By July, Jasmine tea production is well underway. Jasmine tea is not only the best known scented tea, it is the tea of choice among many tea drinkers in China, especially in the northern provinces. (Southerners such as Cantonese [in Guangdong] tend to think of Shanghai as the north, along with provinces such as Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu – all important provinces for teas – but these are central China.) The tea we know as Jasmine is a Green tea; White, Oolong, and Black teas are also scented but in much smaller quantities.
Major shipments of these white flowers move from southwestern China to eastern provinces to scent teas, as the latter regions do not grow enough. Because the flowers bloom in summer, making high quality Jasmine teas requires fine Green teas from the spring. Those teas are prepared and held until the flowers come into bloom. (An example would be our Jasmine Silver Needle “Yinzhen”.) 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.
We all know that the blossoms are picked from about noon time on through the early afternoon. Morning 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. Natural scenting is arduous work, especially in the heat of July and August, and jasmine scenting comes to a stop at the end of September. Notice how precise the plucking is: these are not tight buds, and opened blossoms definitely do not get picked. Buds that are not likely to unfurl that same afternoon will be plucked another day. Here are some other salient facts about the processing of this popular tea:
- For a high grade Jasmine such as Yin Hao, 1 to 1.1 kg of blossoms 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. The scenting photo above gives a sense of the quantities involved.
Context always helps: this month we received two samples of Jasmine Snowdrift; one was fine, very nice, as a stand-alone tea. But once the second, costlier tea was at its side, the differences were easy to spot. Before even the 1st sip, the colors of the two cups directed us to the better tea, which unfortunately, was the higher priced one. The bouquet was better, lingered a bit, and the wet leaves were evidence of the plucking quality difference. (See photo of the better tea at right.)
- Each round of scenting for high grade teas takes 10 to 16 hours, during which the leaves absorb the natural bouquet of the blossoms. The earlier rounds of scenting are longer, while the last stages are shorter in duration.
- 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 or 5 stages of scenting.
- The flowers are removed after each round of scenting using a sieve device. 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.
- Not all jasmine flowers are the same. There are higher and lower quality of flowers. Moreover, jasmine from Fujian province are usually single-petal flowers. Jasmine blossoms in Guangxi usually have double (layered) petals, imparting a more robust fragrance. Large and plump blossoms/buds are preferred.
- Lower grade teas receive fewer flowers in the scenting and the flowers are of lower quality. I have been told that higher grade tea leaves are better able to absorb the fragrance given up by the blooms.
In some cases, the tea used is a strong Green tea, which makes the finished tea assertive too; these cups tend to be orange-apricot in the cup rather than gold. The well known Monkey King Jasmine is one example. The silver tips are showy and a good sign. The robust leaves tell us to expect a more assertive tea, which the cup confirms. (We have not been importing this particular tea.)
It is easy and tempting to dwell on those early white/silver tipped Jasmine teas. The raw material is itself lovely and the processing makes for an interesting story. But consider that cup of Jasmine tea you are served once you sit down in a Chinese restaurant. (Quite a few restaurants, more than one might expect, still opt for leaf tea rather than the more convenient teabag.) This the tea that we bring in by container loads, usually some 450 cartons in each 20-ft container. The wholesale price per pound is quite low, and yet even such a tea yields a decent cup, recognizable as China Jasmine tea.
For many years, literally decades, the traditional and accepted grades were: Yin Hao at the top, Chun Feng, Chun Hao, Chur She or Swallow’s Tongue, Special Grade, 1st grade, then all the way down to 6th grade and lower. Those standards are still in place in Fujian, a prime producer of so many Jasmines, and we stock most of the grades named here. A few other provinces are reliable and consistent. Then there are some producers label their tea a Chun Hao when it is closer to a Special Grade or lower. I have received samples and teas sold as Yin Hao that were well below 1st grade. We store samples going back some years, so even if flavor has dissipated, the appearance of the various standards still helps.
The Fujian standards serve as a useful yardstick, in terms of visual memory and taste. Then there are those Jasmines that are comparable but have finer or coarser leaves, or may have silver tips mixed in. Some examples of Jasmine Maofeng, and Jasmine Maojian. For each grade or standard, there ought to be a good balance between leaf and flower; one should be able to detect tea in the taste, and no label should indicate that any flavoring or essence was used for this naturally scented tea.
The first teas from the season are arriving, and more will follow. This week, for instance, we learned that scenting of most pearls was winding up. Scenting will end in September, and for the better quality teas such as pearls, needles, and silver tipped teas, we are being asked to make our contracts now, which explains why I’ve been thinking about this tea category.
Text and photographs courtesy of Lydia Kung