It is believed the jasmine flower bush was brought to China from Persia during the Period of Disunity (220-589). Numerous jasmine varieties exist, but the Arabian jasmine is what gives Chinese jasmine teas their rich aroma. Chinese emperors prized jasmine-scented teas. During their reign, they offered them as a gift to foreign officials. Delicious jasmine teas are scented just enough to pleasantly caress your senses with their sweet floral aroma. Tea masters in Fuijian province worked for several hundred years to develop this technique.
Manufacturing jasmine tea is a complicated and delicate process. Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), tea masters in the Fujian province have specialized in jasmine flower cultivation and jasmine tea manufacture. Traditional jasmine tea is scented with fresh jasmine blooms and a special base tea called zao bei, or “tea readied.” Jasmine tea has two categories:
- Premium, traditional jasmine tea
- Standard-grade jasmine tea
Premium, traditional jasmine tea is plucked in the early spring before the first spring rains. Standard-grade jasmine tea uses summer-harvested tea leaves. After plucking, the leaves are de-enzymed, put in a rolling machine, and then passed through a drying machine. Heat is blown above the leaves, decreasing rolling and curling, which exposes more surface area to absorb the jasmine scent. These leaves are slightly oxidized, but look like green tea. This process creates a distinct flavor to counterpoint the sweetness of the jasmine. Jasmine flowers bloom in late summer in the Fujian province, so spring-picked zao bei is stored in cool storage until summer.
In July, flower pickers begin harvesting new jasmine buds at noon. Noon is an ideal time to pick new buds because the dew has evaporated. Perfect flower buds are snow white and a certain length. Picking ends around 4:00 PM, at which time the flower buds are brought to the factory. The flowers are kept in a room at around 100 degrees F to encourage the aroma. Ideally, the flower buds begin to open before the scenting begins. In the evening, room temperature zao bei-based tea is mixed into piles with jasmine flower buds.
The zao bei and jasmine buds co-mingle in a pile for six hours with in internal temperature of about 113F. The increased heat encourages the flower buds to open, releasing perfume and promoting a moisture transfer between the flower and the base tea. Workers adjust the tea piles to be in sync with the ambient temperature in the room. If the base tea overheats, a bitter flavor develops. After about six hours, the tea is flattened, allowing the leaves to breathe. Each pile is then reformed for four to six hours of additional scenting. After 10 to 12 hours, the flowers are sifted out. The tea rests for a day and then fresh flowers starts the process again. Premium, traditional jasmine teas are scented over five times. Standard-grade jasmine teas are scented two or three times. At the end of scenting, the tea is fired one last time to seal in the flavor. Premium, traditional jasmine tea has a shelf life of about three years. Lower-quality jasmine teas stay fresh for about a year and a half.
Traditionally, the jasmine flowers are sifted out of the tea in China. For western markets, the buds stay in the tea for visual appeal. Jasmine flowers are added to green and oolong teas. Beware of jasmine teas coated in jasmine oils or flavorings.
In northern China, it is customary to serve a cup of fragrant and refreshing jasmine tea as a welcoming gesture to guests.