White Tea Processing
The production of white tea is different from green tea. White tea leaves come from a special varietal tea bush called Narcissus or chaicha bushes. For white tea, the little buds that form on the plant are covered with silver hairs that give the young leaves a white appearance. According to the different standards of picking and selecting, white teas can be classified as Yin Zhen Bai Hao (Silver Needle), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Gongmei (Tribute Eyebrow), and Shou Mei (Noble, Long Life Eyebrow). All of these white teas are widely produced in China and are available in America.The highest-quality white teas are Silver Needle and White Peony, both of which have various grades and are primarily produced in the Fuding and Zhenhe districts of Fujian, China. Silver Needle is carefully hand selected from the tender fleshy sprouts of the “Big White” or the “Narcissus” tea bush. If the buds are selected with two leaves intact, then the resulting selection will be made into White Peony tea. The leaves and other material left over from the selection of Silver Needle and White Peony will be processed into Noble, Long Life Eyebrow. Gong Mei is made from “chaicha” bushes and is processed slightly differently than other white teas. Both Gong Mei and Shou Mei are considered lesser forms of white tea compared to Yin Zhen Bai Hao and Bai Mu Dan.
Not Steamed or Pan-Fried
White Tea leaves are not steamed or pan-fired as is the case in green tea but rather the leaves are withered, hand selected and sun dried. The special nature of white tea’s color, leaf shape and hair fragrance is mainly created during the withering stage. If mechanical drying is required the leaves are baked (not fired) at temperatures less that 40’C. Only special ‘two leaves and a bud’ are selected. These leaves must show a very light green almost gray white color and be covered with velvet peach fuzz down. The ideal is a leaf or two being wrapped around a newly developing shoot. These shoots are plucked and segregated from the rest of the leaf being plucked. These leaves are then naturally withered and the painstaking process on final manual selection occurs. “Three Whites” is the primary requirement of the fresh tea material. This means the buds, the first leaves and the second leaves must be covered with tiny white hairs. Be warned that a tea with an abundance of white tips or large buds is not necessarily a true white tea.
The quality of white tea is greatly dependent on the season of harvesting. The best white tea is picked in early spring and is subject to numerous requirements. First of all, picking top-grade white tea is prohibited on rainy days or when the early morning dew is not dry. It should never be picked when the buds appear purple; when they are damaged by wind, people, or insects; when they have begun to open; when they are hollow; when they are too long or too thin; when there is one bud with three to four leaves; and when there is frost on the ground.
White tea production is greatly dependent on the weather conditions when the tea is made. Adjustments to the withering stage and the method of bake drying will be determined by tea makers as they interpret the effect the weather will have on the withering process. Temperature and humidity of the environment will dictate the techniques and timing of the withering and bake drying process. White tea that is withered in conditions that are too hot will become reddish, while leaves that are withered in conditions that are too cold will become blackish.
A tea maker’s ability to balance solar and indoor withering of white tea is the major determining factor of quality. There are many nuances of white tea production that are dependent on the region and climate where the tea is made, but the major stages in the process are selective picking from specific varietals, withering, careful hand selection, and bake drying.