White tea is commonly lauded for its minimal processing, which is said to leave more of the naturally healthful compounds intact in the finished tea. While the health claims are difficult to prove, it’s true that white tea processing only really takes one step, called fading.
This term refers to the process of air drying the leaves in the sun after plucking. It’s really quite simple: the freshly plucked leaves are laid gently in a single layer on bamboo mats, and are left to dry in the sun.
Using only the natural daytime heat, the white tea leave are essentially baked, without ever being turned or bruised. This is one reason white teas are often referred to as “less processed” than green teas, which typically undergo a brief withering period before being roasted at high temperatures. This brief roast, called the kill-green, denatures the enzymes responsible for oxidation, and keeps the leaf from turning brown.
Since they don’t undergo a kill-green step, white tea leaves do, in fact, oxidize slightly - up to 5 or 10%. During the cold months of early spring, it is easy to keep this under control, since the sunlight and ambient temperature is not too hot. But as the weather heats up during later harvests, leaves must be carefully monitored, and stashed away under cover when they begin to oxidize and turn brown. Traditionally, white teas were gently roasted at this point to remove any remaining moisture, but most modern producers have done away with this final step.
Instead, they ensure that the tea is fully dried with the help of climate-controlled rooms or buildings. With more control over the temperature and humidity of the environment, crafters can complete the drying process without a traditional roast, finishing the tea with a truly minimal process.
Since almost all white teas are made using similar techniques, levels of quality are determined mostly by harvest date, provenance, and variety.
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