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.
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