens were developed, sometimes in secret, to cultivate these rare, honoring teas. 

These imperial tea tributes are considered the earliest forms of white tea, but they are not the white tea we know today. During Emperor Huizong’s rule of the Song Dynasty (960 –1297), young tea buds would be plucked in the spring, steamed and striped of their outer leaf, meticulously rinsed with spring water, carefully air dried and then ground into a silvery white powder. This white powder would be whisked into hot water to create the finest tea available to the only person in China that could afford it, the Emperor.

Method of White Tea Processing

White tea is lightly oxidised tea processed in China, mostly in the Fujian and Zheiang province. More recently it is also processed in Taiwan, India (Darjeeling), Northern Thailand and Eastern Nepal.

White tea is known to be one of the most delicate tea varieties because it is so minimally processed.  White tea is processed from the finest shoots before the leaf buds have opened and while they are still covered with silky white hair. The name ‘White tea’ derives from the fine silvery white hairs on the unopen buds which gives it a whitish appearance. The finest white buds are hand plucked early in the spring before the leaf buds open. While plucking utmost care is taken to avoid damaging the cells of the leaves and buds which, when broken or bruised, start to oxidise.

After plucking the leaf buds and leaves are spread on bamboo baskets or mats and are left to wither and dry in the sun. Then, they are withered and dried on bamboo baskets indoors. The water content remaining in the leaves is reduced to 2-3%. There is always a certain amount of very light natural oxidation in white teas but nothing is done to cause it or even to stop it.  Among all the teas, white Tea is the least processed of all, with a delicate and subtle flavour.

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