Even purists who eschew “flavored” teas will often enjoy a cup of jasmine green tea. Perhaps it is because when you look at the loose tea, all you see is tea leaves; there are no visible indications that your tea leaves have been adulterated in any way. Perhaps it is because the affect of the jasmine in a well-made jasmine tea is delicate and subtle. Perhaps it is the rich history of jasmine teas.
Jasmine first made its way to China from Persia (now known as Iran) over 1,700 years ago, and it took hundreds of years before it was used to scent tea. Even then, it spread quite slowly, and it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1644, that it became widespread.
The making of jasmine tea is quite different from typical flavored teas. Most flavored teas are either blends, where dry ingredients are mixed together, or tea leaves sprayed with flavor extracts, like Earl Grey with its bergamot oil. Jasmine tea, on the other hand, is scented rather than flavored.
In the traditional process, jasmine flowers are picked early in the morning, when the blossoms are still tightly rolled. Trays of processed and dried tea leaves (usually, but not always, green tea) are stacked in alternation with trays of jasmine. The trays have woven mesh or screens as bottoms, so as the jasmine blossoms open up and release their scent, it travels freely into the tea leaves over the course of about four hours.
The tea leaves pick up moisture from the flowers along with the jasmine scent, so they have to be re-dried before they can be packaged. In the finest quality jasmine teas, this scenting process may be repeated half a dozen times or more. The finished tea has no jasmine blossoms in it — only the scent that has transferred.
How you prepare a cup of jasmine tea depends on the base tea used. If it is made form a green tea, as most of them are, then you’ll want to use 175-185°F (80-85°C) water, and steep for three minutes or less. Using boiling water is a quick way to ruin a good cup of jasmine tea — or any other green tea, for that matter — by bringing out unwanted bitterness.
Grades of jasmine tea vary with the quality of the tea and the process used. One of the popular higher-end styles involves tea leaves that are tightly rolled, often known as “jasmine pearls.”
When drinking jasmine pearls, seven balls are placed in a small cup. Seven is considered good luck, so with jasmine pearls you don’t weigh them out or measure them in a tablespoon. Each rolled ball contains two leaves attached to a bud, which will slowly unfurl when the hot water is added.
Unlike most loose tea, jasmine pearls are infused right in the cup with no screens or filters, and you don’t remove them before drinking. The unbroken leaves assure that if you sip carefully, you won’t get a mouthful of leaf. If you’re drinking jasmine pearls with friends, the host should make sure that there’s always more hot water available to keep refilling the cups.
Jasmine blossoms certainly aren’t the only flowers used to scent tea — I’ve written about Vietnamese Lotus Tea, for example — but jasmine is definitely the best-known and most popular.
Last week at World Tea Expo 2014, most of my time was focused on finding new things. I tasted new tea blends and fresh varietals, while browsing through billions of new gadgets, accessories, and tea-related products. I did try to make time to visit with our existing vendors and friends, and when we stopped at AOI, the company we buy our matcha from, I found something old rather than something new.
Have you ever looked at matcha powder and wondered how it’s made? Oh, it sounds very simple: take some high quality Japanese steamed green tea and powder it. But how do you powder it? Today, there are high-volume machines for absolutely everything, but matcha has been around for a very long time (see my posts about matcha and the Japanese tea ceremony for more information). How did they make matcha before the advent of machines?
AOI had the answer in their booth: a hand-carved millstone designed for tea leaves.
The upper stone has a hole in the top where dried tea leaves are inserted, and a vertical wooden shaft in the lower stone keeps it centered. There are grooves that move the ground-up leaves out to the lower stone’s dish. Of course, I had to try it, and then I made a short video of my son using the mill:
I saw a lot of cool gadgets, but this is the one I’d like to have sitting next to my desk at home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale…
We’re very excited to be working with resident artist Karin Solberg from the Red Lodge Clay Center, and we are featuring some of her matcha bowls in the store, and she came in to talk about them at this stop in the tour.
The teas we tasted were:
- Organic Sencha
- Organic Houjicha (roasted green tea)
- Organic Genmaicha (toasted rice tea)
- Organic Matcha
- Kukicha (“twig tea”)
- Bancha (“coarse sencha”)
- Sencha (“decocted tea”)
- Gyokuro (“jade dew”)
As I did last month and the month before, I took a look at some of the search terms that brought people to this blog and found a question that I didn’t really address. This time: “What’s the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea?” The obvious smart-aleck answer is that one comes from Japan and the other comes from China, but it runs a bit deeper than that.
