Jasmine flowers only blooms once each year. In most of China this is late July, and their blooming season is a brief two weeks long. Part of the impulse behind traditional Jasmine tea is to preserve the fleeting, enchanting scent of these tiny flowers so that it may be enjoyed year round. Much practice, and centuries of handing down techniques between generations, has made this incredible feat possible.
Tea leaves are long known to have the remarkable capacity to absorb and preserve the elusive scent of flowers. However, the process of scenting tea leaves is laborious and long-developed; it began in the Southern Song Dynasty more than 1000 years ago. It requires a careful understanding of the ratio of flower to tea, and several rounds of infusions to achieve a lasting transfer of the flower's otherwise fleeting scent.
Traditionally, scenting is done in small batches. For jasmine tea, the fresh, white, delicate blossoms are scattered with the tea leaves on bamboo mats and left overnight. During their sleep together, the tea leaves gradually absorb the delicate night-aromas of the blossoms. The next morning, craftsmen separate the jasmine flowers from the tea leaves, and the tea is baked over charcoal for a few hours.
It is always a special occasion when we receive fresh harvests of tea scented with jasmine.
We just received two new harvests at Cultivate. The Jasmine Snow Flake and Jasmine Silver Tips.
It has been an exceptionally good year for Jasmine Snow Flake. This tea comes to us from Emei Mountain in the Sichuan Province. Tea cultivation on E’Mei dates back to the Tang Dynasty, when fresh teas from its peak were delivered to the imperial palace as Tribute Teas to the Emperor. Traditionally, 6 teas from this mountain are used for Zen meditations, and Jasmine Snow Flake is one of them.
This tea has a very poetic name in Chinese — 碧潭飘雪 — which loosely translates to “tranquil snowfall over jade pond”. The image references a very calming scene in nature, and also describes the beautiful experience of brewing this tea: in water, the green tea leaves drift to the bottom of the teapot, while the white jasmine buds float above like snow suspended on a lake.
With this tea, the scenting was highly effective. It smells like total jasmine, and is such a clear expression of the little white flower, you could swear it was blooming inside you. Only young, spindly green tips are used in this tea; they carry the scent quietly, with jasmine essence spinning all around them.
The tea leaves look extra green in this harvest. They are rich in their own scent, binding with the scent of jasmine to produce something very impactful. The liquor is also more weighty and less sweet this year. It passes over the palette without any astringency, making it feel glycerol and composed. The jasmine is vivid and immediate: it lasts for over 6 infusions, gradually becoming sweeter and sweeter.
The Jasmine Silver Tips we received this year remains one of our favourite teas for daily drinking.
For this tea, the fresh green tea buds are crafted in April, then set aside to await the blooming of the jasmine flowers in July. The fresh jasmine was harvested in late July, after which the the tea was scented with them by way of a patient process that lasted 2 weeks.
This tea remembers the nights it spent with the jasmine vividly: with our eyes closed, it is pure flowers, underlaid by the sweetness of rock sugar.
Even though the tea’s perfume is intense, it impresses upon our palate lightly. This is a beautiful quality, often attributed to jasmine: it captures us, but only to let us go.
In this year's harvest we notice how quickly the dry leaves reanimate into lively, sage green spindles as soon as the water hits them. The blossoms have left them with a powdery, haunting scent. The green tea is prominent, and has an incredibly sweet aftertaste. The combined effect of the lingering floral scent and the sweet aftertaste means this tea is primarily experienced in the impression it leaves us with after we’ve swallowed it, making it haunting in its own right.
An interesting afterthought to our appreciation of these teas: 窨, the Chinese character for scenting, is made of two parts. The top part is 穴, which translates into jar or cellar. The bottom is 音, which translates into music or sound.
The story of how the character for scenting came to be is that, in the ancient times, people used to collect the fragrance of flowers by storing the buds in ceramic pots and sealing them with cotton paper. As the flower buds opened up, their subtle motion would create a sound in the jars. This early form of scenting was experienced aurally, as flowers singing in their chamber — thus, 窨, or “music in the jar," became the character still used today.