I have attempted to make a white tea with the tea plants that I have growing in my house. I do not want to offend tea masters, tea manufacturers, tea garden care takers by implying that tea making is easy, simple, and basic. Making tea pulls together a lot of disciplines; botany, chemistry, skill, and artistry. By experimenting with the making of tea, I have a greater appreciation for tea masters, tea growers and of all the variables that can go perilously wrong with making tea.
An update on the stratified tea seeds is included.
Tea Seed Update
I am astonished that I have six tea plant seedlings! The stratification process of the tea seeds worked. Stratification mimics natural cold and moist conditions that the seeds would experience in their dormancy, before germination can occur. I stratified the seeds by placing the seeds in the refrigerator for sixty days. The seeds were then placed in peat moss and placed in the same window as the tea plants. The night temperatures have dipped into the high thirties and low forties recently; too cold for the fragile seedlings. The temperatures will rise soon, and I will be able to place the seedlings in the greenhouse to slowly acclimate the seedlings to outdoor temperatures.
Plucking The Leaves
Selectivity was instrumental in plucking leaves off the bush. Keeping in mind the type of tea I would like to make dictated what leaves I needed to pluck. My goal was to make a White Peony, or Bai Mu Dan white tea, using the two leaves and a bud and the first leaf below the leaf set. Typically there are four plucking levels for white tea: buds only (Silver Needles tea), buds and first leaves (White Peony or Bai Mu Dan), leaves that are harvested after the first pluck of the season (for example a Gong Mei), and lastly leaves plucked from various places on the stem (for example a Shou Mei).
I did not have enough buds to make a Silver Needle white tea. In order to make this type of white tea, I would need to pick over four thousand plus buds to manufacture a pound of tea. There were simply not enough buds from what few tea plants I had, to make a Silver Needle white tea.
During the leaf plucking, I circumvented around brown edged leaves, and leaves that were lower on the stem of the bush. Leaf and bud sets were plucked, with an occasional leaf lower down on the stem, in order to have enough tea to process. The lower on the stem where the leaf was plucked, the coarser a grade of tea was produced. There were no flowers on the bush to work around during plucking. Flowers left on a tea plant zap energy and nutrients from the leaves, in order to sustain blooming.
In tea gardens, leaf pluckers would very carefully pluck the leaves by hand, using their thumb and first finger to pinch off the leaves. I tried to pluck the leaves off the plant but eventually utilized scissors to snip the leaves off the plant. Camellia Sinensis stems are thick, my nails were short, and pinching the bud and leaves off the tea bush was difficult. Tea leaf pluckers would not use scissors to clip off the leaves. Strike one! So far, my tea manufacturing skills have been subpar. My only hope was to be more successful in the next stage of tea processing.
Withering The Leaves
Tea manufacturers wither leaves to decrease the moisture in the leaf. Tea leaves, when first plucked, can have near to eighty percent moisture. Withering can decrease the moisture content anywhere from seventy five percent down to thirty eight percent, depending on the type of tea being processed. Decreasing the moisture in the leaves makes them more malleable for shaping, and for rolling of the leaf. Camellia Sinensis leaves are very leathery, not pliable at all. In artesianal hand shaped teas, a successful wither is crucial.
I live in an extremely windy part of the United States. The day that I plucked the leaves, the wind was a breezy fifteen plus mile an hour wind. To illustrate how windy it was, white caps usually appear on lakes with winds upwards of fifteen miles per hour wind. The location that I live in tends to be humid as well. Humidity affects the withering process, causing it to take longer to wither the leaves than on a dry day.
The tea leaves could not be placed outside to wither due to the high winds. I had precious few leaves and buds to begin with; I did not want the leaves scattered all over the yard! The humidity presented an additional challenge. Placing the leaves outside to wither would probably take longer than the amount of daylight that I had at my disposal.
The withering of my tea leaves needed to occur inside. I do not have moisture gauges, scientific tools, or a way to scientifically measure moisture loss in the leaf. I weighed my leaves prior to the indoor withering. I placed the leaves in a drying basket, then placed the basket under the kitchen table light. The light plus the decreased humidity inside my house, would help the leaves wither successfully.
Tea masters and tea processing managers check for malleability by scooping up tea leaves, squeezing them together to see how they clump together. If they were not malleable or did not clump well, the withering process was not complete. I would try the clumping of leaves test and weighing the leaves hourly to gauge moisture content.
