When you hear the word “wither” it probably makes you think of things like “wither and die” (something that happens to plants when they don’t get enough moisture). In processing tea leaves, withering is actually a good thing. It reduces the amount of moisture in the leaves and makes them easier to handle and shape during the stages of processing that come next (which varies according to the kind of tea being made). Time to take a closer look at what all this is and why it’s important to your tea.
Withering is the first step in processing tea leaves, followed by rolling, oxidation (for oolongs, blacks, and some pu-erhs), and drying/firing (there is also a special process called yellowing used only for yellow teas, and curing used for teas like pu-erhs, Liu’an, or Liubao). The exact order and method can vary somewhat based again on the tea being produced. Dragonwell undergoes certain steps that result in the flat green dry leaves. Tie Guan Yin oolong undergoes other steps that results in more tightly wound up leaves that are more nugget shaped.
Regardless of the final desired outcome, the withering is usually pretty basic. The goal is getting extra moisture out of the tea leaves (believe it or not, most plants and animals are mainly water), preserving the tea leaves and making them more bendable (pliable) for the rolling as well as preparing them for proper oxidizing.
Several withering methods used by different tea processors:
- “The leaves are spread out in the open air (preferably in the shade) to remove some moisture until they wither and become limp, so that they can be rolled without breaking.”
- “The fresh tea leaves are placed in withering troughs set on wire mesh. Large fans blow air through the leaves to reduce the moisture content. The leaves must be evenly spread so that uniform withering occurs. The leaves must be spread by hand and all lumps or piles removed so that maximum air flow reaches all the leaves and no heat is generated in the tea. … If the leaf is wet, the air is heated slightly for a short time to help remove excess moisture.”
- “The Camellia Sinensis leaves are spread on racks to dry in order to reduce their moisture content.” • “… the leaves are spread out and are allowed to dry in a warm climate, sometimes with the help of forced hot air.”
- “After being harvested and weighed, the tealeaves are spread out on long metal troughs in a shaded area to wither. … This can take about 14-20 hours depending on humidity and other conditions. The trained senses of the tea producer know precisely when the leaves are ready for rolling.”
- Oolong — “…the leaves loose moisture and the aroma within the leaves becomes enhanced. The duration is influenced by temperature and humidity and the experienced hand of a master is critical.”
- Black — “Fresh leaves wither (wilt) for up to 10 hours to reduce moisture before the rolling process.”
- “Freshly harvested tea leaves are spread out onto tables or trays and left to air dry, or “wither.” This preserves the leaf by removing most of the moisture. As moisture evaporates from the leaf, it becomes soft and limp in preparation for the next step, rolling.”
- “When freshly picked, tea leaves contain about 80% moisture and this must be reduced by 30% to 70% before they proceed to the next stage. The tea leaves are placed on wire mesh troughs or trays. Circulating air (either fan-forced or natural) removes the moisture over a period of up to 17 hours. The method and amount of withering varies by region and type of tea.”
- “…depending on the weather, they could be withered in direct sunlight, under shade, on the hot tarmac of the roadside, or indoors. The farmer will know how withering the tea will compliment the early or late picking and just how this will affect the rest of the processing as well as final outcome of an individual batch of tea.”
Sounds pretty straightforward: just let most of the moisture evaporate out of the tea leaves. The trick, as shown above, is when enough has been evaporated out. As with many things, the simple is really complex. A tea master studies years as an apprentice (before becoming a tea master) to know when that time is right. So a tea from one processor will taste very different from the same type of tea from another processor.
As you get into the complexities of tea, you will find yourself looking not only at where the tea leaves were grown and harvested, but when they were harvested, and who the tea master was in charge of their processing. Lots of wonders in the world of tea!