First off, it’s not the plants themselves. The first varietal discovered of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis var. sinensis: the Chinese tea plant. About 1400 years ago, during the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist monks introduced tea — and the tea plant — to Japan. This means that the same varietal of tea plant is growing in China and Japan.
Terroir, on the other hand, can definitely have an effect. The climate, soil, and other factors can definitely affect the taste of the tea. Also, the Japanese have been crossbreeding and developing their strains of tea plant for over a millennium.
The biggest factor in the taste, though, is a very simple one: the process.
The difference between black tea and green tea is oxidation. Black tea is fully (or near-fully) oxidized, while green tea is not oxidized at all. There is an enzyme in the tea leaf that starts the oxidation process as soon as the leaf has been broken or bruised. Making green tea requires a “kill green” step that destroys the enzyme and stops the tea from oxidizing. That step requires heating the tea leaves quickly to at least 140 degrees.
To make Japanese green teas, such as sencha, bancha, and gyokuro, the leaves are steamed. To make Chinese green teas, such as dragonwell or gunpowder tea, the leaves are pan-fired. Just this simple difference in processing gives Japanese teas a rich grassy flavor and Chinese greens more of a vegetal character.
Granted, I am oversimplifying, but this is the fundamental answer to the question.
We checked into the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone last week for the latest stop on my book signing tour. As usual, I schlepped in all of my tea stuff so I could have a decent cup in the morning: electric kettle, teapot, a selection of loose-leaf tea.
Frequently, hotels have coffee makers in the room (unless you’re in Las Vegas), but I don’t like having my tea water taste like coffee, so I don’t use them.
In this room, however, was a Keurig® B130 In-Room Brewing System, the kind that uses the single-serving K-Cups. The sampling of K-Cups in the room included two regular coffees, two decaf coffees, one tea, and one herbal blend. I decided to give their Celestial Seasonings English breakfast tea a try. For some reason, Celestial Seasonings decided not to capitalize “English.” Because of my Scottish heritage, that makes me smile, but that’s irrelevant to the subject at hand.
Following their instructions, I took the sealed cup, which had its lid puffed out from the altitude, and inserted it in the machine. When I closed it (puncturing the top & bottom of the cup), the top of the coffee maker popped open. I added a cup of water, set the mug in its place, and looked for adjustments. Finding none, I just pressed “brew.”
The cup was ready surprisingly fast (one point for the machine), with much hissing and burbling. And it tasted like … your basic cup of breakfast tea in a restaurant. I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, so I use shorter steeping times than the British generally do. Unfortunately, there are no adjustments on this machine, so I got a stronger, more astringent brew than I wanted. Minus one point.
I couldn’t taste any coffee at all in my tea — and I am pretty sensitive to that flavor — so that’s plus one point.
After my wife removed the tea K-Cup and made herself some coffee, I decided to see if I could get a second infusion out of the tea. I carefully lined up the puncture hole on the bottom of the cup and reinserted it. I followed the rest of the process as before, and got a pretty decent second cup. It was weaker than the first, of course, and similar to what you’d get if you reused a tea bag.
Opening the used cup gave some insight into the workings. As you’d expect with a mass-market breakfast tea, they used CTC (crush, tear, curl) processed leaves, broken into quite small pieces. This provides the large surface area needed for the accelerated brewing process Keurig uses.
I understand you can purchase special K-Cups to fill yourself. It would be interesting to play around with whole-leaf teas and tweak the amount of leaf. Unfortunately, since you can’t adjust water temperature, the Keurig would destroy delicate white or green teas, and since you can’t adjust steep times, it would produce bitter oversteeped pu-erh or Darjeeling.
Interestingly, I took a look at the list of tea K-Cups on Keurig’s website, and it does include green and white tea. I’m guessing that their target audience probably uses boiling water in green tea anyway, and doesn’t realize it’s not supposed to taste like that. Most of their 50 selections are black tea, of course, and many are herbal tisanes rather than tea. There are a couple of chai selections there, and I’m guessing those would work.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a fast, easy way to replicate your basic restaurant-style black tea, the Keurig will work admirably. If you want more than that, it’s a lot cheaper to buy an electric kettle and an IngenuiTEA, and you’ll get much better tea, too. The Keurig Brewer is at heart a coffee maker, and using it for making tea is like driving nails with a wrench: you can do it, but it’s a sub-optimal solution.
When I was a kid, tea was something that came in bags with a little tag that said “Lipton.” Visits to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant introduced me to the “other” kind of tea: green tea. The first time I ordered tea in a nice restaurant, I encountered the fancy presentation box, containing exotic varieties of tea like chamomile, Earl Grey, English breakfast tea, and Constant Comment. In high school, I drove a delivery truck for an office supply store in Boulder, Colorado, and one of my stops was Celestial Seasonings.
By that time, I was probably a typical American tea consumer. I classified teas into herbal, green, medicinal, and “ordinary.” Not until quite some time later did I discover just how much I was missing, and in an April tea tasting at Red Lodge Books, I tried to pass on a bit of what I’ve learned. This article is a distillation of the talk I gave that day.
All “true” tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are three major variants. The China bush (var. sinensis), the Assam bush (var. assamica) from India, and the Java bush (var. cambodi). Within those broad categories are over 1,000 individual subvarieties. Just as red climbing roses and yellow tree roses are both roses, all of these subvarieties are still Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.
There are six generally-accepted ways to process Camellia sinensis leaves, which produce white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Yellow tea is so rare that I decided not to cover it. All “true” teas have caffeine, including the delicate whites and greens. Red tea (a.k.a. African rooibos), which I’ll discuss next month, is made from a different plant that does not have caffeine.
White tea is the least-processed, and generally lightest and sweetest-flavored tea. It is typically more expensive than black or green teas, and is recognized as having significant health benefits. It is brewed at a lower temperature, and steeped for a short time. The leaves can be re-used, to make 2-3 cups of tea from one teabag or container.
The white tea we tasted at the bookstore was Rishi’s organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), from the Fujian province of China. This tea was voted the best tea in the world at the 2008 World Tea Championships, and the best white tea in 2009. The taste is very light and subtle, and there is a wonderful jasmine-infused version available as well.
White teas start out as young budsets (an early bud with or two leaves). After picking, they are “wilted” indoors to get some of the moisture out, and then baked or panned. After a light rolling of the leaves, they are dried and packaged for shipment.
Green tea is the traditional tea of China and Japan. It has long been lauded for its healthiness, and intricate ceremonies have been developed around its preparation. People study the Japanese Tea Ceremony for years before performing it publicly. Like white tea, it is brewed at lower temperatures, and can yield 2-3 infusions.
The green tea we tasted was an organic Sencha from the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan; voted the best green tea in the 2008 championships. It is a very traditional green tea, grown in volcanic soil, yielding a deep almost grassy flavor.
After picking, the leaves are steamed or panned, rolled, and then dried. Sometimes, they’ll be formed into balls or other shapes before drying.
Oolong is a very highly-processed tea; one of the most complex to produce. It is generally flavorful and rich without the bitterness often associated with black teas. Unlike green and white teas, the leaves are partially oxidized, which darkens the color and intensifies the flavor.
We tasted an organic Wuyi Oolong. The Wuyi Mountains in Northern Fujian are where oolong tea was first produced, and this variety has a roasted aroma, complex flavor, and sweet finish.
To make oolong tea, the freshly-picked leaves are first wilted (partially dried) in the sun, and then again indoors. They are tossed in a basket to bruise them, and then partially oxidized (typically anywhere from 30-70%). After oxidation, the leaves are baked or panned, and then rolled. The final steps are drying and firing, which produces the smoky aroma.
By far the most common type of tea in Europe and India, black tea is usually brewed hot and strong. Many cultures serve it with milk, sugar, or both to mitigate its inherent bitterness, and it is often flavored with lemon, orange, or other spices (Red Lodge Books has a fascinating vanilla black tea). Black tea flavored with bergamot is known as “Earl Grey.” Black teas are also the basis of English and Irish breakfast tea. Unlike white, green, and oolong teas, black teas are generally only infused once: use the leaves and discard them.
At the tasting, we had Rishi’s organic fair-trade China Breakfast, which won “best breakfast blend” at the 2009 World Tea Championships. It’s rich, malty, and robust; great for the first cup of the morning.
Black teas are usually made with an indoor wilting, followed by a cutting or crushing step. This can range from a light crush to a full “CTC” (crush-tear-curl). This exposes more of the leaf’s insides to assist in oxidation. Black teas are 100% oxidized, yielding higher caffeine content and stronger flavor. Following oxidation, leaves are rolled and dried.
This is probably the least familiar process to Americans, but it has been around in China for centuries. What differentiates it from black or oolong tea is a fermentation step at the end of processing. Although the term “fermented” is often incorrectly used instead of “oxidizing” for black teas, pu-erh is the only variety that is actually fermented.
If you’ve ever had a mulch pile, you’re familiar with the process: plant matter is piled up wet, and left alone. The inside of the pile grows hotter as it ferments. Unlike most teas, which are served as fresh as possible, pu-erh is often compressed into cakes (sometimes immense bricks) that can be stored for years. Century-old pu-erh cakes are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.
Pu-erh is brewed in boiling hot water, and can be re-infused at least 6-8 times. I’ve used leaves ten times and still gotten good flavor from the tenth infusion.
At the tasting, we had a classic loose-leaf organic fair-trade pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The flavor was earthy and rich. The description may seem off-putting to some, but it’s definitely worth trying a good pu-erh.
Last Friday, Fox News ran a “Q&A with Dr. Manny” segment to address the question, “Coffee vs. Tea: Which is Healthier?” Dr. Manny Alvarez handed the question off to someone named Chris Kilham, who I assumed was a scientist or another doctor. I was wrong, but we’ll get to that later.
Kilham began with some general statements (e.g., “For centuries, coffee has been praised for its invigorating properties. And it is truly healthy for you.”) and then stated his opinion: “For the most part, coffee is healthier for you.” Wow. That took me by surprise. Let’s continue and see what kind of well-researched and scientifically-backed justification he puts forth to back that conclusion.
The very next sentence is “The majority of people who drink tea, drink it black, and there’s no question that naturally occurring compounds in coffee are exceptionally good for you.” Really? I’m not sure what the first half of that sentence has to do with the second half, but let’s look at the first half.
I’m going to assume that he meant “most tea drinkers drink black tea” as opposed to “most tea drinkers don’t add milk or cream.” If he’s speaking of the United States, then the Tea Association of the USA backs him up. Their Tea Fact Sheet says that 80% of the tea consumed in the U.S. in 2010 was black tea. Worldwide, statistics vary. Teavana, for example, in the “Types of Tea” section of its website, says that “Green tea is the most popular type of tea, mainly because it is the beverage of choice in Asia.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) disagrees, however, stating that projected 2010 tea production was 2,443,000 tonnes of black tea vs. 900,000 tonnes of green tea. No offense, Teavana, but I think I’ll go with FAO’s numbers on this one. One accuracy point for Kilham.
Next, he proceeds to say that, “Two large cups of coffee, or 300 milligrams of caffeine per day, can improve a negative mood.” Assuming he’s referring to studies like Rogers & Dernoncourt, Haskell et al, or Peeling & Dawson, it’s the caffeine that has the effect, not the coffee per se. So it not only applies equally to coffee and tea, but you could get the same effect from swilling a two-liter of Mountain Dew.
“Rusting of cells in our bodies? Rusting? And they quoted this guy as an expert?”
His next claim starts with, “Research into the chemical properties of coffee show that a cup of Joe contains potent, protective antioxidants, which inhibit the rusting of cells in our bodies.”Whoa! Back up here. “Rusting of cells in our bodies?” Rusting? And they quoted this guy as an expert? Metal rusts. Cells don’t. Oxygen is the basic fuel that keeps our cells going. Our entire cardiovascular system exists to get oxygen to our cells. *sigh*
But yes, coffee does contain antioxidants. So, in fact, does tea. He proceeds to tell us, “Coffee is especially high in one group of antioxidants, flavonoids.” I attempted to find out whether coffee or tea contains more flavonoids, but there are just too many variables. Suffice it to say they both have plenty.
“And this next paragraph is where Kilham really shows his ignorance about tea.”
And this next paragraph is where Kilham really shows his ignorance about tea: “But if you’re drinking green tea, which is simply tea that hasn’t been fermented, then I would probably have to say that green tea is the healthier drink. It’s rich in flavenols [sic], which are lost when the tea is fermented.” Where do I even start with this?
- First of all, green tea isn’t simply “tea that hasn’t been fermented.” Black tea hasn’t been fermented, either. Nor have white tea and oolong tea. Either Kilham doesn’t know the difference between fermentation and oxidation, or he doesn’t know the difference between black tea (which is oxidized) and pu-erh tea (which is fermented). I’m guessing both, and I’ll henceforth assume he means oxidized whenever he says fermented.
- Next, it’s “flavonols,” not “flavenols.” If you’re going to babble pseudoscience, at least spell the words right.
- Flavonols aren’t “lost” during oxidation; most (but not all) are converted into different antioxidants called theaflavins, and some convert to thearubigins (which produce the reddish hue of black tea).
- Flavonols aren’t the only basis for measuring the healthiness of a drink. Focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else shows that Kilham just didn’t bother to do any research on tea.
He finishes his answer with the standard platitude of the underinformed: “The bottom line: If you’re talking about coffee and black tea, coffee is the healthier choice. If you’re a green tea drinker, green tea is the healthier choice.”
What’s wrong with that conclusion? It oversimplifies the issue and ignores all of the tea styles other than green and black. It doesn’t look at different types of black tea (or variants like the new purple tea from Kenya) or different ways of preparing them.
When I first wrote this response (before Firefox crashed and killed it), I didn’t know who Chris Kilham was. As I mentioned earlier, I assumed he was a medical doctor, researcher, or scientist. When I went to his website, however, I found that he’s a “medicine hunter, author and educator” who “travels the world in search of traditional, plant-based medicines, and works with shamans, healers, growers, harvesters, scientists, trade officials and other plant medicine experts in dozens of countries.” Yep, when I want accurate scientific health information, I go to shamans and healers.
There’s a quote from Dr. Alvarez that says, “I love adventure! That’s why I love teaming up with The Medicine Hunter, Chris Kilham.” Very telling. Alvarez didn’t call Kilham because he loves accurate information or well-researched responses. He called him because he loves adventure! Of course.
I think I’ll have another cup of tea and improve my mood.
These days, you can’t be too careful what you say on a tea website. Last year, Unilever was warned by the FDA for claims they made about “Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural, Naturally Decaffeinated.” A week later, they warned Dr. Pepper Snapple Group about claims they made concerning “Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale.” Earlier this year, the FDA’s target was Diaspora Tea & Herb (d.b.a. Rishi Tea) for a wide variety of health claims on Rishi Tea’s website.
Given these warning shots fired across the bows of the big boys, the whole industry is being careful about making nutritional claims for tea. But we still need to say more about tea than just “this stuff tastes really, really good” — although that’s generally good enough for me.
For an example of how far companies are going these days, we got a promotional mailer at the bookstore today from Numi Tea. They are a fine company, and I’d be happy to resell some of their products in our tea bar. The mailer has some traditional marketing language (with appropriate footnotes, of course), just as I’d probably write myself:
“[Pu-erh]’s unique fermentation process results in more antioxidants than most green teas and is traditionally known to help weight management*, improve digestion and naturally boost energy.”
Well, I hope I wouldn’t write it exactly like that, but given a bit of tweaking to the grammar and punctuation, it’s a reasonable sentence.
The first claim is footnoted “*Along with a healthy diet and exercise.” Okay. I’ll buy that. Given enough healthy diet and exercise, lots of things help with weight management. The other two claims are very difficult to measure and/or prove. Vague claims typically don’t draw the ire of the FDA, so they’re probably safe.
But it was the next section that made me chuckle. It says, and I quote:
“Every blend is freshly brewed, made with full-leaf tea and uses 100% real ingredients for a pure Pu-erh tea taste.”
Wow! It uses 100% REAL INGREDIENTS! Is that the best they could do? Really? Can you imagine the certification process for that? “Is this an ingredient? Yep!” I carry 100 different teas in my tea bar, and I can guarantee you that every single one of them carries 100% real ingredients. Yep. Not an unreal ingredient in the bunch.
I did a bit of further looking, and found that the front cover of their mailer says, “Real ingredients. 100%. Nothing else.” There’s a whole section of their website called “100% real ingredients.” There’s a paragraph on that page of their site that says:
“For a pure, authentic taste, we blend premium organic teas and herbs with only real fruits, flowers and spices. We never use ‘natural’ flavorings or fragrances like other teas do.”
I’m pleased to hear that they only use “real” ingredients, and not “natural” ones like everyone else. Come on, Numi. You make some absolutely fantastic teas, and your organic and fair-trade programs are excellent. I’d like to see you spend more time talking about that — which really does differentiate your products — and less time talking about being “real,” which means absolutely nothing.