Jasmine tea has been a luxurious treat for the Chinese aristocracy since the Ming Dynasty, when fresh, loose, leaves started to gain popularity. But to many tea purists, it can seem like a cop out - a fragrance added to mask the flaws of sub-par tea leaves. The truth is that jasmine teas, like all other tea types, are made in a wide range of quality levels, including both opulent delicacies and inferior imitations.
The base of any jasmine tea is a Camellia sinensis tea leaf, just as with any other traditional tea. As these base leaves will provide both flavor and texture within the finished, scented tea, major differences in quality can be obvious even before scenting. If the base tea is plucked in the spring, and consists mostly of young, fresh leaf buds, the finished product is sure to be naturally sweet and smooth. On the other hand, machine harvested leaves harvested in the hot summertime are likely to result in a bitter brew, which may even overpower the added jasmine scent, on the palate.
The difference between base leaves is not insignificant, especially because green and white teas are typically used for jasmine scenting. With these lighter styles of tea, even minor details in harvest date or crafting can drastically change the flavor. High quality examples used for jasmine teas should be soft, sweet, and subtle, so as to complement and emphasize the aromatic jasmine scenting. Dominant by design, the jasmine fragrance must also live up to the quality of the base tea.
Methods of Scenting
1. Natural Scenting
The natural scenting process uses fresh jasmine flowers, plucked during the daytime when the buds are closed. Tea leaves from the spring harvest are steamed or dried to halt oxidation, and then carefully stored for maximum freshness until the most fragrant jasmine blossoms emerge in late summer. When the jasmine flowers are harvested, the dry leaves are laid out, with fresh jasmine flower blossoms separating layers of tea leaves. The layered leaves and flowers are left overnight, while the blossoms begin to open and the dry tea leaves absorb aromatic oils and moisture from the flowers. In the morning, the flowers are sorted away, the leaves are dried, and the process is repeated. More repetitions make for stronger jasmine flavor, as the leaves absorb more fragrant oils.
By Javier Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This scenting process has been carefully refined over the course of centuries to produce the most jasmine flavor, with minimal bitterness or astringency. There are no dried jasmine flowers left in the finished dry leaves. Instead, the jasmine aroma has become part of the tea itself, as much as the leaf’s own inherent flavors. Jasmine teas scented in this way can be brewed multiple times in gong fu style, and will retain jasmine flavor through at least 3-5 infusions.
Natural scenting is a labor intensive method that produces a relatively small amount of tea, for the amount of work put in. Repeated rounds of scenting will multiply the cost of any tea. So to bring jasmine tea to the common people, shortcuts had to be taken.
Blended jasmine teas, or tea leaves with dried jasmine flowers, do not have very much jasmine flavor. The fragrant jasmine oils are absent from the dried flower, leaving very little recognizable jasmine flavor. Instead, the dried flowers are mostly tasteless, with a hint of bitterness. This is one of the primary reasons why herbal jasmine teas (without Camellia sinensis tea leaves) never caught on.
However, dried jasmine flowers do effectively influence human perception of flavor, just as the color of the brew can. Historically, lower grade jasmine teas still needed to undergo natural scenting. The base leaves were chopped, to allow them to absorb more jasmine oils more quickly, and then a small portion of the dried flowers were blended into the final product to emphasize the jasmine flavor. While the chopped leaves might be more prone to releasing bitterness, these blended teas were still luxurious for the working-class tea drinker.
3. Artificial Fragrance
In our modern world, artificial flavors and colors are ubiquitous, so it should come as no surprise that they are also used to make jasmine teas. Unfortunately, the artificial nature of these created fragrances leaves them lacking, when compared with the natural version.
As with blended jasmine teas, cost is a motivating factor, so artificial scents are most often used on low quality teas. Mass-market bagged teas, for instance, are usually filled with ‘tea dust’, particles of tea leaf so fine that the process of natural scenting would be impossible. Artificial flavoring not only makes the process easier, it is also more stable for long term storage.
William Curtis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Artificially flavored teas may also be blended with dried flowers to emphasize their intended flavor, but the brew is likely to be underwhelming despite the psychological trick. These flavored teas are more likely to smell or taste like a scented soap.
Just like unscented teas, jasmine teas can vary in quality based on variety, harvest date, provenance, and craftsmanship. The jasmine flowers and scenting process add an extra dimension to the search for quality, and mediocre versions of this popular style abound. Asking your vendors about the details of the integral scenting process can lend valuable insight about what to expect in flavor.
If you’re a jasmine tea lover, try our Dragon Pearl Jasmine Supreme, an exquisite example of a traditional jasmine tea that has undergone a full ten days of natural scenting.
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