Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

More on Shopping for (Tea) Pearls

I have written posts previously about evaluating the quality of Jasmine Pearls tea.  As this undeniably appealing tea continues grow in popularity, prices appear to have fallen.  I see more samples coming in at prices one might have wished for in the past but knew to be unrealistic.  Just when I take delight in seeing a low quote, another sample follows at an even lower cost.

Here is a high quality standard of Jasmine Pearls:

High quality Jasmine Pearls reveal plump buds, little stem.

Next, a somewhat lower grade, but acceptable:

More stems, but some budsets, and overall the leaves are tender, young pluckings.

Alas, the trend is illusory because the teas do not match up to the original Jasmine Pearls that unfurled to show plump budsets with relatively little of the stem attached.

These Jasmine Pearls are on the dark side; pearls with more silver are becoming ever more expensive.

Indeed, the cost of good quality Jasmine Pearls has gone up 10-20% and for the better grades, the prices were not low to begin with.  For quite some time, this better standard was the tea.

As noted in my earlier posts, it’s not always easy to gauge the quality of the Jasmine Pearls from the dry tea’s appearance:  1) size-wise, many teas are comparable; 2) the proportion of silver to a darker grey does not seem to vary greatly, and 3) if judged on the cup alone, the jasmine bouquet/taste are certainly present.

Dry tea pearls looked fine; these leaves tell a different story.

It is easy to see how the wet leaves would not be considered; after all, you put the dry pearls into a mug or pot, pour some water, and then pour out the tea.  Unless you happen to be using a glass pot or mug, the wet leaves usually would not garner another glance.

Two cups of Jasmine Pearl teas: the dark colors indicate more leaf than bud in the tea material.

Yet it is the spent, steeped leaves that tell a fuller story about the quality of the raw material used.

As for flavor, the lower grades yield a darker liquor that is not as delicate; the tea flavor is stronger — given the greater proportion of stems.

Until recently, lower priced teas showed about 2/3 stem to 1/3 bud/leaf.  Now we are seeing full leaves rather than budsets.

These leaves from another Jasmine Pearl tea are more tender than those in the comparable photo above, but still, there few budsets to be found.

And one surprising, unexpected find came this past week during a tea competition.  There were five entries for this Jasmine Pearl category, and each had been submitted by a company hoping that its tea would win the honors for best in the category.  One judge (there were four of us) followed his curiosity and used his fingers to inspect an infused pearl that had not unfurled during the infusion.  We were all unprepared for the reason: a larger leaf had been used to wrap broken leaves to form the core of the pearl.  In its dry form, this tea was not very different from the other submissions.  We tasted before the quality of the leaves was revealed, and this tea showed poorly in flavor.  And then we understood why.

Broken leaves/stem used to form the pearl in the poorer tasting tea.

Very disconcerting to find not just this tea material, manipulated in this fashion, but realizing that one tea professional considered this worthy of submission in a competition.

One might well ask, is the higher grade worth the price?  Jasmine Pearls are a good example of the visual pleasure found in teas.  Paying a premium for tea leaves that have been crafted into pearls is reasonable but should be an informed decision.  For a really good cup of Jasmine, it is not imperative to seek out Jasmine Pearls. A top quality Yin Hao (Silver Sprout) yields the same flavor experience.

Which brings me to the parallel lowering of quality in this top grade Jasmine tea.  Yin Hao’s were reliably easy to recognize for many years: fine leafed and not thickish, a good proportion of silver tips, almost no petals, producing a cup that was delicate yet lush with the soft bouquet of the blossom.  An early post (Quick Tea Tutorial) drew attention to one packaged tea labeled as Yin Hao but which was clearly not up to the grade.

A good standard of Yin Hao Jasmine.

Here is another represented as Yin Hao, but all falling short of the standard that is the benchmark in the visual and palate memory of experienced tea buyers.

These leaves are too thick for a true Yin Hao.

And from another labeled as Yin Hao:

These leaves are too irregular for a Yin Hao.

The rush to cash in on name teas by offering lower standards is not new.  Dropping names such as Jasmine Pearls and Yin Hao Jasmine marks one as knowledgeable in the tea realm.  To refine the search for a good value cup of Jasmine at a more meaningful level, we might weigh the balance between leaf quality and visual appeal.  Yes, the scenting process differs when making high grade Jasmine Green teas as opposed to lower grades, but the high price tags attached to the very marketable “pearls” or “silver sprout” should be acceptable only when the tea has really been inspected.  Otherwise, grades lower than Yin Hao, even down to a 1st grade, are perfectly satisfying cups.

Then, having formed some notion of a good tasting Jasmine, it is time to try higher grades, to establish a better benchmark tea for oneself, as each trial moves toward elevating that benchmark.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung