Scented Tea – Creating Exquisite Tea Aromas

Pearl shaped tea is often found scented.

Jasmine Scented Tea (Jasmine Dragon Tears)

Scented teas are certainly very popular. They have been around for hundreds of years and continue to be favored by many today. This isn’t really too surprising. We scent everything from moisturizers to dryer sheets and even pine scented air fresheners for our cars. In the case of specialty, loose leaf, teas, the most popular scent is jasmine though others may be used. Scenting is used to enhance the aroma and taste of many different types of teas including silver needle, oolongs, white teas, and of course pearl shaped green teas.

Most of the time loose teas are scented as a way to add value to the finished product. In other words, take an already good tea and make it a bit better through additional floral aromas. At the same time there certainly are producers who seek to scent teas as a way to hide defects or salvage teas that might otherwise not be sold. Attempts to cover up bad tea or hide defects have been occurring for hundreds of years and likely as long as scenting has been occurring. More than 120 years ago, Joseph M. Walsh noted in Tea, Its History and Mystery, “though scenting in general is supposed to be confined to the choicer grades of tea it is as often applied to the inferior sorts, with the object of disguising or concealing their defective or damaged condition, and imparting a pleasant odor, a much larger quantity being used in the latter.”

Scenting of teas is possible since tea, after processing has been processed and fired to remove most of its moisture.  This results in leaves which are hygroscopic, readily absorbing both moisture and flavor. It is the same property that causes tea stored at home to readily absorb flavors and aromas from the mint or garlic stored nearby that enables tea to be scented.

Scented Tea from Jasmine

Jasmine flower for producing scented tea.

Scented tea is often produced using jasmine petals.

The production of scented tea, or huāchá, originated in China as early as the Song Dynasty (960 CE to 1279 CE) and quickly gained popularity.  During the Ming and on into the Qing Dyanasties, scented tea production continued to gain in popularity to be a large commercial endeavor with scenting of tea practiced throughout much of China.

The actual production of loose leaf scented tea begins with the tea maker selecting the type of aroma for scenting and acquiring the flowers.  In much the same way that specialized tea cultivars have been developed, so too have various cultivars of flowers used in scenting. Most notably in creating jasmine scented teas, several key cultivars have been developed for their aroma and flower style.  Similarly cultivars have been developed even to fine tune the time of day when the flowers will open after plucking with some opening earlier in the evening and others opening later.

Workers pluck jasmine blossoms early in the day looking for just the right size such that they will open that evening.  If the blossoms have already opened then they do not impart as much aroma and oils.  Blossoms that aren’t quite ready at the time of pluck will never open and thus don’t help with the scenting process.

Tea to be scented is heated to further reduce its moisture and cooled in preparation for scenting.  Jasmine flowers are selected for optimum size.  Tea is spread out in a layer and jasmine flowers spread on top.  Another layer of tea is added and so on to create multiple layers of tea and jasmine.  The mixture is left for several hours before the jasmine leaves are separated out and the tea is dried again.  Depending on the tea being made this may be repeated multiple times to create the finished product.  Great care is taken to ensure jasmine isn’t left too long with the tea and the tea is adequately dried for final shipping.

The result, of course, is a great jasmine scented tea, be it a simple green tea, jasmine scented pearls, or other types of tea.

Photo of a rose bud which can be used to create scented teas.

Scented tea can use other flowers or ingredients besides jasmine.

Scented Tea Using Alternative Ingredients

Jasmine may be the most well known flower used in the scenting process but it is by no means alone.  Since tea readily absorbs aromas from flowers, any number of things can be used in the scenting process.  After jasmine, scented teas one of the next popular teas today are rose scented teas.  Typically, black teas are scented with rose although increasingly some producers are scenting green and puerh teas.  In the case of scenting with roses some petals are often added back for aesthetic purposes. Other popular flowers for use in scented teas over the past 100 years include osmanthus, chlorantus, gardenia, and iris. Throughout history other things including seeds, roots, and dried fruits have also been used in scenting teas.

Last but not least, smoke can also be used in scenting teas, notably with Lapsang Souchong, a smoked black tea from China. Production of Lapsang Souchong occurs through the drying of tea in smoke produced from pinewood fires. It is a very distinct tea that has strong flavor and aroma and is certainly an acquired taste for some.  This tea is rumored to be one of the oldest teas still available today.

