Photo credit: Tea Thoughts
Green tea is associated with freshness and purity, high antioxidant content and other beneficial properties. Flavors can range from mellow and sweet to vegetal and grassy, with nutty, floral, buttery, roasted, fruity, herbaceous or oceanic. Read this lesson to learn more about what differentiates green tea from the rest of the tea leaves made from the Camellia sinensis plant.
GREEN TEA ORIGINS
Green tea originally comes from China, where its methods of production have been refined over centuries. According to legend, green tea was first steeped around 5,000 years ago. Written records note its cultivation and use as a medicine in the Han Dynasty (206-220), but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that green tea was consumed for pleasure and had become an integral part of Chinese society. In the 8th century, the process of steaming was developed. Steaming the leaves halted oxidation and allowed the leaves to retain their greenness, and also led to the production of better tasting tea. The steamed leaves were crushed to form a paste, and then molded and pressed into cakes and bricks to keep the tea fresh and allow for easier transport. Also around this time, Lu Yu published a famous book called “The Classic of Tea” or “Cha Jing”, which outlined proper techniques for growing, preparing and brewing tea, and helped popularize formalized “tea ceremonies”.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), powdered tea (like matcha today!) was invented. After leaves were picked, they were stored in earthenware jars, and then ground into a fine powder that was to be whisked into a frothy suspension with hot water. Since this way of making tea was labor intensive and expensive, powdered tea could alternatively be made by grinding brick tea. Loose tea as we know it today didn’t rise to popularity until late in the Song Dynasty; however, its taste was quite bitter until the process of pan firing tea was discovered during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). Pan firing to de-enzyme the tea leaves drastically changed the flavor profiles of loose leaf tea, which became much more enjoyable to Chinese consumers. The only challenge was that green tea didn’t travel well and it spoiled quickly, so producers in each area of China developed leaf styles and flavors that became characteristic to that region.
When a Japanese monk named Eisai traveled to China to study Buddhism in the 12th century, he was profoundly influenced by the customs of tea drinking that he discovered there and the beneficial effect it had on monks’ focus and concentration during meditation rituals – he published a book in 1214 about the health-promoting and life-balancing qualities of tea, and also brought back tea seeds that he propagated, sparking the spread of tea production in Japan. Tea in Japan was commonly prepared as whisked powdered green tea (matcha), which still is popular today in Chado (the Way of Tea) ceremonies. It was not until the late 16th century that loose leaf tea made its way to Japan. To this day, China and Japan are the main producers of green tea; Chinese green tea is distinguished by the pan-firing process, as opposed to the steaming process done in Japan.
GREEN TEA PROCESSING
A brewed green tea is typically a shade of green, yellow or light brown in color, and common descriptors for good quality green teas can include: grassy, toasty, vegetal, sweet, nutty, floral, buttery, oceanic and umami. The leaf itself as well as the processing method contributes to the resulting flavor. Raw leaf material varies greatly depending on multiple factors, such as the harvest time, weather or climate, cultivar and plucking order.
The traditional method of processing green tea may involve withering, heating, shaping and drying the leaves. Fine green teas are generally composed of “two leaves and a bud” as the standard plucking combination, although some of the finest teas use one bud, or one leaf and one bud.
Japanese green teas are steamed shortly after they are plucked – this process is called de-enzyming because the application of heat kills the enzymes that trigger oxidation.
Chinese teas may go through a withering stage first - after plucking (by hand or with machines), the leaves are spread out and exposed to sunlight or warmth for a few hours. Green tea withering is done in a way to allow the necessary physical wither (reduction in moisture content), while minimizing the chemical wither (oxidation). The common de-enzyming step for Chinese green teas is pan firing: the leaves may be tossed in hot pans until the enzymes are neutralized, or they may be heated and crushed in a rotating machine to simultaneously release and deactivate enzymes.
The tea may then be shaped, either by hand or with machine rollers (this could also occur simultaneously with the first pan firing). Most pan fired tea undergo a final firing to reduce moisture content further, allowing the leaves to be stored without going bad. The tea may pick up slight smokiness or toasted flavor at this point.
GREEN TEA TYPES
There is a wide range of green teas out there – if you think you don’t like a particular green tea, you may tried a green tea type that wasn't for you, had a low quality green tea, or a green tea that was steeped incorrectly. There are a wide range of green tea types that depend on cultivation practices, terroir or growing environment, part of the plant used, time of harvest, processing method used, and more. The most popular green tea types come from China and Japan – here are a few examples from each country:
Green teas are the classic loose leaf teas of China. Today, China sets the standard for pan-fired green teas, and there are a variety of different leaf styles – more so than any other tea category. Leaf styles of Chinese green teas include flat and straight, curly, balled, and twisted. Some popular pan fired Chinese green teas include:
- DRAGONWELL (LONGJING): A famous green tea from China’s West Lake (Xihu) region of Zhejiang province, with a characteristic smooth, flat, sword-shaped appearance and pan-fired toasty taste. It is considered a classic pan-fired Chinese green tea. Premium first-flush Dragonwell is plucked within a 10-day span around early April.
