The Art of Scented Tea

It’s said that Cleopatra drenched her ship’s sails in jasmine to announce her arrival in Rome and seduce Mark Antony. Imagine the extravagance of it: today, average estimates suggest that it can take as many as 10,000 jasmine flowers to make one gram of absolute; a pound of that would sell for $1000 or more. It’s one of the reasons why the jasmine so many of us know isn’t really jasmine at all and doesn’t approach its natural allure. Companies around the world, and sellers of pretty much any product in history, have always found ways to make things more quickly and cheaply. So it’s little surprise that some perfumers use lower grade oils or synthetic variations that stray from the real thing, sometimes unrecognizably.

Tea Fit for Emperors

The same can be said for jasmine teas, which first appeared during China’s Tang dynasty and became even more popular during the end of the Song era, followed by the Ming and Qing periods when tea fragranced with osmanthus, rose, orchid, chrysanthemum and even lotus came into vogue. Traditionally, scented teas involve an intensely laborious, weeks-long process of layering flowers that’s somewhat similar to the concept of enfleurage—laying petals in fat to absorb scent. Trusted purveyors of Chinese teas have said that quality scented teas absorb the aroma of flowers in their bones, and are not likely to lose their scent even after many steepings. Such teas were often bestowed as gifts upon emperors.

Jasmine tea, which tends to use the nightblooming jasmine sambac, is the most popular scented tea in the world, with flowers often mixed with green or white tea of varying levels of quality. It’s not unlike Earl Grey—its equally popular flavored sister, which is often infused with lower quality bergamot oil to mask lower grade black tea. Easy as it is to find a jasmine green tea or Earl Grey in shops or cafes across the globe, it’s rarer to find ones that use, say, good bergamot from Calabria in Italy or true jasmine flowers as well as high-quality base tea. Experts say that many tea shops use artificial ingredients in their flavored and scented blends, akin to the preservatives used in Orange Crush or Fanta.

You can taste and smell the difference in the presence of natural, well-executed tea. So much so, that scented or flavored teas have become dirty words among some of the world’s most respected tea purveyors and connoisseurs, many of whom prefer to focus on the beauty and complexity of pure, unadorned tea. The prevalence of lower quality scents and flavors could explain why so many people shy away from scented teas: fake florals can be overbearing, headache-inducing or even nauseating to some people, especially those used to drinking a plain old cup of good tea.

Oolong teas—my own personal favorite—are more oxidized than green teas but less so than black. They can have a range of flavors from roasted or darker notes like raisin, stone fruit or cocoa to lighter, creamy flavors, with the taste and scent of florals embedded in the leaf itself and slowly unfurling as it infuses. You can steep most oolongs many times, and experience different layers of scent and flavor as you would in perfume, with different top, middle and base notes unfolding over time. Classically, the first steeping is often just for aroma, which can be as exquisite as a first-rate fragrance for some oolongs. Which begs the question of good oolongs or high-quality tea of any sort: does adding scent or flavor enhance the tea or detract from it?

I spoke with perfume expert Mandy Aftel to get her take on the delicate and very high art of flavoring and scenting rare teas with some of the world’s most extraordinary ingredients. Aftel makes luxury natural perfumes as well as superior-grade culinary oils and blended teas, including a new blood orange and cardamom black tea released in late 2015. (Please see a full tea list below.) Her teas are served at restaurants like Coi and Alta in San Francisco.

How do you think about your scented teas and the process of creating them?

Aftel: I’ve been a tea drinker my entire life and love all the nuances of tea: how it looks, smells, tastes, its color and mouthfeel, how the tea leaves unfurl in the infusion process. The whole experience of making and drinking tea is incredibly rich and aesthetically pleasing to me. I especially love hand-rolled teas, and enjoy watching the leaves unfurl during the infusion process. I also enjoy hunting for beautiful teas. As with everything else I buy, from perfume ingredients to culinary oils, I see myself as an explorer on the Spice Route, and am always searching for the very best materials. I do the same when I shop for tea. I buy rarer teas, often quite high up the supply chain, only after I’ve done a lot of comparison shopping.

I don’t plan to make a fragranced version when I find a tea I love. I drink it for its own sake and appreciate its inherent nuances. But sometimes an idea for marrying the tea with scents or flavors springs to mind. I experiment and strive for a marriage that respects the integrity of the base tea as well as the fragrance or flavor, while also creating something new. It’s similar to the way I think about composing a perfume: I work on it until the various ingredients are in harmony and have locked into place. I consciously keep my collection small, and rarely add to it. If I don’t think I can truly add something with a blend, I don’t do it.

Tell us about your newest tea, launched this past fall. How do you think about this creation?

Aftel: I grew up in Michigan and used to drink a lot of a popular orange spice tea there—it’s still widely sold across the country. It wasn’t an especially good tea but at the time, it was the most exotic thing in the world to me—I believe it’s the same tea Leonard Cohen mentioned in his song Suzanne. The thought of that tea brings me back to Michigan winters, which I miss sometimes, living in California. I often create new perfumes or teas based on feelings or memories like that, and hope that people will discover their beauty firsthand, in a way that feels personal and laces into their own memories.

I love the cardamom and blood orange tea for the winter holidays. I’d come across an extraordinary black tea for the base: it’s unusually clean and light, with beautifully rolled leaves, closer to an oolong. I bought up all of it from the supplier, and had the feeling I could create a more exquisite version of that old orange spice tea. I chose a big-hearted, raspberry-like blood orange oil—the most layered of all my orange essences. I also opted for a warm, well-rounded cardamom rather than cinnamon. I try to convey simplicity in all of my teas and perfumes, with just a few rich ingredients, whether it’s the cardamom in the black tea or allspice in the matcha chai. People don’t always get spices at their prime, but when you find truly high-quality ones, you can experience many layers of sensation with them, even in very small doses. I feel very grateful to work with these extraordinary materials, and like to share them with people, so they can feel the difference in quality themselves. It’s truly a luxury.

Four teas: A meditation on the seasons

We often think of the seasons as four distinct times of the year. In reality, they tend to be much more fluid, with some days warmer, or cooler, darker, lighter, greyer, brighter, or even swinging dramatically from summer to fall, winter to spring. Aftelier Perfumes’ collection feels very much like a complete oeuvre—think Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, with each tea suited for colder or warmer weather in its predominant characteristics, yet containing many underlying nuances to account for the transitions and variations of different days and moments. Each one offers many layers of aroma and taste, with just a few extraordinary ingredients: certain notes and seasonal qualities come to the forefront, or recede, with each successive steeping. The beautifully rounded matcha chai is one example: warming, earthier spices like cinnamon seem naturally suited to late fall or winter, while the brightness of green matcha offers the hope of new buds in spring.

Blood Orange and Cardamom Black Tea: A rare, organic Red Pearls black tea from Fujian, China, with fully-oxidized Mao Feng tea leaves rolled into small black pearls that open into fall-like leaves. Clean, slightly smoky, with bright orange, fresh, green cardamom and a caramel-like color and aroma, this tea takes the many orange spice blends on the market to a more refined, sublime level. A rich, festive tea for later fall, the holiday season and throughout winter.

Frankincense GABA Oolong: From Nantou, Taiwan with fruit and honey notes, also rich in GABA, a natural enzyme that calms and relaxes. Scented with the finest hojary frankincense, tinctured from the resin by Aftel, with balsamic notes, citrus-y undertones and hints of wild strawberry. Imbued with the history of frankincense and ancient resins, this is a grounding tea for colder months. Tightly rolled leaves unfurl during the first steeping, and may be re-infused up to four times, retaining their fragrance.

Matcha Chai: Ceremonial grade matcha, grown under diffused sunlight in Nishio, Japan, where the leaves are then ground into a fine vibrant emerald-green powder. Flavored with vanilla absolute from Madagascar, organic Vietnamese cinnamon, Jamaican pimento berry, and Indian cardamom. No need to add a dash of milk or sugar here: the blend itself has layers of creaminess from the matcha and a sweet touch of vanilla—a natural latte.

Turkish Rose and Ginger Oolong: A rare Taiwanese tea that’s oxidized and roasted by a traditional tea master. The oldest tea in the collection, first inspired by a rose-ginger soufflé, this full-bodied, floral, slightly green tea opens with ripe fruit notes and has a smooth aftertaste, enriched by soft Turkish rose and spicy ginger. Tightly rolled leaves unfurl during the first steeping, and may be re-infused multiple times. A lovely way to watch the summer months go by, and roses re-bloom through early fall.

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