Jasmine teas: the work of scenting

by Lydia Kung

In tea-season terms, September marks the anticipation of autumnal teas from south Asia, of oolongs from Fujian, and signals the soon-to-conclude scenting of jasmine teas. I turn to jasmine teas first, because for me, summer has been a watch-and-wait period for what’s being scented when, bringing a lesson in patience and a better grasp of the work of scenting when only natural flowers are used.

I often refer to tea processing as if it were one continuous block of work. For green teas, especially ones made from high quality plucking, this pretty much holds true. At one remote processing plant (calling it a factory conjures up an industrial structure and equipment that do not fit the actual very rustic site), I arrived when the plucked tea was being brought in by the pickers, about 9:30 am. By around 1 pm, we had the first glasses of the finished tea in our hands. For a minimally processed tea with the aim being to avoid oxidation, this short and efficient work in the course of one morning makes good sense.

The work flow as day turns into evening and into the next day for jasmine teas and oolongs, however, looks quite different, with more spurts of effort, alternating with resting periods, but throughout, careful monitoring is key, often gauged by the senses rather than relying on machines and timers.

It is still summer, and jasmine scenting continues at an intensive pace now. Or it would be intense were it not for the over abundance of rain in areas where jasmine thrives. (Sometimes hard to imagine from the vantage of a still parched southern California.)

The province with the most prodigious output of this fragrant white blossom is Guangxi, west of the vastly more prosperous Guangdong province. Various tea growing provinces send their prepared green teas to Guangxi expressly for jasmine scenting that starts in late May. Guangxi has more jasmine gardens, better quality flowers, and a longer season, which is to say, ideally, hot and dry.

Jasmine growers, unlike tea growers, usually do not hire outside workers to pick the flowers. They have been tending to the bushes throughout the year, and come summer, the exacting work of picking just-about-to-open buds begins.

Just like teas, there are quality differences in jasmine and the better blooms come from optimum ideal weather conditions. Flowers are generally used just once in scenting the awaiting tea leaves. There is machinery designed to sift out the spent blossoms. Occasionally, spent flowers may be used again along with fresh blossoms in scenting low grade teas, but this is not the general practice.

Here is an overall view of the proportion of jasmine buds to tea leaves during scenting:

Jasmine teas @ a retail sale range of USD70/lb and up: 1.5 kg to 2.5 kg of jasmine to 1 kg of tea;
Jasmine teas @ a retail sale range less than USD70/lb: 1 kg to 1.5 kg of jasmine to 1 kg of tea.

Some variation may depend on flower quality and cost control for the tea being produced.

For low grade jasmine teas, it is not so much of using fewer flowers but scenting fewer times.

Recently I asked one producer to scent a specific green tea, one I liked for its very showy white downy tips. When my modest quantity of 10 kgs was pronounced too small a quantity to scent, I nudged up my order to 50 kgs, but that was not feasible either. Usually, big batches totaling several hundred kgs are worked on, as the jasmine buds are added, with a wait for the leaves to absorb the fragrance, and then moving to the removal of most of the flowers. How many siftings to remove open blossoms and petals depends on the grade of the tea.

For a fairly high grade of Jasmine, say, a special grade or one just below Yin Hao, after scenting begins late afternoon with the distribution of flowers over tea leaves, the cycle extends to about mid-morning the next day, and after each round of scenting, the tea leaves must be dried.

Visualize, then, a good quality Jasmine Pearls tea that is scented 4-5 times: it is not merely a simple matter of calculating the hours that have elapsed since the leaves/pearls were first brought into the scenting facility. In order to assure the flower quality, teas such as pearls are scented on continuous days, and if there is rain, this means that the processing can extend into two weeks or more.

One might assume that high grade teas are scented first as the jasmine season begins. This is not always the case. The scheduling depends on flower quality, weather conditions, and market demand. If the early blooms are deemed not of superior quality, lower grade teas might get scented before higher grade teas.

This explains (but did not lessen my impatience) why premium teas such as Curled Dragon Silver Tip or very fancy Jasmine Pearls weren’t available in late May or early June this year. (The former was not finished until late August.)

Compare this to the very brief time for a nice cup of green tea to materialize from just picked leaves.

In the case of jasmine teas, the alternating steps of labor-intensive activity and resting periods are have the objective of enhancing tea with the natural fragrance of jasmine. Flowers are added to create a proper balance of leaf and flower. In the case of oolong teas, the fussy processing is intended to draw out the inherent features of leaves that yield such memorable flavors in this category. Nothing is added but the craft.