- GUNPOWDER: A well-known green tea that may have gotten its name because the tea resembles gunpowder pellets used for cannons. Its leaves are tightly rolled into balls – the tight roll makes them more durable and able to retain more flavor and aroma while traveling or being stored for lengths of time.
- BI LUO CHUN: Translated as “green spring snail,” a classic green tea from Jiangsu province hand-rolled into tiny spirals, which unfold gracefully in the cup to produce a delicate infusion
- CLOUD & MIST (YUN WU): Harvested in the mist shrouded peaks of Mount Lu (Lu Shan) from late April to early May. The cool mist allows the tea plants to maintain a deep green color and develop a full buttery and vegetal flavor.
Left: Dragonwell | Middle: Cloud & Mist | Right: Gunpowder
Japanese teas are generally steamed, instead of being pan-fired, and can be divided into two overarching categories – sun-grown and shade-grown.
- SENCHA: Translated roughly as “infused tea,” Sencha is the most common green tea produced and consumed in Japan. It refers to teas produced in the spring harvest including two leaves and a bud. During the sorting stage of production, more finely twisted leaves are selected as sencha, and everything else (coarser leaves and stems) is known as bancha.
- HOJICHA: Produced by roasting bancha (see above) over high heat, giving the leaves a brownish color and the infused tea a rich savory, toasty aroma. It contains very little caffeine and bitterness due to the roasting process.
- GENMAICHA: A blend of bancha or sencha and roasted or popped rice – it is a popular drunk in Japan and the US, commonly paired with foods because of its toasty rice flavor. When matcha is added to it, it is called genmaimatcha.
- KUKICHA: Known as twig tea or stalk tea, it consists of a blend of leaves and stems that are normally left over when producing sencha or gyokuro. Kukicha is generally light and refreshing with a mild sweetness. It is usually a bit lower in caffeine and makes a great iced tea.
Left: Sencha | Middle: Kukicha | Right: Genmaicha
- GYOKURO: Translated as “precious dew,” gyokuro is Japan’s highest quality, most sought-after green tea. It is carefully covered with canopies, traditionally made from bamboo, to keep most of the sunlight from reaching the plants. This shading process develops a unique umami flavor and increases L-theanine, chlorophyll and caffeine levels. Gyokuro is harvested only once a year in early spring – typically in early May – and is carefully plucked by hand.
- KABUSECHA: Sometimes referred to as “shade-grown sencha”, kabusecha is partially-shaded, for less time before harvest than gyokuro. It is in between sencha and gyokuro in terms of flavor profile, as it is neither fully sun-grown or fully shade-grown.
- MATCHA: Matcha is shade-grown, similar to gyokuro, but it’s unique in that the leaves are stone-ground into a fine powder, to be whisked and suspended into water, instead of infused. Matcha is key in the Japanese tea ceremony, and you’ll find it nowadays as a common cooking ingredient and in lattes. Matcha may be the most potent tea in terms of caffeine and nutrient content, since the whole leaf is consumed, instead of just the infusion. You can get various grades of matcha – ceremonial grade is the most vibrant green, with low bitterness, meant to be drunk alone, while latte/cooking grade is more bitter and is ideal for cooking or mixing with milk or other ingredients.
POPULAR BLENDED / FLAVORED / SCENTED GREEN TEAS
You can find a wide range of green teas that have been scented, blended, or flavored with other ingredients. Here a few of the most common ones:
- JASMINE GREEN: Jasmine is one of the most popular and widely recognized scented teas in the world. Jasmine green tea is naturally sweet and floral – it is commonly drunk with meals in China. During summer months, jasmine buds are hand-plucked each day in early evening when they are just about to bloom. The jasmine buds are stored overnight with green tea leaves (the tea and flowers are either blended together, or placed in alternating layers) – as the buds open in the cool night air, they release an intoxicating aroma that is absorbed by the green tea leaves. Jasmine Green Tea typically looks like any other loose leaf green tea, but you can also find Jasmine Dragon Pearls, which are made from the highest quality tippy leaf and buds, hand rolled into tight pearls and usually scented multiple times with jasmine or rolled with jasmine blossoms. This tea can be steeped multiple times as the pearls unravel more each time, revealing delicious complex flavor notes.
