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.
Vietnamese Lotus Tea
Although my tastes generally run to non-flavored tea, I have long enjoyed Chinese jasmine tea. Technically, it is scented rather than flavored, but either way you’re getting more than just the flavor and aroma of the tea. The producer starts with a good green tea, produces in the Chinese manner (pan-fired rather than steamed, as the Japanese do). They pick fresh jasmine blossoms and layer them in with the tea overnight. The scent from the jasmine infuses the tea, and in the morning they take the jasmine blossoms out and re-dry the tea to remove the moisture from the flowers. This process is typically repeated up to about six or seven times.
I speak here of the traditional production method. Cheap green tea can be made by simply spraying jasmine extract onto tea leaves.
At World Tea Expo this year, one of my goals was to expand my knowledge of tea from parts of the world other than the ones we most encounter in the U.S. (China, India, Japan, Kenya, and Sri Lanka) and to expand the tea selection in my tea bar. I made quite a few new discoveries, one of which was lotus blossom tea from Vietnam.
If you walk into an average tea shop, you’re not likely to encounter much Vietnamese tea, if any at all. Vietnam, however, is the sixth-largest producer of tea in the world, with annual production approaching 200,000 tonnes — over double that of Japan, which has fallen to tenth place.
Green tea in Vietnam is produced as it is in China. The tradition of lotus blossom tea is similar to that of jasmine tea, but with a twist. Unlike a jasmine flower, a lotus blossom is a large bloom that seals up tightly like a tulip. By ancient Vietnamese tradition, lotus blossom tea is produced by filling fresh lotuses with green tea and binding the blossom together overnight. In the morning, the flower is opened and the highly-scented tea extracted. Today, the process is more likely to be like jasmine tea. Often, freshly-picked lotuses — or just the stamens of the flowers — are sealed up with the tea in an airtight container or baked with the tea.
Lotus tea, like jasmine tea, gets more aroma than flavor from the flower. Since lotus is much less delicate than jasmine, I settled on a pretty short brewing time of two minutes. When I raised the cup to my nose, the first thing to hit me was the smell of anise (licorice). I’m not a big licorice fan, so I was a bit put off, but I took another whiff. Beneath that strong anise is the vegetal aroma so common with Chinese green teas, but a bit earthier. The taste is very pleasant with a nice medium body to it.
The lotus tea I have came from the Thái Nguyên province in northeastern Vietnam. It is a mountainous area where a lot of Vietnam’s tea is grown.
I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most popular teas in the tea bar, but it will certainly become one of our regular offerings. I’ve begun recommending it to people who want to try something a bit different, and reactions have been mostly either “wow!” or “meh.” If you like floral tea and you’re ready to move beyond the jasmine blossoms of China and the cherry blossoms of Japan, then I would definitely recommend trying this unique Vietnamese treat.