Scented teas are loved by many, though certainly isn’t for everyone. There are a great many options in scented teas and serves to add yet more avenues for exploration.  For many, scented teas may even be the first exposure to a broader world of specialty, loose leaf, teas, just as white zinfandel can be a first step toward fine wines.  If you are new to specialty teas, you may find that jasmine scented teas serving as an excellent gateway to a broader world of green and oolong teas.

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Oolong, White and Yellow: Understanding the Broader Types of Tea

Unlike most other beverages one simply can’t ask for tea and know what to expect, making tea both a bit more common but also captivating for those looking to expand their palate.  There are six main types of tea, however within those types are thousands of varieties.  It is truly amazing that camellia sinensis, combined with terroir, a dash of human intervention and some creativity yields a liquor with so many different flavors.

Graphic scale of types of tea by oxidation.
Tea Oxidation Chart

Oxidation starts in tea leaves as soon as they are plucked from the plant, just like how an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut.  The oxidation helps to create the flavor in the tea.  Tea leaves are allowed to wither in the sun to both dehydrate the leaves and allow oxidation to continue.  The point in the manufacturing process at which oxidation is stopped, via application of heat, largely dictates the classification of the finished product.

White Tea

White tea is made primarily from the bud of the tea plant (downy buds) but may include the first two leaves on the branch.  The name comes from the white hairs that are present on the outside of the buds.  Typically this type of tea is allowed to whither outside in the sun to dry before being heated to stop oxidation.  White tea is not rolled or panned and is lightly handled.  Often, white tea is made from the first buds of the growing season, called the first flush.

Green Tea

Green tea is a type of tea where oxidation is stopped very early in the manufacturing process.  The oxidation is stopped either through steaming, as is common practice in Japan, or through heating over a fire or in a stove.  By stopping the oxidation early, the leaves remain green.  Typically this is less than 10% oxidation.

Yellow Tea

Yellow teas are a lightly oxidized version of tea where, after withering, the leaves are lightly steamed allowing for enzymatic oxidation, the chemical process where flavonoids breakdown resulting in the browning of the leaves and the development of the flavor.  This is a rather labor intensive process that requires special training, which limits the production capacity for this type of tea.  Also, this tea comes in and out of favor with the Chinese public, the primary country producing yellow tea, so getting this in the US is often challenging if Chinese consumers are not demanding it.

Picture of dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Oolong Tea

Providing some of the greatest variety in style, taste, and appearance, oolong teas are partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80%, before being heated to stop oxidation.  Oolong, also known as wulong or black dragon teas, feature twisted tea leaves that are said to resemble the shape of a dragon.  They have their origin in the Fujian province of China though are now produced in other countries, notably Taiwan.  These teas are hand twisted or rolled after oxidation and were traditionally the Emperor’s tea.  These teas are the Bordeaux of the tea world, amazingly complex in taste, highly prized, and can be quite expensive when compared to other teas.  However, for the true tea enthusiasts there is nothing like them.

Black Tea

Known as red tea by the Chinese for the color of the brewed liquor, black tea is the most common type of tea consumed in the United States as it is typically the base for iced tea.  Black tea is a more fully oxidized version of the tea leaves, ranging anywhere from 50-100% oxidized.  Some of the teas best known in the west are black tea based blends including English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Pu-erh (Dark Teas)

The only type of teas that are actually fermented are pu-erh.  This is green tea that has fermented after completing the manufacturing process.  This is truly a unique tea that reflects the history of where it was founded.  Pu-erh was historically made in the Yunnan province of China and traded with Tibet and Mongolia for horses.  To make the trip, the tea was compressed into narrow circular disks which traveled as long as six months before being traded.  Due to the organisms that grew in the trees in the Yunnan province the tea would naturally ferment.  Aged pu-erh is rare, highly sought after, and often comes at a high price.  To satisfy demand and sell a more profitable product two Chinese tea manufacturers got together in the 1960’s and created an accelerated fermenting process, which is not looked upon favorably by traditionalists, but allows for wider circulation of this tea.

Exploration Beyond the Six Main Types of Tea

Each of these large types of tea have many more subcategories that are worthy of their own investigation and offer more options than I can list.  Learning about all of them makes exploring tea a fun life long journey.

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What’s in a Cup of Tea?

Simple right? Add some leaves to a little hot water, A pot of tea.let sit a few minutes, and voilà. However, this seemingly simple question can unfurl into a huge variety of topics ranging from the different types of tea to the impact on world history. An exploration of tea affords the opportunity to better understand what is behind those tea bags, broaden your palette, and appreciate how the drink has influenced history and the world culture that we have today. Our intent with the Dominion Tea blog is to try to explore a variety of these topics, admittedly with a focus on specialty loose leaf tea. Over time we seek to dive deeper into the many facets of tea in an effort to learn more about this beverage. In this specific posting we seek merely to scratch the surface, looking broadly at products, countries growing tea, and how history was impacted by our favorite drink.

Types of Tea

Most US citizens associate tea with the humble tea bag found in the grocery store or restaurant. However, today tea is found in a great many forms, driven by wide ranging consumer interest in gourmet and specialty foods, social concerns around its production, convenience, and individual health. As a result, products include loose leaf tea, tea bags, ready-to-drink products, powdered options, shampoo, body wash, masks and scrubs, and even supplements.

Loose Leaf vs Fannings and Dust

Loose Leaf Tea vs Teabags

Within brewed or steeped tea, most American consumers experience comes from tea bags. These generally come from an extremely small number of multi-national corporations that buy huge quantities of tea and produce bags branded for consumer sale. This product is produced on mass scale and the emphasis is on low cost with consistent taste. The actual product inside is normally small particles from many different sources, referred to as fannings and dust. Contrast tea bag tea with that of specialty loose leaf tea which is closer to whole leaf and, at the high end, consists of the very best leaves which have been hand-picked and processed. While it’s virtually impossible to know where commodity products come from, it is increasingly common to know where and how specialty teas have been grown and manufactured. For those looking for a stronger connection to the source, greater variety, and higher quality, specialty teas offer a wide array of choice. Yellow, White, and Oolong Teas are among the options beyond the well-known Green and Black varieties. However, like fine wines, loose leaf specialty tea varies greatly in quality, authenticity, price, and availability. Generally, the closer to the traditional growing region and production methods, the wider the variety in taste from year to year, the harder it is to come by, and the more amazing the drinking experience.

Tea Growing Countries

Tea is produced in a large number of countries around the world. While China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka are well known producers, the list also includes Kenya, Jamaica, Iran, Argentina, the United States, and many others. Numbers from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that some of these countries, like Japan and India, as well as China, grow tea in large part to satisfy domestic consumption. Others, like Sri Lanka and Kenya, produce it primarily for export, and some, like the U.S. grow only on a very minor scale. The cliff notes version is that a large number of countries produce tea with huge variety in production, appearance, and flavor differences providing a knowledgeable and informed tea drinker many avenues to explore.

History of the Worlds Second Most Popular Beverage (after water)

Tea permeates the history of many countries dating back hundreds of years and continuing to modern times. Around 1000 CE tea was a major trading commodity used by the Chinese to acquire horses from Tibet. More recently the trade led to the Opium Wars, concluding in 1842 with the United Kingdom taking ownership of Hong Kong. American imports from England began in about 1711 and continued until the Boston Tea Party of 1773 when the colonists, fed up over British taxation, tossed shiploads of tea into the harbor. As Joseph M. Walsh wrote in Tea: Its History and Mystery (circa 1892), “The birth of the greatest nation of all time [was] due to a three-penny tax on tea!”

American Tea Clipper Ship

American Tea Clipper Ship
Antonio Jacobsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After the revolution, of course Americans continued drinking tea and the first two Clipper ships manufactured in the U.S. , Helena and Montauk built by H.W. Webb, were built specifically to travel to China for tea. Today American consumers prefer black tea by far. However, early American consumers actually preferred green tea until World War II when access was lost to most sources and the American palate shifted toward black.

Conclusion

Making a cup of tea can be quite a simple and pleasurable experience. However, for those of us who would like to know more about what is behind the beverage in our cup, how it is properly prepared, and how preferences in America differ from the rest of the world, there is much to learn. What started out as a love of tea, has becoming a great opportunity to continue to broaden our own horizons, teach our son about the world, and share our interest with others.

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