Tea artisans across China roll tea leaves into delicious pearls that fill cups with fragrance and visual artistry
The catalogue of celebrated jewelry centerpieces revolves around things forged through millions of years of geological activity. Diamonds. Gold. Emeralds.
And then there are pearls.
Oysters, rather than geology, create pearls. When a piece of sand or grit enters their shells, they begin surrounding the irritants with calcium carbonate (the same substance from which their shells are made) to protect themselves. The pearl-making process can take anywhere from one to 20 years.
We find pearl teas just as exceptional as the ones harvested from sea beds. Making them demands artisanship, careful timing and a lot of work.
By pearl teas, we do not mean those cold drinks, called bubble or boba tea, filled with rubbery balls that people sip through fat straws. That’s what will appear if you Google “pearl tea.”
Instead, we refer to Jasmine pearl tea. Black Dragon pearl tea. Gunpowder pearl tea.
Tea enthusiasts around the world savor pearl teas like these. As a shop specializing in traditional Asian teas, we naturally carry them. And we treasure them.
Jasmine Pearl teas delivers fragrance to sips
Turning green tea leaves into jasmine pearls requires myriad steps.
The leaves themselves often come from the Fujian province in south China, just across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan. But leaves from other provinces, such as Hunan, Jiangsu and Jiangxi, also are used.
Tea farmers harvest the finest green tea leaves during the spring, and premium jasmine teas rely upon spring-harvested leaves.
But the other key component of the tea, fresh blossoms from jasmine plants, do not appear until the summer. The best jasmine tea artisans time the plucking of spring tea leaves with the harvesting of jasmine blossoms in such a way that the tea remains exquisite, and the flowers saturated with perfume.
Tea farmers remove top buds, two leaves and the stem from each growth. Artisans then roll the leaves into balls, but before doing that the leaves and buds need to become more pliable. So they wither the tea harvest on bamboo trays in the sun. Eventually, solar radiation fosters dehydration and suppleness.
As a corollary, consider the difference between a fresh slice of tomato and one dried in the sun. Imagine trying to roll a fresh tomato into a ball. Good luck. But it’s easy to form a sun-dried tomato into different shapes. Tea leaves are not saturated with water like tomatoes, but the principle still applies. When slightly dried, it’s easier to roll them into balls.
Each pearl is crafted by hand, rolled between thumb and forefinger. It takes 2,000 of them to make just one pound of jasmine pearl tea.
Jasmine blossoms only harvested at night
This requires loads of work. But the process involves another complicated step: infusing the pearls with perfume from jasmine blossoms.
It is an especially elegant, bewitching aroma. Maybe that is because jasmine blossoms only unfurl in the evening. Few other flowers are essentially nocturnal.
This of course complicates things for those who craft jasmine tea. The flowers’ bouquet vanishes within hours.
So workers harvest blossoms at night, and then mix them with jasmine pearls. The next day, they remove the spent blossoms from the tea pearls. They repeat this for five or more consecutive nights to properly infuse the pearls with the jasmine essential oils.
Pearls that undergo the process broadcast fresh jasmine perfume. When steeped in hot water, they unfurl. Jasmine essences spread through the water, and mix with the grassy, delicate flavors of green tea leaves.Jasmine pearl tea is a taste sensation
Bold Black Dragon Pearl teas perfect way to start the morning
Where Jasmine Pearl tea tastes light and highly floral, Black Dragon Pearl’s flavor is rich and sweet, with whispers of cocoa flavor. It is unique, and one of our favorites for the first cup of the day.
Tea farmers in China’s far-south Yunnan Province grow the tea that gets turned into Black Dragon Pearl. Unlike Jasmine Pearl, leaves used to make Black Dragon Pearl are immediately rolled into tight balls. Once formed into familiar large pearl shapes, with as many as 30 leaves and buds, the balls are allowed to oxidize until the tea is a black tea, rather than the green tea used in Jasmine Pearl tea.
When steeped in hot water, the balls open. Their gold-tipped leaves swirl in the hot water, creating an especially beautiful cup of tea.
Scholars consider Yunnan, which borders Vietnam, the birthplace of tea. The oldest wild growing tea tree in the world still thrives in Yunnan, at 1,700 years old! The province’s most senior cultivated tea tree is a youngster by comparison, at 800 years old.
Gunpowder tea offers smoky flavors, is beloved in North Africa
As the name suggests, this tea offers a bang. But don’t worry about shrapnel — the explosive things about Gunpowder revolve around its flavor and the way it unfurls in the cup upon meeting hot water.
The name, too, refers to the shape of these balls, which are irregular, small and gray. Just like gunpowder.
These tea balls undergo quite a bit of preparation prior to getting packaged and sold. Tea craftspeople wither, steam, roll and dry tea leaves individually — each ball or “pearl” is just one leaf. The other pearl teas under discussion involve many leaves rolled together into balls.
The effect, once hot water is poured over the tea, is dramatic. Each small rolled tea leaf responds with immense vigor to the water, unfurling rapidly and filling the cup with activity.
One sip, and the logic of the tea’s name is again reinforced: it is smoky.
Gunpowder tea comes from China’s eastern Zhejiang province, which has a coastline along the East China Sea. Its famous Gunpowder tea is popular across China as well as Europe and the United States, but the tea extremely popular in the Maghreb, which is northwestern Africa.
In Morocco, people engage daily with the Moroccan tea ritual, which involves steeping Gunpowder tea with mint leaves and sugar or honey. Nearly every social gathering, from a quick get-together with friends to a formal meal, includes the tea ritual.
Tea is one of the most complex agricultural products in the world, with thousands of styles and production methods. Pearls stand as one of the most interesting styles of classic, traditional tea.