Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

It’s Jasmine Season!

It is the end of June as I begin drafting this post, and the first round of scenting of Jasmine teas is finished in the provinces in China that produce this popular tea.  In southern California we are experiencing a heat wave during this last weekend in June, and when I catch myself muttering about the oppressive temperatures, I am reminded of the work of scenting teas with jasmine blossoms. The flower blooms in summer; the factories are not air-conditioned; the work involves not one step but repeated steps over days’ at a time.

Jasmine garden

Let’s consider the context for evaluating this friendly, everyday tea, perhaps the best known tea from China.

Because the flowers bloom in summer, to make high quality Jasmine teas that require fine Green teas from the spring, those teas are prepared and held until the flowers come into bloom.

Jasmine Silver Needles White, an all bud tea

As summer progresses, blossoms are added to teas finished in the summer.  These are fine standards, but there is a difference in quality between the spring and summer teas, and the former category yield smaller quantities.

Jasmine scented Silver Needles White tea is a simple example: an all bud tea, and now graced with the added bouquet of these small white blossoms.

This is the Green tea that when scented becomes "Jasmine Snow."

Jasmine Snow, for example, is made from the cultivar Da Bai Hao, (Big White Sprouting), which  you may recognize as the material from which Silver Needles White tea is made.  This explains the very white (snowy) appearance of the dry tea.  This producer bought 150kgs of the pluckings in early April and after the preliminary green tea processing phase, the tea was kept in a cool, dark facility.  The tea was scented five times when the jasmine was ready in June; the finished quantity was 140 kgs, a figure that genuinely qualifies this tea as a rare tea.Compare the sample above with the next:

Jasmine Snow from the Green tea shown above.

Compare the tea above with the next sample:

This was the better Jasmine Snow tea.

A closer look: the dry leaves may not look all that different, but consider the infused leaves:

The better Jasmine Snow is on the right.

The cups, placed side by side, provide another hint about what to expect:

The cup on the left has a slightly duller color, only obvious when the two are placed together.

We all know that the blossoms are picked fromj about noon time on through the early afternoon.  The dew has evaporated by the time picking begins and the white blossoms are added to tea leaves in the late afternoon to make the most of that time when the flowers open.

Green tea being scented with jasmine blossoms. The buds have opened at this stage.

Plucking is exacting: open flowers are passed over; buds that are not likely to unfurl that same afternoon will be plucked another day.  Here are some other salient facts about the natural scenting of this popular tea:

1. For a high grade Jasmine such as Yin Hao, 1 to 1.1 kg of bossoms are used to scent 1 kg of tea.  When single-bud teas are scented, the ratio of flowers to tea becomes 2 to 2.5 kg of flowers for every 1 kg of tea leaves.

Context always helps: one Jasmine Snow was fine, very nice, as a stand alone tea. But one the more expensive tea was at its side, the diffs were easy to spot. (Refer to photos above.)

2. Each round of scenting for high grade teas takes 10 to 16 hours, while the leaves absorb the natural bouquet of the blossoms.  The earlier rounds of scenting are longer, while the last stages are shorter.

3. There are resting periods, so that the total processing period may last for two or more days, depending on the weather and the quality of the flowers.  A Yin Hao would undergo 4 to 5 stages of scenting.

4. The flowers are removed after each round of scenting using a round sieve.  If we think back to the ratio of flowers to tea leaves in #1, we can imagine the large quantity of spent flowers that must be taken out.  An easy lesson is to compare a 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade Jasmine teas because the quantity of petals and blossoms left in the tea will tell you much about the quality of the teas.

5. Not all jasmine flowers are the same.  There are higher and lower quality of flowers.  Moreover, the flowers from Fujian province are usually single-petal flowers.  Jasmine blossoms in Guangxi usually have double petals, lending a more robust fragrance. Large and plump blossoms/buds are preferred.

6. Lower grade teas receive fewer flowers in the scenting and the flowers are of lower quality.  I am also given to understand that higher grade tea leaves are better able to absorb the fragrance given up by the blooms.

I have spoken of finding an optimum balance in teas: that comfortable spot between the cleansing astringency that speaks of freshness and a friendlier nutty, sweet note in Green teas.  With scented teas, this balance is perhaps even more important.  I do not want to drink a beverage that brings potpourri to mind.  I should be able to detect the taste of tea, just enhanced with the familiar fragrance of jasmine.

Jasmine Monkey King is an example of a relatively high grade tea that has assertive tea flavor.

Monkey King Jasmine

Here’s the cup:

A strong tasting Jasmine, tea flavor-wise

From sturdy leaves:

Monkey King Jasmine

that look very different from buds of Jasmine Needles:

Jasmine Silver Needles

The color in the cups can range from a pale gold to deep orange.  The tea material accounts for this, of course; buds will yield a delicate hue.  Lower leaves on the bush, coarser leaves not only produce a deeper color but there are fewer rounds of scenting, so the balance tips differently.

Consider this curious fact: for most flavored teas that show up in the marketplace, the visual is very important, if not paramount,  in marketing the tea.  If one is considering buying peach black tea or a strawberry green, the bright sunflower or marigold petals along with bits of fruit and pink rose petals do the selling.

In contrast, when one is buying better quality Jasmine teas, there should not be blossoms evident; a stray petal or two or blossom, yes, but the tea should not be strewn with dried jasmine blossoms.  (There are a couple of exceptions where selected jasmine blossoms are added to the tea after scenting is finished, but these are not the spent blossoms, but fresh ones.)  In fact, an easy comparison is to line up 1st grade, 3rd and 5th grade teas; there will be more blossoms in the lowest grade tea.
Given the labor intensive steps, all carried out in the heat of summer, I always find it puzzling when we taste Jasmine teas that are a bit off.  I do not mean that the aroma or taste is light; I know what not to expect from a 3rd or 4th grade Jasmine.  However, to taste a Jasmine labeled as a Chun Hao or 1st grade tea and to find it too bitter or not fragrant enough is curious, since presumably the teas have undergone the rather arduous processing described above.

I have written extensively about Jasmine tea grades and will not add to that subject here.  What I do see, and starting about a year or so ago, is that grading seems to be slipping a bit.  What were reliably consistent standards, and we do keep samples year after year, seem appear to be shifting, and not in a good direction.

My visual memory of Yin Hao Jasmine, a top standard, is a picture of uniform, fine-leafed tea dappled with silver tips.  It is, after all, named Silver Sprouting.

I do not mind too much that some teas are labeled Yin Hao Jasmine when they are obviously of lower quality.  These teas tend to come from producers with less of a history than those, say, in Fujian.  These samples are easily cast aside and if they are good value teas, they can be considered, just not as a Yin Hao grade tea.

What I do find disconcerting is seeing a 1st grade standard that would have been marked a 2nd grade a decade or so ago, or a 3rd grade tea that I would be pegged as 4th grade years ago. This is not true of all suppliers; however, we are seeing higher prices.  The apparent down-shift from other suppliers mean that we buy at a higher standard in order to maintain the original, lower one: e.g., ordering a Special Grade and we label that tea as a 1st grade instead.

This Chun Hao Jasmine (which is two grades above a first grade: 1st grade, Special grade, Chur She, Chun Hao, Chun Feng, Yin Hao) is priced at the level one would expect for this standard, and yet the flavor was not great.  I have to wonder what the explanation could be; was there a lapse in scenting or was it the quality of the tea material?

Here is a Bai Hao (white tip) Jasmine: the dry tea certainly looks alright, but once brewed, the dark orange liquor said it all.  The taste was poor, with the cup showing a disconnect with the leaf.

Bai Hao Jasmine (White Tip)

Note how dark the cup is:

The Bai Hao Jasmine: leaves appear coarse and choppy.

Then there are the Jasmine teas that are outside standard grades, such as this Super Yin Hao:

Super Yin Hao Jasmine

This high grade Jasmine shows plenty of robust tips, giving the tea a softly balanced flavor.

And the best known is probably Jasmine Pearls, a relatively new product.  In dry form, the scented teas rolled into pearls don’t look very different, from one batch to the next.  A closer examination of the infused pearls explains the differences in price.

First, these two cups show tea from last year and tea from the current season:

Jasmine Pearls: cup on the left is from 2012; the tea from summer 2013 is on the right.

Let’s consider this scented tea in a larger context: in one instance (say, strawberry Green tea), what you see is not what you taste. The fruit bits and flower petals appeal to the eye; they contribute nothing to what the palate senses: that comes from flavoring oils.

In the case of Jasmine teas, and I speak of here of those that are naturally scented without the addition of essences or flavoring (read labels ! ), what you taste is also not really visible in the tea leaves; the real flavoring “agent,” the blossoms, have been removed.

The tea below is a special grade jasmine, and it’s clear that the spent blossoms and most petals have been removed.  Take another look at the scenting photo above, showing the generous amount of white jasmine on tea leaves, and hold that image as you sip your next cup of Jasmine.

Special grade Jasmine

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung