Saturday, November 10, 2007

Review: Adagio's Jasmine #9

Films like "Hero" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" conjure up chimerical and fantastical images of China which we, as Americans, might take for a little bit more than fiction, and why not? Few Americans have actually read about China, fewer still have paid it a visit. The last time the population-at-large seemed to care was in 1989, and even then we were cheering on a papiermachet statue bobbing up and down in Tianenmen Square. It is easy to imagine that Chinese, its history and its countryside are all as colorful and epic as Zhang Yimou portrays.

If you, like me, prefer the cinematic qualities of a high-budget Imperial Court and color coordinated banner army over the realism of today's Chinese grinding poverty and environmental squalor, it's only natural to seek out and cherry pick those vestigial Chinese customs and traditions that harken back to the Middle Kingdom's better days. Tea is one such tradition, bonded to the Chinese wiseman and his beautiful garden, or the the court aristocrat and his impeccable calligraphy. The business of mythical China is had over tea, and so tea becomes a Chinese icon. To the beginner few teas exemplify the romantic quality of a bygone China then the exquisite Jasmine Tea.

Strangely, the Jasmine flower is not native to China at all. It was brought to China from Persia, and though it was a foreign plant, the Chinese took to it like an artist that had met his natural medium. The process of making Jasmine tea is fairly straightforward, but the efforts gargantuan. First, one must consider that tea is usually plucked a couple of months before the Jasmine flowers can be harvested. If the jasmine were to be plucked any earlier, the effect (and flavor) would be spoiled. So, the tea must wait, and is put into a special stasis. When the Jasmine flowers are ready, they're picked and added to the tea leaves. As night approaches, the jasmine flowers open, imparting their distinctive character to the tea leaves. Depending on the quality of the jasmine tea, this process can be refined or crass, and the duration of the process extended a few days to adjust for the quality. Finally, the Jasmine petals are disposed of for Chinese markets leaving the finished product of Jasmine Tea. Foreign audiences seem more stricken with the quirk of a flower petal in their tea, so often these are left in if the tea is for export.

You may not know it, but if you're new to tea, you've likely had jasmine tea before. Many Chinese restaurants, or at least those in my immediate vicinity, will offer tea to customers dining in the restaurant. Usually this means a flimsy metal pot and some small cups. The tea itself is bland, but there will at least be a flowery tingle in the flavor. The first time I had Chinese restaurant grade Jasmine tea I had never really thought the flavor was enervated from a flower and infused into the tea. Then again, tea back then was a truly mysterious plant. For all I knew it could encompass a flowery flavor. So I had dismissed this unique bouquet as an idiosyncrasy of the brewing process. Clearly I was wrong, and if I remember correctly, appropriately punished with a hot cup of tea in my lap. The shrimp fried rice was still excellent.

All participating parties

Many years later, after the terrible throes of adolescence and the less terrible throes of freshman and sophomore year college, I got my grubby little mits on a bunch of Adagio Tea samplers. One of them was the "Oolong Sampler" and contained therein was the Jasmine #9 - to steal Adagio's frustrating musical theme, an ode to the sweet, sweet fragrance of the jasmine flower. It was good. Very good in fact, and was one of only a few teas that I re-ordered in a larger size. With better equipment, superior brewing techniques (as in, the leaves not beaten with a fist into the corner of a cramped tea ball) and some additional "book learnins'" the tea has only improved. I was even motivated to edit the Wikipedia article on Jasmine! So now, my glowing review!

First, here's Adagio's own description:

Oolong tea from the Fujian province of China infused with the delicate scent of the night-blooming jasmine flowers. If you enjoy jasmine tea, we urge you to try the sublime taste of its well-made varieties. Our 'Jasmine Suite no. 9' is the finest grade Yin Hao tea, perfectly suited for special occasions. It melts into a cup of sweet fragrance and delicate jasmine notes. You will be hard-pressed to find anything so sublime.

