Look Inside: The Great Teas of China
Tea Master Roy Fong’s new edition of The Great Tea of China has been thoroughly revised and rewritten. Significant new material has been added, specifically with regard to water, teaware, and the brewing process. Roy has also included more memories, anecdotes, and photographs from his more than 30 years of travel through many different Chinese tea regions.
Take a Look Inside:
Mo Li Hua Cha (Jasmine Tea)
Since at least the Tang dynasty, people in China have been enhancing the taste of tea with herbs, spices, and other fragrant plants. Records indicate that during the Song dynasty, tea production involving flowers to improve flavor and aromatics was popular, however, it was not until the Ming dynasty that tea production with mo li hua (jasmine flowers) was systematized. From carefully choosing the best base green tea for scenting, to selecting the right flowers at the right time, formulas were developed and continued to evolve. During the Qing dynasty’s Xian Feng era, large-scale, systematic production of mo li hua cha began in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, and it continues until today.
Although jasmine tea is produced in several tea-growing regions, the best mo li hua cha traditionally comes from Fuzhou. However, with China’s booming prosperity and rising cost of labor, the Fuzhou area now only produces the very highest grades of this tea. Most mo li hua cha now comes from Hengxian County in Guangxi Province, where jasmine flowers bloom earlier and are more abundant, and labor costs lower. The trend is expected to continue until eventually Guangxi will be the source for virtually all jasmine production.
On the Farm
Producing fine mo li hua cha starts by selecting the best green tea in early spring, before the flowers that will scent it have even bloomed. Tender leaf buds from Fujian’s Fu Ding area are considered the ideal base material for great mo li hua cha. This green tea features nice white tips with good amounts of down that absorb aromatics well; also, the tippy green tea from Fu Ding is less astringent and better suited to scenting. The spring-harvested leaves are withered indoors, pan-fired to stop oxidation, then rolled into shape and roasted dry. This type of green tea is called hong qing (roasted green).
The finished tea is cleaned and sorted into different grades and carefully stored until the jasmine blooms in early summer. When the jasmine harvest begins, unopened flower buds are traditionally picked early in the day and delivered to tea factories in late afternoon (modern factories sometimes buy jasmine blossoms in open wholesale markets). The flowers are spread on the ground until they open. Their high moisture content causes fermentation and heat, which forces the buds open. The piles of flowers are watched carefully to avoid over-fermenting.
Once they begin to open, the flowers are turned and flipped in the air to release moisture and prevent too much heat from accumulating, which would cause the loss of aromatics, and “burning” (the flower turning brown). This process generally lasts until very late at night. Finally, when most of the flowers are open, they are machine-sifted to remove unopened buds.
At the same time, the spring-harvested tea is taken from storage and re-roasted to remove staleness and ensure that it is completely dry, ready to absorb the jasmine fragrance.
The flowers are then mixed with refired green tea in small batches. Each batch is watched carefully and turned from time to time to release heat and maintain as much green color as possible. This process continues through the night, allowing the tea to slowly absorb the nectar and essence of the flowers. The tea and the flowers are separated in the morning. The tea is roasted dry once again to remove excess moisture received from the flowers and further eliminate some of the leaves’ own astringency. This scenting procedure may be repeated as many times as necessary, each time completing a cycle of fluid exchange from the flower to the leaf, ensuring the complete saturation of floral aromatics.
When the last scenting is completed, another step called ti hua (floral pickup) is done. Ti hua includes a light roasting to reduce moisture to under 5 percent, then the tea is again mixed with freshly opened flowers for a few hours. Ti hua saturates the leaf with floral aromatics externally, to heighten the initial aromatic appeal. The entire process must be done so that the color of the leaf remains as green as possible without losing the white color of the fuzzy tips.
The final step of drying the tea is essential to make it shelf-stable and shippable. But unavoidably, it drives off a bit of the jasmine aroma. No commercially produced mo li hua cha can ever reach the extraordinary heights of a fresh factory sample before the last drying.
Mo li hua cha is often hand-fashioned into various shapes to add visual interest. One of the most popular is called Jasmine Pearl, or sometimes Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl. These small, tightly-rolled balls are created in the spring, when the tea is fresh. They are produced by selecting only spring-harvested single tips; the highest grade jasmine pearls are made with tea that has no open leaves. The tips are softened by pan-firing, then a few are hand-rolled into a “pearl” shape, held together by the leaves’ juices. Then they are stored carefully until summer, when jasmine blooms. Sometimes tea makers use long rolls of very thin cotton paper to hand-wrap each individual pearl. The pearls are unwrapped and scented when the jasmine blossoms become available.
I learned an interesting trick from experienced jasmine tea makers. When I began, I believed the best mo li hua cha was the freshest. Later, old-timers taught me that if you hold a bit back each year, then lightly re-roast it, scent it again a time or two with fresh jasmine, and blend it with the next year’s fresh batch, it adds layers of color, body, and complexity that fresh tea alone cannot achieve.
Buying and Brewing
When you select mo li hua cha, of course the aroma is critical, but the tea leaves are also important. The leaves should be beautiful and uniform in size and color, with a fair proportion of tips to leaves. Young tips taste different from mature leaves and absorb floral notes better. The aromatics must be clean, fresh, and inviting—both the tea and the flowers—with no stale undertones. When you drink the tea, the jasmine flavor should be primary, but you need to taste both flowers and tea.
For this tea more than most others, it is important to know exactly when it was produced. While the best green tea is picked in early spring, jasmine does not flower until late spring to early summer in China. If a seller offers “fresh jasmine tea” in February or March, be skeptical. The freshest jasmine tea typically comes in the summer. A good jasmine tea should smell and taste like fresh jasmine flowers. If you detect soapy or unnatural fragrances, they are likely artificially applied.
Copyright 2020 Roy Fong