The tea leaves became more floral and vegetal in aroma and more flexible with each passing hour. The leather-like feel of the leaf gave way to a softer, almost imperceptible thinner feel, and a more bendable leaf. Three hours later, my tea leaves felt thinner, and were very pliable. I weighed the leaves, to find that the leaves weighed 1.1 grams less than when I started the withering. I inferred the loss in weight was due to moisture loss. Three hours was not the rubric for withering (which depending on ambient humidity can take over twelve hours), but my leaves were turning brown around the edges. Lesson learned: Ambient humidity affects leaf moisture loss. Next step in processing; drying the leaf.
Drying The Leaves
In order to stop oxidation, causing the leaves to turn brown, they need to have heat applied to them. Since I wanted to make a white tea, it was paramount to apply heat as quickly as possible to deflect oxidation. White teas are dried after a wither with no steaming or pan firing of the leaves. Tea manufacturers will do a final firing, or drying of the leaves in order to reduce the leaf moisture content to three percent. The extremely decreased moisture content stabilizes the leaves and maintains the flavor. The stabilized leaves guarantee the quality of the leaves during packaging, storage, and transport of the leaves.
Looking at my beautifully shaped and successfully withered leaf sets, I still was set on processing a Pai Mu Tan. The aroma of the leaves had a delicate vegetal and slightly floral note. I attempted to dry the leaves on a low temperature in the oven. My impatience is often what gets the better of me and in manufacturing the tea leaves, impatience ruined the batch. It was taking too long to dry the leaves in the oven and heating up my house too much. I decided to quickly dry the leaves in a pan. I believe this is where I went from making a Bai Mu Dan white tea to a crude, or rough green tea.
Not knowing what I was doing, I put the tea leaves in a pan and applied heat. While the tea leaves were in a pan with the electric heat slowly warming up the pan, I was looking for bamboo tools to flip the leaves in the air to circulate heat evenly. Once the bamboo utensils were procured, I returned to the pan to find several leaves exceedingly brown, and scorched (not quite charred).
So much for the white tea that I had grand plans of making. The pan was too hot and the leaves were too charred and brittle for me to shape the leaves into broad flat shapes like a Long Jing. I was getting impatient again because the leaves still retained a lot of moisture. The leaf moisture level neede to be decreased and oxidation stopped in the leaves that were not charred. I kept the leaves in the pan, and using the bamboo utensils, repeatedly tossed the leaves around in the pan until they looked completely dry. To complete the atrocities committed on the tea leaves, I finished out the process by placing the leaves in the oven for a final drying. Lessons learned: One must not be in a hurry, or impatient, while processing tea leaves and always have tools readily available prior to processing the leaves!
Cupping The Tea
The tea leaves were removed from the oven. What I was left with were shrunken, charred, multicolored, very brittle and crispy leaves. Being inquisitive, and having a scientific mind, I cupped the tea to explore the taste profile of the tea. My final product weighed 1.1 grams of dry weight. The aroma of the dry leaf was a pleasing combination of broccoli, nuts, and cream. I detected a smokey element (due to burning the leaves). The tea was cupped in approximately three ounces of water, heated to a temperature of one hundred and sixty five degrees Fahrenheit. The tea was steeped for three minutes.
Wet tea leaves can reveal much regarding the aroma, processing defects, and the techniques used in drying the leaves. The wet leaf smelled like charred leaves, and asparagus. I could distinguish which leaves I burned, and which leaves still retained too much moisture before consumption. The burnt leaves had an auburn, deep red appearance, with brown spots. The leaves that had too much moisture in the leaf prior to steeping, were still a bit springy, and deep green in color.
The color of the liquor was a pale yellow green. The tea had a medium mouth feel with a flavor profile of cream, nuts, and smoky charred vegetables. There was a sweet finish that lingered a while after drinking it. Lesson learned: Too high a heat during drying and firing, can adversely affect the tea flavor profile.
The greatest lesson learned in attempting to process my own tea is it requires skill, an enormous amount of workable knowledge and mastery to successfully manufacture tea. I have an increased appreciation for tea masters and other people in charge of producing tea. What a weighty responsibility they have to create a drinkable tea. I found the process very time consuming, tedious, and there were variables, particularly in the withering stage, that were difficult to control. Processing tea is a labor of love that requires copious amounts of patience. The life lesson I learned throughout my tea processing was that nothing good comes to those who have no patience. Patience is a virtue and can save many a batch of tea.
I am so grateful to people who make tea. What a true labor of love it is to manufacture tea for me to drink. Thank you!
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Levl IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!