Hunting for the right jasmine tea

A few days ago I went to see an old friend of mine. We were sitting and talking politics when his wife brought us some tea, like she always does. This time, however, instead of the regular jasmine-scented green tea, she brought something else. I couldn’t figure it out at first. It was a mixture of strong jasmine and something vaguely familiar. Then it hit me – it must be that Green Trip I’d given them a while ago, mixed with molihua! I opened the pot and there it was – bright green tieguanyin leaves on top of paler jasmine green tea. The lady only added half a dozen small pellets, but it made a huge difference.

Jasmine overkill

For quite some time now, I’ve been looking for a jasmine tea that would look good in the Daoli selection. Despite the massive choice – nearly every other tea shop in Kunming has some sort of jasmine tea – the task has proved to be quite difficult. The problem is that the jasmine flavour is usually so strong that it is simply impossible to appreciate whatever overtones the base tea leaves could be contributing to the final bouquet.

When jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihua cha) is made, tea leaves are mixed with freshly plucked jasmine blossoms. The flowers can be replaced several times until the desired level of fragrance is reached. Sometimes, however, tea makers just overdo it. It makes sense if the base tea leaves are of so-so quality, but this often happens to high-grade buds as well. Nice as it might be, the base tea often loses a lot of its potential to the overwhelming taste of jasmine.

So, when I tried that “accidentally enhanced” jasmine tea at my friend’s place, I realized that there was still hope after all. If one pinch of pure tieguanyin made such a positive contribution to the flavour, it was logical to assume that there should be a tea out there that was made with some sense of balance in mind. I went to the market the next day.

The search begins

It was Monday, February 6th – the day when the Chinese New Year is officially over. I heard some fireworks at 8 a.m. I thought someone was acting crazy, but as I remembered what day it was I realized that it only the first of the many more to come. Indeed, last night the fireworks just as loud and numerous as they had been two weeks ago, when the Dragon was superseding the Rabbit.

I decided to first visit Huang, a good friend of mine and one of the most honest tea traders I’ve ever met. His family mainly sells pu’er and black, but I was sure they had some jasmine tea too. Huang pointed to a huge bag of small nuggets on a nearby shelf. The nugget shape is mainly used for pu’er tea, I immediately started thinking about what an interesting base the bittersweet flavour of sheng pu’er would make. However, when I steeped the nugget and took the first sip, I couldn’t taste any “sheng” in it. What I had was simply decent jasmine green tea. The flavoring process involves the temperatures that simply turn all tea into green tea. The taste was OK, but the leaves were all broken up and edgy, which is a common problem for all pressed teas and nuggets in particular. Convenience does come at a price… So, I kept looking.

The jasmine conundrum

My next destination was a small shop that had a bit of everything. Upon hearing my request, the owner went up to a row of boxes lined up in between baskets and crates filled with dozens of herbs and blossoms. I said that I needed a tea that could last at least 6-8 brews, and the owner put together a selection of four different teas. There were two kinds that I’d tried a while ago and didn’t find interesting. So, I decided to test the other two that were both shaped into neatly curled pellets (often referred to as gunpowder in the west).

The pellets differed in size a bit – the smaller costing 50% more. I brewed them both at the same time, and the strong jasmine fragrance soon filled the entire shop. Both teas opened up mere seconds after the water was added. The smaller pellets developed into very fine and wholesome buds. The bigger ones showed both, bud and small leaf content. I tried them both and realised that, had I been blindfolded, I’d never think I was drinking two different teas, let alone tell which one was better or more expensive. A strange thought occurred to me: what guns do to make people equal, jasmine does to teas. No matter how fancy or average any given tea is, put enough jasmine in it, and differences become irrelevant. With these thoughts in mind, I bade farewell to the owners and left to pursue my luck elsewhere.

He who seeks, finds

There was another shop at the northern part of the market that had an even larger selection of teas and herbs. I used to go there often until I discovered that although they usually had decent stuff, it was relatively pricy. When I got there, the assistant took me to the boxes that were all too similar to the ones I’d seen minutes earlier. The tea inside was much the same too. I told the owner that I’d already tried all that and was looking for something more “balanced”. She thought about it for a moment and pulled another box out of a small storage area. I stuck my nose in it and – voilà! It was the first jasmine tea that didn’t assault me with its intrusive flavour but rather gave me a hearty welcome. The owner saw the smile on my face and brewed some for me right away. The taste and fragrance met my expectations. I could finally make out overtones of the base green tea. I tried a couple more brews. They were just as good. I thanked the owner and bought a small bag for further testing.

I decided to give it another go the next day. It yielded seven excellent brews, which isn’t bad at all, considering that I was using my favorite 300 ml cup with lid and filter. Indeed, he who seeks, finds…

Photos from today’s trip to the market

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Iskanje pravega jasmina). For more posts on tea please visit

2012: First cup of tea

January 23rd, the first day of the year of the dragon. At 1 pm the streets were still empty. The janitors did a great job, and most of the mess caused by fireworks was already gone.

First sight of the market

I went to the northern tea market, which is only 20 minutes away by bike. I was hoping to talk to some traders about tea and what they do for the Chinese New Year.

Out of maybe 300-400 shops only half a dozen were open. The part of the market that I like the most was simply fenced off. I could see a few people sitting outside playing cards in the sunny weather, but I decided not to bother them.

Instead, I ventured to the western part of the market. The main gate was open, and I saw a few cars parked in the courtyard. I spotted one open shop, but then I looked at the car that was parked outside, and noticed that it was a drug police vehicle. It was so huge that it was blocking most of the shop’s front. Inside there were people sitting at a huge solid-wood tea table – probably relatives or friends catching up and celebrating.

Finally – the right place

I got back on my bike and soon found another place. It was a small tea shop with only a couple of people inside. I asked how come they were open, and the lady said that they live very close and would rather spend the day at the shop, drinking tea and enjoying the awesome weather. Inside, they had a nice selection of shu and sheng pu’er teas of different shapes and ages.

I asked what kind of sheng pu’er they liked themselves, and the man showed me a decent-looking cake. It looked and smelled just fine, so I asked them to brew some of it for me. I also noticed that they had a small collection of organic teas and asked to make some of that too, just to compare the taste and fragrance.

While the lady was preparing the water and the teaware, I found out that they were one of the six shops in Kunming that exclusively sell tea from a big tea factory in south of Yunnan. The tea was soon ready and I gave it a try. The leaves of the organic tea looked greener and nicer than the leaves of the regular pu’er, but they tasted more or less the same. I thought it was odd, considering the huge difference in price.

Organic vs. non-organic

I asked about the requirements for organic teas. It turns out that their organic pu’er grows on the slopes of a series of hills washed by a small river. It is true that they don’t use any nasty chemicals, but it is also true that non-organic teas could be growing in similar conditions. So what really raises the price for organic tea is its limited availability and higher production costs associated with its special treatment and mandatory certification.

When I asked why the organic tea looked greener and had a nicer texture, I was told that it has nothing to with being organic or not. The teas simply came from different trees and locations.

Both organic and non-organic teas shared the same flaw, though – their leaves were not wholesome. I wondered why they weren’t selling any tea in loose form. The lady replied that loose tea loses its taste and fragrance within 6-18 months. Pressed pu’er, however, is able to retain its taste for decades. She showed me pictures of their factory where people were filling large cylindrical bowls with tea and placing them over holes in metal tables that had water boiling underneath. The leaves were steamed much like Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Because the cakes become so dense, they require a special pu’er knife or a thin sharp object to be broken. It causes some inconvenience in handling and makes the leaves look broken and edgy. But for Chinese, quality of tea is valued higher than its appearance.

I really liked talking to the owner and asked her a few more questions. There were some huge cakes of pu’er lined up on the shelves. That was collectable tea pressed into 1kg flat cakes. All that tea came from very old trees (some are hundreds of years old). Depending on the weather and water availability, a tree like that can yield 100-200 kilos of dried tea per year. Because it’s limited edition, this tea is expensive from the beginning, and in ten years its price can go up 10-20 times.

Smoked tea but not lapsang souchong

I have a cake of sheng pu’er at home. It was a gift from a Chinese friend. It tastes strong and slightly bitter, and it smells of smoked salmon. I asked my friend how old it was, and he said he had no idea. Had a bunch of them at home and just drank them. I noticed some tea at their shop that had the same markings on the wrapping. I opened it and recognized the smell right away. My clothes smell like that if I spend too much time by the campfire.

Not surprisingly, the owner also had an explanation for that. It is common for sheng pu’er to smell like that if it’s harvested in autumn. It has something to do with the lack of water, which changes the internal chemistry of the plant, yielding generally stronger tea with that characteristic smell of burnt wood.

Photos from today’s trip to the market

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Prva skodelica čaja v kitajskem novem letu). For more posts on tea please visit

Tea and Healthy Life

At the time when the FDA and their European counterparts are cracking down on many natural remedies that have been used for hundreds of years, tea and flower infusions still hold their ground as the basic solutions for many common afflictions: sore throat, common headaches, cough, common flu, etc.

Black tea

Antioxidants in tea

Recently, many scientists around the world have been trying to find out whether tea can be used to tackle even more serious problems. It turns out that the leaves of Camellia Sinensis – the plant used to produce green, black, pu’er, wulong, and many other kinds of tea – are rich in poly-phenolic antioxidants, chemical compounds that can improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and even fight cancer.

The active ingredients responsible for all this good work are called catechins, and the most prolific type of catechin present in tea is epigallocatechin gallate or simply EGCG. One cup of brewed tea (240 mL) contains roughly 200 mg of this compound. However, its half-life period is quite short in humans, so it is recommended to consume several cups of tea a day in order to achieve the desired prophylactic effect.

In 2007 a research team from the Claremont University tried to use EGCG to target a specific enzyme responsible for growth of cancer cells in patients with Small-cell lung carcinoma. “Less than 24 hours after introducing EGCG to the tumor cells, we saw a 50-60 percent reduction in telomerase activity,” says David Sadava, the head of the medical research team. That is definitely good news for all the SCLC patients, because no conventional therapies work well for this disease and cancer quickly develops resistance to drugs. The green tea, however, not only effectively slows down the growth of tumours, it also has none of the terrible side effects always brought by conventional chemo- or radio therapies.

Milk in your cup

A study published in 2007 suggests that addition of milk to tea inhibits most, if not all of its potential medicinal value. That happens because compounds in milk form complexes with tea catechins and thus alter their functionality.

Tea Symposium in DC

On Sep 19, 2012, the world’s leading nutrition scientists convened at the United States Department of Agriculture to discuss some of the latest research findings regarding health benefits of regular tea consumption. The body of scientific evidence presented at the convention makes it very clear that people who have made tea part of their diet enjoy numerous health benefits. One study claims, for instance, that “having as little as one cup of freshly made tea a day supports healthy arterial function and blood pressure”. Another research shows that the caffeine in green tea serves as a good trigger of substantial weight loss (2.9 pounds in 12 weeks on average). Tea in combination with moderate exercise, such as Tai Chi, has a pronouncedly positive effect on bone health and muscle strength.

In addition, it was reported that bioactive compounds in tea can improve mental sharpness, promote growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, and even “ward off inflammation and vascular damage linked to chronic conditions associated with aging.”

The full article about the convention can be found here.

Prevention as medical expertise

It is hardly surprising that such a simple and effective solution came from China, the country that’s been consuming tea and combining medicinal plants for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese culture makes little distinction between “eating and “treating”. For example, in Chinese, you don’t “take medicine”, but “eat” it. In the west cuisine is often diversified by using different spices. In China, many people experiment with herbs and roots of various medicinal plants. Most of the time, these components hardly contribute to the dishes’ flavor. However, for many Chinese, health comes first, and people often boast how seldom they go to the hospital or that their children never get flu in winter, just because they knew which herbs to use in their food in which season.

There was a time when prevention, as opposed to treatment, was considered the highest level of medical expertise. In pre-modern China, people used to have family doctors who would pay a visit to the household every so often and perform regular painless check-ups. At that time, the doctors who were busy treating their patients were considered inferior to those who simply made sure that the people they were looking after never got sick in the first place. This approach hardly plays well with today’s perception of health-care as a money-making enterprise. It’s also a strong reminder about the unlimited potential of natural remedies, of which tea, with its numerous types and flavors, is the most pleasant and easy to reach.

Disclaimer: tea cannot be used as a stand-alone remedy for cancer. It should be used to complement conventional treatment but not replace it.

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Čaj in zdravo življenje). For more posts on tea please visit

Brief History of Tea

Perhaps nothing represents China better than a cup of freshly brewed tea. About five thousand years ago, the emperor Shen Nong (神农 – Divine Farmer in Chinese) was boiling some water in a kettle when a few leaves from a nearby tea tree fell in it. He loved the taste of the resulting drink. Being a devoted herbalist, Shen Nong immediately appreciated the value of his discovery. The plant has had many different names, such as tou, zhung, zeh, ka, ming, but now it is called cha (茶) throughout China.

Green tea

From China to Japan

It isn’t quite clear how true this legend is, since there are simply no written sources dating that far back into Chinese history. In fact, the earliest material evidence of tea consumption is a tea container that was discovered in a tomb built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). More traces of tea were found in the 4th century settlements around the valley of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River, but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (616-906 AD) that the tea drinking became an essential part of Chinese culture. Around this time, the Japanese Buddhist monks and ambassadors brought tea to Japan. The introduction of tea had a profound effect on Japanese culture and greatly reshaped both countries’ farming, economy, and traditions.

From China to Europe

Ancient tax records show that Arabs were trading with tea as early as the 9th century, but in Europe the trend didn’t take on until much later. Tea was a rare commodity at that time, since only Portuguese ship owners and missionaries were bringing it to Europe in small amounts.

It was the Dutch who blazed the trail in tea trade. In the 17th century the first major commercial shipments of tea started to arrive in Europe from China via Java. Initially, the drink was popular mainly among the Dutch nobility and then it gradually spread throughout the continent – first to France and later to Russia. Tea became truly popular in the British Empire and Ireland. These two are still the EU’s largest tea-consuming countries.

Interestingly enough, one of the major factors that boosted the spread of tea throughout the world was marriage between members of different royal families. The brightest example of this trend was the wedding between Charles II and Portuguese princess Catherine who was a dedicated tea-drinker. It was Catherine who made the beverage popular among the British Royal family and the elite and thus set the trend for many centuries to come.

The growing demand was soon noted by the business community. The East India Company was the first to establish tea trade with China. Even though the enterprise soon proved to be immensely profitable, the British had reservations about strengthening China economically. The process of tea making was one of China’s most guarded secrets, but the British spared no effort and were eventually able to procure the technology. Large-scale tea tea production was soon organized in India which was under the British colonial rule at that time.

Despite the fact that tea imports continued to grow, the price remained very high mainly due to the outrageous tea import levy that often exceed 100%. By the 17th century, the British underworld was importing and selling more tea than all the official tea traders combined. At the end of the 18th century, the British government greatly lowered the tax, and good quality tea became accessible to the masses.

This post was written by Miha, and translated into English by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Čaj v času in prostoru). For more posts on tea please visit

Understanding tea

Tea is the world’s most popular beverage. It is grown in forty countries, so the differences in classification and terminology can sometimes get confusing. Daoli only sources Chinese teas. So, for purpose of authenticity, Daoli collection reflects the current understanding of tea in mainland China.

Green tea

What is tea?

People often assume that different plants are used to produce green, black, wulong, and other kinds of tea. Actually, all teas come from the same evergreen tropical plant of the Camellia family. What determines the shape and flavor of tea is the way in which it is processed. Contrastingly, various herbal and fruit infusions (rose hip, mint, chamomile, lemon, etc) do not contain any tea leaves and therefore have nothing to do with tea in its original sense.

The tea

The word “tea” comes from Chinese language. China is famous for its numerous dialects that vary greatly in pronunciation but share the same writing system. In Cantonese and Mandarin, the word is pronounced as cha (soft /ʧ/), whereas in Taiwan and China’s southern regions, it was pronounced as tê (harder /t/). The ancient and original way of saying tea was 梌 (tú) or 茶 (tú), and, while it evolved to cha in some regions, it changed its form but kept its original pronunciation in others. This is why the word “tea” in most modern languages tends to either sound like cha, caj or tea, tee.

About the tea plant

Tea plant thrives in warm and humid climate, growing best in light, mildly acidic, and dry soil. Although it can grow at any altitude from 0 to over 2000 meters above sea level, it benefits greatly from growing on mountain slopes where the water always moves downward, washing the plant roots rather than drowning them. Tea propagates naturally by shedding seeds on the ground. Modern farming, however, often involves transplanting and grafting techniques in order to speed up the process. Commonly, tea plants are trimmed on regular basis and kept in form of bushes, which makes tea much easier to harvest. If left untended, however, the tea plant can reach up to 15 meters in height.

The harvest

Four to five years must pass before the plant can be harvested for leaves and buds. In some regions, tea buds can be harvested every seven days, while in others it only happens several times a year. Traditionally, tea was always picked by hand, because that is the only way to ensure the leaves’ integrity. Some countries tried to implement machine harvesting of tea. This made the life of farmers easier, but had negative impact on the quality of tea, causing decline in production. In China tea harvesting is still predominantly done by hands. Skilled tea-pickers can collect around thirty kilograms of tea per day, which can later be converted into about eight kilograms of dry tea at the processing factories.

Making tea

Tea processing simply means turning fresh tea leaves and buds into the final dry product ready for storage, transportation, and consumption. Tea processing  can be as sophisticated as wine making. The factors that determine the look and taste of tea include place of origin, time of harvesting, drying methods, degree of oxidation and fermentation. As a result, you get white, green, black, yellow, wulong, aged, flavored teas, and so on. There are forty tea-growing countries and each one of them has its own traditions, which is why today there are roughly 1,500 different kinds of tea that all come from the plants of the Camellia family.

Types of tea processing

Wilting is the first processing step for many kinds of tea. Freshly picked leaves and buds are left either in shade or direct sunlight. About one fourth of the leaves’ weight is lost during this stage. At that time, tea also begins to undergo slow oxidation.

Disruption. At this stage the leaves are slightly bruised and turned over and over again. As a result, tea leaves release enzymes that accelerate the process of oxidation. Essential oils freed by this process also have an impact on the final taste and aroma of the tea.

Oxidation. When exposed to air for a few hours, tea begins to acquire its characteristic dark-red and brown colors. This happens because the polyphenol oxidase enzyme starts to convert catechins (colorless polyphenols in tea leaves) into thearubigin and theaflavin, both of which are powerful antioxidants.

Fermentation. Constant mixing and rehashing of tea leaves releases even more juices from the leaves, which become fertile ground for the numerous microorganisms (fermenting cultures). It is the activity of these little fellas that, for instance, gives pu’er tea its characteristic smell and flavor.

Fixation. Once the oxidation reaches the desired level, it is stopped or “fixed” by heating tea leaves. Traditionally it is done in a wok.

Shaping. Leaves are shaped into different forms by hand or with the help of special machines. While shaped, tea releases some of its essential oils that make a great contribution to flavor. In order to preserve all that goodness, it is important to minimize the leaves’ exposure to air. That is why, tea often comes in shape of cakes, nuggets, gunpowder pellets, etc.

Drying. Tea is dried in an oven or a wok. Once tea is dried properly, it is ready for storage and packaging.

Aging is a process of keeping tea in open air and exposing it to fermenting microflora. The process can last from six months to several years. Aging is common for pu’er teas. It is believed that the longer the tea is allowed to mature, the healthier and more savory it becomes.

Flavoring and blending. For a very long time, the access to fresh tea in the west was quite limited. As a result, the flavor of the tea had to be enhanced by adding flavorings or mixing higher and lower quality teas together. Neither blended nor flavored teas are popular in China.

Some popular teas

Green teas are produced from unoxidized non-wilted leaves and buds. Green teas can also be “disrupted”. In order to “trap” the resulting cellular juices, individual leaves are often rolled into “gunpowder” pellets. The tea treated in this fashion comes closest to the texture and flavor of fresh tea leaves. Therefore, it is better to drink green tea soon after it was made while its flavor and antioxidant content are still high. Most of the green tea is produced in China.

Wulong (Oolong) is made of wilted semi-oxidized tips. With wulong, oxidation process is stopped shortly before the tea begins to turn brown. Great skill is required to get the timing just right and harness the tea’s potential. Wulong is typically shaped into small spiral rolls. Depending on how long and in what way wulong is treated, it may acquire hints of honey, milk, and other flavors. Wulong tea is a subset of a broad variety of teas referred to  as “blue-green” in China.

Black teas are made from wilted and disrupted fully oxidized buds and leaves. Black tea can come in various shapes. If made and stored properly, black tea can retain its fragrance for many years. In China, black tea is actually called “red”. That is because for Chinese people the point of reference is the color of the infusion and not the color of the leaves. Legend has it that it was “invented” by tea masters and merchants who were looking for a way to extend the shelf life of tea. At the beginning, black tea was considered inferior to green, but now it is the most popular kind of tea in the world.

Aged or Pu’er teas are fermented for an extended period of time with addition of fermenting cultures. Pu’er tea is often shaped into cakes and bricks.  Its loose form is also popular. The aging process allows the tea to change its flavor, often making it more mellow and fragrant. In China, aged pu’er is often referred to as “black tea”.

Flavoured teas are made from black, green, and wulong teas that are enhanced with blossoms, fruits, spices, and artificial flavorings.

This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Original version in Slovenian is also available (Predalčkanje čajev). For more posts on tea please visit