Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

More on Hand-Tied “Flower” Teas

In an earlier post, “Artisan Teas: Do Looks Trump Flavor?”, my take was fairly clear. It occurred to me that I should offer more information about how these teas are made.

Jasmine & amaranth tied to Green Tea leaves

Jasmine & amaranth tied to Green Tea leaves

First, to return to the original question.  I once asked a major tea supplier in China for his thoughts about the burgeoning interest in hand-tied flower teas.  In Chinese, these are known as “hand-crafted” teas, although in my mind, there are many conventional teas that have equal rights to the term.  He admitted that the flavor of most of these flower teas is just so-so, that the value is in “looking at rather than in drinking them.”  Nevertheless, his company continues to add more varieties, devising new and ever more ingenious ways of tying flowers to tea leaves so that they bloom in extravagant displays when brewed.

I remember shopping for snacks to last a long bus ride to the next hotel in Jiangxi.  We had tarried too long at one tea place and in order to check-in before midnight we had to forego dinner.  The supermarket in a town whose name I can no longer recall had little cellophane packages of amaranth.  The dried chrysanthemum and osmanthus were expected, but I was a little surprised to see the pink amaranth, a flower often used to decorate the hand-tied teas.  These little pink blossoms add little flavor but provide eye-popping color.  Were these to be added to loose leaf teas? to be brewed on their own?  (I still can’t believe I didn’t think to buy a pack.)

This China these fancy shaped teas continue to grown in popularity, evidenced by online sales, TV promotions, and as gifts.  This trend seems to be supported largely by women.

These fancy flower teas are, of course, fashioned by hand, with some simple tools, implements that remind me of a crochet needle.  No other ingredient (such as starch, as some believe) is used except tea leaves and flowers; string is used to hold the entire creation, a work of art in miniature, together.

The "bloom" after steeping.

The "bloom" after steeping.

“Big White” (Da Bai) is usually the tea used in making these formed teas.  This is the same varietal that goes towards making Silvery Needles White, the top-of-the-line White tea.  Generously sized buds hold their shape.  This varietal is preferred because the tips are stronger.  You’ll see in the wet form the anemone-like, pointed leaves, long enough to craft into the desired shape or base for the flowers.

(Liquid in this photo is cool water, used for displaying the "bloom.")

(Liquid in this photo is cool water, used for displaying the "bloom.")

At this stage, the Da Bai “leaves” are basically finished (as Green or Jasmine tea) except that the leaves are left with a slightly higher moisture content than conventionally finished tea.  (Oolongs and Blacks are from other tea varietals.)  This moisture renders the leaf more pliant, easier to work with as it is manipulated into the desired shape (shell, star, ingot, ball, olive).  After the flowers have been attached, inside the tea leaves or outside or both, thin gauze is wrapped around each piece, further molding it into the end shape.  As a flower is being tied, the thin gauze or towel, which is heated, is continually used to form the final shape, tightening the leaves to achieve the desired end result.  The temperature of the fabric and the moisture in the leaves combine to help the finished form hold its shape.  Then the tea is dried so that the entire piece retains its shell, globe, ingot, heart or other shape.

Now for the editorial part:

My fondness for tea has been based in part on the lack of artifice, on the minimalist character of tea.  The leaves from one plant yield such a myriad of results, differing in shapes, size, and color, yet all following from a few standard procedures – withering, heating, perhaps some bruising to start oxidation, rolling, and more drying.

More often than not, the leaves are the only ingredient in tea.  Teas scented with flowers and fruits make up a smaller number, relative to all teas.  The taste has a purity about it, the brew offering up qualities inherent in the leaf.

Human intervention takes the form of rolling and pressing, by hand or by machine, monitoring natural withering, shaping by hand or machine, tossing to start oxidation, and the application of heat, wet and dry.  So there is definitely manipulation of the leaves – performed to coax out the best of the leaf and to make the tea stable and less perishable.

With the fancy “flower” teas, artifice comes into play, albeit in a very pretty way.  But I wonder if contrivance has become an end in itself; is it a case where craft has become all?

Compare the craft of the worker who hand ties the flowers to tea leaves with the craft of a teamaker–  the young men and women who fashion colorful pairings of leaf and flower and the worker who is monitoring the partial oxidation of an Oolong, where a misstep means no recourse to correct the error.

One creates something to dazzle and delight the eye, and “flower” teas are quite beguiling.  They rightly cause the buyer to wonder how on earth the handiwork was done, to recognize the dexterity required, and they inspire a bit of awe at the very felicitous combination of two of nature’s gifts, flowers and leaves.

The other tea crafter’s product is more modest in appearance, but our sense of marvel and admiration for the teamaster’s skill shouldn’t be any less.  Watching a woman toss and roll just plucked tender leaves in a wok, or a man tossing trays of leaves in alternating gentle and vigorous motions so that the leaves’ edges start to bruise remind me that they have a vision of the end result, built up from years of experience.  Their efforts, combined with skill and care, bring out the character oft tea leaves — sometimes a very mild soft flavor, other times a complexity that is astonishing and delicious.

So this too, the mastery of conventional tea processing, is worth pondering — as you sip a simple cup of tea.

Post a Comment

Use the form below to submit a comment on this post. Your e-mail address will not be published and is required only for verification purposes. Comments are closely moderated.

About This Post

Have something to say? Comment!

Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung