Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Artisan “Flower” Teas: Do Looks Trump Flavor?

Amaranth, marigold & "Big Sprouting" Green Needles

Amaranth, marigold & "Big Sprouting" Green Needles

Go to any tea shop that stays on top of trends and you will find hand-tied “flower” teas.  Judging by how many exhibitors display these at tea tradeshows, one would be right in recognizing the climb of a hot new item.

In China these teas are ubiquitous not only in tea shops but wherever tourists are likely to shop.  The tea may at first appear unremarkable until you notice the color photo propped up nearby showing the “after” version: a round or oval clump of greyish tea has bloomed into petals of green or black tea with different flower combinations in dazzling arrangements.  A truer appreciation comes perhaps after the steeping when one gives in to the temptation to deconstruct the bloom.

Green tea shaped to resemble bamboo shoots

Green tea shaped to resemble bamboo shoots

The earliest versions of these artisan or hand-tied teas were meant to resemble flowers, usually a carnation or chrysanthemum.  These early versions did not actually have flowers tied to the tea leaves.  Green tea leaves and black tea leaves were tied by hand, with little of the thread visible, and pressed so that they looked like little round rosettes.  Sometimes called “anemones,” this was as apt a description as any.  The Green far outsells the Black, and there is a silvery Jasmine version that is lovely but a bit harder to find.

Jasmine Silver Peony Rosettes

Jasmine Silver Peony Rosettes

Within the last four or five years the variety of shapes has expanded dramatically along with the addition of flowers attached to the tea leaves.  Now there are balls, oval olive-shaped teas, ingots, shells, and one of my favorites, tea leaves formed to resemble a button mushroom.  Sometimes the flowers are visible, most common is the pink amaranth, peeking out from the tightly formed leaves.

The "bloom" after tea is infused; the pink flower is amaranth.

The "bloom" after tea is infused; the pink flower is amaranth.

In other varieties the flowers are hidden; the surprise element is, after all, the point of these cleverly crafted teas.  Once hot water is poured over the tea into glasses — and glassware should be used for the maximum visual impact — the little ball gradually opens to reveal an array of colored blossoms: ivory jasmine, rosy hibiscus, little yellow specks of osmanthus, creamy lily, calendula (marigolds), and lavender, all attached to the tea leaves in ingenious fashion, to create a flower basket, a dangling lantern, and the like.  All of which gives rise to many fanciful names, but which usually don’t give you an idea of the taste.  To get an idea of what flavors to expect, look at the ingredients (i.e., the flowers used) and at the “after” picture.

These teas have increased the popularity of glass teapots.

These teas have increased the popularity of glass teapots.

No one can deny the awe-inspiring craft and dexterity that went into making these pieces.  When presented in glass goblets or snifters, or small glass teapots (now made popular by these very teas), there is that delightful movement as flowers gently sway in the brew, anchored by a base of tea leaves.  But how do they taste?

I confess I am not a fan of these teas.  I always look foward to new samples, to see yet another new wrinkle in combining leaves and flowers.  If the base is Green tea, the tea is usually mild and one does get a whiff of the flowers used: jasmine is always reliable; osmanthus is a good choice with its delicate sweet note.  (You won’t see osmanthus tied to the leaves as the blossoms are too small; you’ll see them scattering about once the hot water takes its course.)  Lily is very mild tasting, hardly detectable, while hibiscus is strong and a little tart, and a heavy hand with hibiscus renders the brew a bright fuchsia color.  Beyond the floral, I don’t get much of a sense of the tea, and what I do taste I don’t find very appealing.  This is a shame, because if you examine the leaves, you will find plump, uniform buds.  There is a slight musty or flat quality to the tea, lacking the lively brightness of a fine Green, with the chestnuty note that is the hallmark of fine quality Green tea.

If Black tea has been used in the “flower” creation, it is harder to appreciate the intricate workmanship and the flowers, but you’d get the same sense of the flowers.  The brew is usually mellow and not very astringent.

White and Oolong artisan teas have begun to appear recently.  Like Green-tea based flower teas, White tea seems overshadowed.  Oolong, however, gives the overall cup a robustness not found in the Green or White tea versions, and sometimes the combinations are very felicitous, such as an Oolong that has osmanthus worked into it.

In my judgment these teas are a delightful treat for the eye, if not always for the palate.  Spas like this product; service is simple: one “ball” per serving, and the visual factor complements the spa experience nicely.  I remember receiving requests from culinary schools for samples so their students could be trained in this type of service.  But I have yet to see these artisan teas on many restaurant menus, although some high-end Chinese restaurants now offer them.  (I recall a couple of restaurants in Las Vegas presenting their tea selection dramatically wheeled in on showy carts.  There is a limited there market for very high quality teas reserved for a casino’s high rollers from Asia.)

At one Chinese meal with friends I brought one blooming “flower” tea, a jasmine scented, silvery ball with a pink amaranth on top.  Everyone around the table ooh’d and aah’d as predicted, but at the end of our meal, their glasses were left more than half full.  The flavor of the beverage just wasn’t all that enticing.  Compare this with a great Oolong (the prices are comparable), say, a Single Trunk or Ti Kuan Yin, a tea that fairly demands that you sip again and again to capture its wonderful but elusive flavor.

I am sure we have not seen the end of this “hot” item.  Sales continue to climb as more permutations of this one theme arrive on the market.  So who are the people buying all of these newfangled creations?  If you have tried these “flower” teas, would you be a repeat buyer? I have no doubt about the visual appeal, but did you really like the taste?

Comments (2)

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  1. 1
    Tim S said...
    June 26, 2011, 8:46 PM

    I agree that the value of these lies in their appearance. Your pictures show some with brilliant colors. Are these available in the US?

  2. 2
    lydiakung said...
    July 11, 2011, 3:46 PM

    No doubt there are still wholesalers who carry these blooming teas, although the interest is clearly waning. We offer only one variety now- jasmine scented tea with a pink amaranth on top.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung