All About: Green Tea
It is alleged that it was Shen Nung, the Emperor and herbalist of ancient China (2700 BC,) who first sipped a few leaves that had floated down from a nearby tree into a kettle of boiling water. Those leaves were green, fresh, and their intoxicating fragrance made the emperor curious enough to taste the resulting beverage. That was the beginning of tea drinking in China but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) that tea became the national drink of China. The monk, Dengyo Daishi, took green tea to Japan in AD 705 and another monk, Yesai, revived its cultivation in Japan in 1191. It would be a few more centuries until oxidation would become popular and the creation of oolong and red (black) teas would take hold in China and, soon, around the world in more than 30 other countries, but the stellar tea of China and Japan, in particular, remains the nearly infinite varieties of green tea. At Adagio, we currently offer 39 varieties of tea, unscented and scented for your green tea drinking pleasure.
All teas from the Camellia sinensis plant have caffeine and green teas are no exception. Some have little (Lung Ching,) and some have a great deal (Matcha.) If caffeine is a concern, drink modestly to prevent over stimulation. Organic green teas are available, particularly from Ceylon (Sri Lanka,) Taiwan, and increasingly, from India.
All green teas are fresh, allowed to oxidize (dry) in the air to make the leaves easier to shape, and, occasionally, pan fired in specially-designed woks to avoid the darkening of the leaves or changing the delicacy of the flavor that can occur if the leaves are left to dry only through natural oxidation. In addition, some producers use steam to help make shaping the leaves easier. What follows is an overview of some of the most popular green teas available in the US.
Japan produces only green teas, China and Taiwan produce a variety of green teas, and anywhere in the world where teas are grown, green teas are possible yet with less demand.
Japanese green teas are noticeably a more intense green color, often a result of techniques to increase the chlorophyll content in Gyokuro. The process is stopped at the Tencha stage before the leaves are formally shaped, dried and powdered, to become Matcha. Other popular teas from Japan include:
Sencha: The most well-known green tea of Japan, often referred to as everyday tea, Sencha has many grades and quality levels, with the finest being short, intensely green colored leaves. These heavy leaves require but a level teaspoon for most grades to extract the best taste in the cup.
Bancha: A lower grade Sencha often blended with Genmaicha or Hojicha. Plucked from Sencha plants, it is usually harvested from the second flush of summer and autumn. The flavor and fragrance are pleasant (senryu) and less astringent in its highest grades; more astringent and less fragrant in its lower grades.
Gyokuro (Precious Dew): The ultimate in Japanese green tea and the country’s most expensive, and most carefully produced. Often using shaded coverings for up to three weeks to intensify the chlorophyll that makes the resulting leaves bright and deeply green. The flavor is sweet and light, and very satisfying.
Hojicha (Kaga Bocha): This is an exception to the non-fired category. It is roasted, and may have stems mixed in it. The flavor is nutty and light; an excellent tea paired with spicy foods.
Genmaicha: This is another exception in the Japanese canon; it is mixed with popped corn and toasted rice. A good snack tea or one paired with foods. The flavor is slightly nutty with an edge of sweetness.
Matcha (Froth of Liquid Jade): This is the traditional powdered green tea used for cha-no-ya, the Japanese tea ceremony. It is made from Gyokuro leaves which are processed into leaves (Tencha) then dried and powdered into Matcha. High caffeine. Requires bamboo whisk to make it into its signature frothy brew.
Fukamushicha (Heavily Steamed Tea): is made with broken leaves steamed 2-3 times longer than Sencha for a darker color, deeper flavor, yet mild green flavor. An ideal stand-alone tea and good choice for newcomers to green teas.
Lung Ching ( aka Long Jing or Dragon Well): This is the most well-known green tea of Mainland China, and named for its eponymous location. The best is from Xi Hu (West Lake) near Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. The best is plucked during the spring, especially those harvested “Before the Rains.” It is a delicate sage color in the leaf with a sweet delicately scented liquor in the cup. The leaves are light, whole, and flat, and one needs a heaping teaspoon to gain the best flavor.
Gunpowder (Lo Chu Cha): One of many clean-tasting greens from China shaped into balls, often referred to as pearls, and available in many sizes. When brewed, the leaves unfurl completely from the ball/pearl shape.
Pi Lo Chun aka Bi Luo Chun (Green Spring Spiral), from Jiangsu Province, is a lovely, light green excellent alone or with meals. Delicate pale jade downy leaves provide a light-colored cup and careful brewing at lowest temperatures.
Chun Mee aka Chun Mei or Mei Cha
Korea produces a tiny amount of green teas in comparison to its neighbors in the Pan Asian area. The teas are intensely green and sweet and excellent stand-alone teas or drunk with foods.
CEYLON greens are brisk like their black counterparts and have a fresh grassy edge. A refreshing afternoon tea alternative and excellent with food.
ASSAM greens are heartier than their Ceylon, China or Japan offerings, yet the fresh green essence is definitely there. An assertive green that excellent with meals.
HOW TO BREW:
Whether you use a conventional teapot, an Xixing pot, a gung fu cup, or any other brewing vessel, the two primary caveats of brewing green tea are: LOWER water temperature and SHORTER brewing times. Ignoring these guidelines results in bitterness.
The popular hobnail iron pot of Japan is primarily a vessel for holding hot water. Should you want to use it to brew the tea, make sure the interior of the pot is glazed, and use a strainer for convenience in removing the brewed leaves. Unlike the unglazed Chinese Xixing pot, which is made of porous clay, the iron pot does not absorb the flavor of the tea, but can leech iron that can negatively impact the flavor of the tea.
Follow the tea vendor’s recommendations for brewing times and temperature . When in doubt, brew with water under 185 degrees F. for one minute; continue brewing if you like the flavor more intense. Some greens actually brew best in waters as low as 122-155 degrees F. Start with the recommendations of your tea vendor then experiment to suit your personal taste.
Remember, one can always brew longer, but one cannot undo brewing, so brewing in micro steps is always a good idea.
If you boiled the water, not to worry. Pour some out into a small pitcher and allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes, or longer, and then brew the tea with the cooled water. Elaborate Japanese tea sets often include a pitcher just for this purpose.
Greens blend easily with flavors such as citrus, mint, cherry blossoms, or jasmine flowers. While the traditional maxim is no sugar and milk, today’s tea “drinks” are often made with milk, tapioca balls (boba,) and similar additions. Purists often caution against using high-quality greens for these as the best teas are exquisite when drunk plain. If you cannot resist experimenting with milk or flavorings, consider a gunpowder or modest Sencha for your experiments.
NOTE: Cha means tea in both Japanese and Chinese.