The raw leaf

Adagio recommends a three minute steep time; compared to all the black teas I’ve been drinking this seems like a short time, but it puts plenty of flavor into the tea. I’ve also chosen to add the water well after boiling to keep it from scalding the tea leaves. Besides, these are the orthodox rules of Oolong, scented with flowers or not. It’s only appropriate.

The first steep of the Jasmine #9 is very familiar. It was my tea of choice through the month of October. The light character but determined flavor suited the brisk but comfortable Colorado fall weather perfectly, and provided for a few relaxing fall viewing sessions outside.

First steep

The color is relatively light, with a gold and straw color to it, but it doesn’t appear weak. On the contrary, it looks intensely tea-like. Just not charred or auburn like a heartily brewed black tea. The aroma is light and refreshing, with a subdued jasmine scent tagging along. For a jasmine tea I find it a little tenuous, but it’s ethereal fragrance combined with the tea’s bold floral character make a well balanced aroma for the newbie tea drinker. The palate is curiously viscous, completely transforming the gravity of the water used in brewing. Not only does it feel heavier in the mouth, but it causes the tea’s flavor to stick around the tongue much longer than expected. Considering the gentle, cloudy jasmine quality this is a good thing. The bold flavor of the jasmine flower is a dangerous flavor indeed. Too little and the tea is bland and lifeless. Too much and the flowery character is overpowering. The tea masters must walk an incredibly thin line, insuring that the jasmine flavor is properly absorbed into the tea without making it a glorified potpourri. This has been addressed with keen precision in the Jasmine #9, giving all the sweet, madeleine Jasmine character. It is a monolithic flavor, repressing any other nuances the tea base may have, but considering the circumstances it is permitted. We are drinking jasmine tea, after all. Still, there is a quiet taste of herb, like chive, lingering in the pool of jasmine that nicely complements the dictatorial flower’s reign.

Spent leaf

The second steep brings a new and different tea, though clearly related to the original #9. The texture has become even creamer, expanding and expounding in the mouth, but the jasmine has weakened considerably. A gamut of earth tones and rich soil flavors take its place, once again wrapping themselves around the tongue with the assistance of the heavy cream like texture. The color has refused to change, while the aroma has lot some of its jasmine quality making it plain and dull.

The third steep, with an additional ten seconds and slightly hotter water behind it is drastically disparate from the first two steeps. The tea’s liquor has now taken on a darker more minatory shade, arousing suspicions that I have somehow incorrectly brewed the third round. The nose, with the jasmine almost entirely absent, offers up a clean lemon smell, sweeping away the duskier earth tones from the second steep with a heretofore unnoticed stream of citrus. Honey suckle appears too, with its characteristic nectar sugar smell, counterbalancing the blazing sugars of the lemon to make an excitable, bright aroma. Strange, considering this is the third steep. If the aroma has made a curious metamorphosis, the taste has not. The viscosity feels degenerated, abused from so much use, and the jasmine flavor entirely hollow. It is now an imperceptibly light tea, and tastes very similiar to the jasmine teas served at Chinese restaurants.

It is tempting to sit down down, cross my legs, inhale once slowly, take off my glasses and rub my nose, then exhale and gentle tell the Jasmine tea how pitifully simple it is. But that would take a lot of time and facial exercise. Instead, I'll say this - sometimes one simple but well tuned flavor is more high valued than a cacophony of interlocking flavors working in synch like little gremlins (or elves, depending on whether you're still digging Halloween or are putting up the Christmas tree already). The jasmine #9 relies on that dedicated cause straight to the jasmine, and it does well. It's bold, but not too loud. Adagio offers two more Jasmine flavored teas. The Jasmine #5 seems ho-hum, but the Jasmine #12 has had nothing but praise heaped on it. It also costs more. If the #9 seems good now, I can't wait to give those little pearls a chance.

Oh, and Adagio's customer service was impeccable, but we'll save that for another post.


Brent said...

Oh? What's this? A loose leaf review? :)

I definitely agree with you that Jasmine is a tricky flavor. I've been very turned off in the past by "glorified potpourri" jasmine tea, but it's good to know where to get a more subdued one if I ever get over my fear...

Great writing, as usual!


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