Perhaps you know that tea comes from leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. But you might be wondering: How does it get from raw leaf form to the finished product in your cup? In June 2017, I went behind-the-scenes to a white tea processing facility in Zhenghe, Fujian to find out just how. Here is my step-by-step guide!
But, before diving into the tea making process, it is important to understand that white tea is the least processed tea type, meaning that there are fewer steps involved in producing the tea than there are for, say, black teas. Because of this, white teas are much closer to the tea leaf in its natural form and therefore retain more of the plant's benefits. For this reason, drinking white tea is great for your health!
1. Pick the tea leaves 采摘
The first step to making any tea is, of course, to pick the tea leaves. For white tea, we generally pick young tea leaves from the top of the plant. Specifically, we want the top two leaves and a bud. The more soft and tender, the better!
Picking will be carried out from March to June, when the leaves are ripe. The most prized tea leaves (e.g. Silver Needle) are picked first, during the onset of Spring in March/April. A flush of tea leaves will grow back every week or two, so after the Silver Needle leaves are picked, they will pick for White Peony (another kind of white tea), followed by Gongmei and then Shoumei later in summer. In general, the later in the season the leaves are picked, the darker the tea, the bolder the flavour, and the lower the price.
Early in the morning, tea pickers will hike up the mountain and hand-pick the leaves with skill and speed, storing them in bamboo baskets (or cloth bags tied to their waists). They then submit their tea leaves to the farm and will typically get compensated on a per kg basis.
2. Wither 萎凋
Now comes the most important part in the white tea process: Withering. After the tea leaves are picked, they are carefully placed on bamboo trays to be stored in a dry, shaded area. Here, they are left to wither for 72 hours. During this process, the leaves will naturally undergo a change in appearance and water content. Specifically, the moisture will slowly escape and the leaves will turn brown.
The enzymatic reaction occurring here is called Oxidation. To understand this better, think about what happens to an apple when you cut it and leave it out for a while. Eventually, the apple will turn brown. This is actually the same reaction the tea leaves go through when you leave them out to wither. It is the prolonged exposure to oxygen that causes this reaction.
After 72 hours of withering, the tea leaves are partially oxidized (as opposed to black teas which are allowed to fully oxidize), and then go on to be dried using heat. To use the same apple analogy, applying heat will stop the oxidation process, just like how baking an apple (e.g. for a pie) will maintain its colour.
3. Charcoal Dry 烘干
As mentioned above, after the withering stage is complete, the tea leaves are dried over heat. This involves laying out the tea leaves onto cloth on a bamboo drum, positioned over a hot charcoal stove (see photo above).
This stage is carried out to not only stop oxidation, but just as importantly to draw the aroma out of the leaf, enhancing its fragrance and flavour. And, trust me, it smells amazing in the Charcoal Drying room (if you can handle the heat)!
Performed by a Tea Master, Charcoal Drying requires skill and experience. The master will heat the leaves for several hours, until he/she feels the aroma is at its optimum. During the process, the master will also toss the leaves around every twenty minutes or so, to ensure the heat is applied evenly. They let me help in this process once - It was surprisingly fun!
4. Sort 拣剔
The final stage before packaging is a tedious but necessary one for high quality teas. This is where a team will painstakingly sort through each and every tea leaf by hand, removing anything unwanted. This ensures a trustworthy end product that is ready for consumption.
The majority of the sorting stage consists of removing what they call "old tea leaves" (老叶子). These leaves are rougher in feel, typically more yellow in colour, and do not steep well. Occasionally other items are found and removed as well, such as pieces of straw, but they are much less common.
During my time at the processing facility in Zhenghe, I spent many days sorting. I didn't quite understand what I was supposed to be on the look out for in the beginning. Thankfully the ladies were very friendly and showed me how to spot the old tea leaves for removal and, with time, I got the hang of it. Besides sorting, they also taught me some words from their local Hokkien dialect. :)
5. Pack 装箱
Last but not least, before the tea can arrive to you, it must be packed! At the facility I stayed at, the tea leaves were packed into large cardboard boxes, which were then weighed and sent on to the buyer. Then, through a series of middlemen and distribution channels, the tea will eventually make its way to the end consumer in the form of a beautiful cup of tea...
So there you have it! My step-by-step guide on how white tea is made.
I hope reading this has helped you understand how a simple leaf can be transformed into the beverage we know and love, and has also given you an appreciation for the art, effort and thought that goes into your cup of tea. For a visual representation, make sure to watch my GoPro video of the tea process!
Feel free to comment and ask questions below!
Note: All photos in this post taken by Mona Jhunjhnuwala in June 2017 in Zhenghe, Fujian, China