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scented crafted tea: jasmine pearls (Xiao Longzhu)

scented tea: jasmine pearls
jasmine pearls

Jasmine Xiao Longzhu, special grade

The key word is “xiao” here. A fine one is small because only the fine pekoe shoots are used to roll into these little beads. This way the taste is mild and yet long. A respectable production is scented with jasmine for 7 times such that the fragrance is absorbed deep into the beads. Notice that there is no residual flowers. This is an important part of the scenting tradition, and important for the taste too. Compare the look with another product:

infused jasmine pearl
An infused leaf showing the original material (enlarged photo). Notice the little wet hairs that stick out from the edge of the leaf. Those are the thing that look white when they are dry.
Xiao Longzhu (xiǎo lǒng-zhū, i.e. little dragon balls, aka Dragon Pearls, Jasmine Pearls, Jasmine Pekoe Pearls, etc)

orientation

This little pearls have been an all time best sellers because they look nice, smell good and the taste of tea infusion is very simple and pleasant to take in as a daily routine for most novice tea drinkers. Can’t possibly make a bitter tea with them unless you very exaggeratedly put in too much tea. This is a great tea for people with no previous tea experience to start a tea habit with.

Some people mistake this as a white tea because it looks white. This is a green tea scented with jasmine flowers. It looks white because the downy leaf shoots that the pluckers collect from the tea bushes are even “whiter” than that. They have not gone through a slight fermentation process, but rather go straight to baking after a brief withering, as all baked green teas do.

origin

Although scenting tea with jasmine flowers has been a local craft in eastern Fujian for centuries, rolling pekoe shoots into pearls and scent them made way in the market only a couple of decades ago. This is a diversification of products producible with the Da’bai strand of cultivars widely adapted by the rising number of tea farms in the late 1980’s.

The scenting center used to be in the provincial capital of Fuzhou on the eastern seacoast in the middle of the province. Cha’pei (i.e. the tea that is to be scented) used to be shipped in from the 160 km radius for the flower season in July and August. Both the purity of the flowers and sweetness of the tea made probably one of the finest scented tea in all Chinese productions.

However, as China’s economic reforms brought about the free enterprising spirit to the remote villages in the province of Guangxi, a few hundred kilometers southwest of Fujian, and much warmer climate for more rounds of jasmine harvest, the backward county Hengxian soon becomes the scenting center for all of China. The lower labour costs there was another success contributing factor. Initially tea was trucked in from neighbouring provinces for scenting, and recently tea cultivars used to be native of these tea provinces are being planted here in Guangxi to save further on transportation. The teas are not the same as they were produced in the original provinces and the flowers more pungent than those in Fuzhou.

There are still producers who truck in tea from their origins for both their pride and quality competitiveness, but the aroma of the final scenting can never be as fine as it was in Fuzhou.

With all my complains, however, there is an upside to this — maintenance of the price — and thereby the value for the tea has been kept quite reasonable throughout these decades because of the shift of the scenting center, amongst the actual near double digit inflation in the country year to year.

Smaller scale jasmine scenting of various quality is still active in different parts of China south of the Yangtze.

Health note

Although this is basically a baked green tea and has the corresponding TCM properties as such, the scenting process and the thickness of the pearls subject the tea to a few more rounds of deep baking, thereby neutralizing some of its “chilling” property. This makes it friendlier to the weaker stomachs than some other green teas.

However, there is a tendency for people to soak the Xiao Longzhu in water for a long time because it would not be bitter anyway. This is not advisable cause less desirable matters in the leaves would come into the tea liquid and form in there. The resultant liquid can cause discomfort in a weak stomach. Like any other tea, decant after the desired infusion time and drink while the liquid is still hot. <read more about infusion>

Market note

The wholesale price for each grade of Xiao Longzhu is pretty much consistent because of open competition. However, the quality itself can be quite different regardless of the look. Tea produced in Guangxi has been more preferred for the price rather than for the taste. Transplanting of quality cultivars is not changing the growing environment and the teas from northeastern Fujian, such as Fuding and Zhenghe, are much better as a tea for their subtle fineness in taste.

However, this does not mean buying in Fujian would guarantee you an original Fujian quality. Guangxi tea, already scented, can be sold in Fujian too. The producer/wholesaler/retailer saves one round of transportation anyway.

Another key is timing. Jasmine comes about as early as May in Guangxi. The existence of a group of people who are eager to do the buying early encourages producers to scent as early as possible to take that market share. Traditional producers do not begin scenting until July, when the flowers, whether in Fujian, Guangxi or elsewhere in China, are the most fragrant. Some even say August.


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