- MOROCCAN MINT: Moroccan Mint is a traditional drink in Morocco made from Chinese Gunpowder Green tea, fresh mint leaves, boiling water and large amounts of sugar. Today, it's common to find Moroccan Mint blends that use dried mint leaves instead of fresh, and other types of green tea may be used as well.
TASTING GREEN TEA
A brewed green tea is typically green, yellow or light brown in color, and common descriptors for good quality green teas can include: grassy, toasty, vegetal, sweet, nutty, floral, buttery, oceanic and umami. When tasting green teas, it helps to have an idea of where the tea comes from and how it was grown and processed. For example, we would expect a pan-fired Chinese tea like Dragonwell to have a toasty flavor, while we would expect a steamed Japanese tea like Sencha to have a grassier, more vegetal flavor. Remember to steep the tea correctly, using a lower temperature than most other tea types, and brew for a shorter time to avoid bitterness. A nice way to avoid oversteeping and experience the true flavor of a green tea is to cold-steep it using a slow infusion process that doesn't require hot water (see instructions below).
CAFFEINE CONTENT IN GREEN TEA
Several factors determine caffeine levels of any tea, including the plant variety and region it was grown, processing style and brewing method. We generally think of green tea as having lower caffeine levels than black tea and coffee. However, it’s difficult to come up with a specific level of caffeine per cup of green tea because of the many different types and brewing methods.
According to a Journal of Food Science test of caffeine levels across different green tea brands, the caffeine content in each 8 oz. cup varied from 11 mg to 47 mg, and other sources indicate that green teas can contain upwards of 60 mg per brewed cup.
Hojicha and Kukicha have some of the lowest caffeine levels of any green tea, beause Hojicha uses older tea leaves that undergo roasting in high heat, and Kukicha contains many stems and stalks, which are lower in caffeine than the leaf.
Shaded teas like matcha and gyokuro may contain higher levels of caffeine due to restriction from sunlight, but their simultaneous higher levels of L-theanine may reduce the effect of caffeine in our systems and lead to relaxation and reduced stress. Read more about caffeine in tea with Lesson 109.
STORING GREEN TEA
Green tea is the most challenging to keep fresh because it can go stale and lose its flavor more quickly than other teas. Green tea is best consumed within 6 months to a year of purchase (if it’s relatively fresh when you buy it). You should store it in a cool, dark place, away from moisture and strong smells, and ideally in an airtight container or sealed package. If you have a fresh green tea (especially Japanese teas like matcha or gyokuro) that you don’t plan to consume in the near future, you may want to consider storing them in the fridge or freezer (in a sealed container to block any food aromas).
PREPARING GREEN TEA
Green tea is one of most difficult tea types to brew correctly. Certain types require very low temperatures and steep times – or else they will go bitter and will not be pleasant to drink. It’s best to check with your vendor or look on the tea package for brewing instructions specific to your green tea type, but here are a few general guidelines:
HOW TO BREW GREEN TEA
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- Water Kettle or Pot to Heat Water
- Tea Leaves / Sachets / Bags
- Teapot with Filter / Teacup / Personal Mug and Filter
STEP ONE: HEAT THE WATER
- 140℉-180℉ // Below boiling
The exact temperature depends on the specific type of green tea (Japanese and first flush teas are generally 160-170 and Chinese teas are generally 170-180. Gyokuro, a high-grade spring-picked Japanese tea, is brewed at the lowest temperatures of around 140F)
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a way of setting the temperature on your method of boiling water, bring the water to a soft boil (tiny bubbles) and then allow it to cool down or transfer into another pitcher before pouring into your tea. Never use boiling water for green tea!
Pro Tip: Use filtered water for the best tasting cup!
STEP TWO: MEASURE THE TEA
- About 2 grams per 8 oz. (1 cup) of water
Pro Tip: Add tea leaves to an infuser that lets them open fully, or you can put them straight into the teapot and use a strainer when you're pouring a cup!
STEP THREE: STEEP THE TEA
- 30-60 seconds for delicate, spring harvest teas; 1-3 minutes for regular harvest, more robust teas (when in doubt, taste the tea every 30 sec to decide when it’s ready). High quality green teas may be steeped multiple times.
Pro Tip: Don't let your tea steep for too long! It's best to take the leaves/sachet/bag out when the time's up so you aren't left with a bitter cup. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
Pro Tip: Cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat and aroma in the steeping vessel.
Additions: If you would like to add milk or sweetener, that’s okay, but keep in mind you’re adding calories and may be masking the true flavor of the green tea. Always try the tea first to decide if additions are really necessary!
STEP FOUR: ENJOY :)
Note: Cold brewing is another way to bring out the sweeter flavors of green tea and avoid bitterness from over-steeping. Learn how to cold brew tea here.
Check out this short video on how to prepare green tea:
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Written By: Melanie Mock