For top grades only tender, unopened buds are used. Shaded for the three weeks before harvesting, the buds are plucked in early spring, over 10,000 buds per kilo for certain varieties. It’s said that, once upon a time, only virgins in white silk gloves could pick the buds. Certainly, conditions have to be immaculate, with perfectly dry and mild weather, the buds being neither too long nor too thin but exactly right for the exacting standards of the tea maker.
Compared to green tea, where oxidation is completely prevented, white tea is actually less processed, although it is slightly oxidised. Traditionally, white tea is dried or withered in a pavilion, slightly shaded from the sun and with good air circulation. This natural process, called ‘fading’, develops the tea’s creaminess and the floral aromatics, and is ‘locked in’ by a gentle baking. After processing, the leaves reveal a covering of fine, downy white hair.
Polyphenol oxydase and the polyphenols themselves are stored in the plant’s cells, but when the cells are damaged, say by slicing an apple or dropping and bruising it, the cells are ruptured and the enzyme comes into contact with air. With the help of oxygen in the air, the polyphenol oxidase initiates a series of chemical reactions, transforming the polyphenols and eventually producing melanins (brown pigments).
The general name for this process is “enzymatic browning,” and the fabulous thing (for tea at least) is that it doesn’t just change the appearance of produce: it also alters flavor, scent, and nutritional value.