Things that are evergreen: our love of cats, Japanese ceramics, and—most importantly—green teas!
Green tea: it’s one of those subjects that everyone knows about generally, but not deeply. Come to think of it, what is green tea (hint: they’re not all necessarily green in colour!) and what makes it different to black tea or oolongs? Why do some green teas come as a powder and others as tightly curled leaves?
Luckily, The Tea Centre is not only here to provide you with the answers, but also to take you on an educational deep dive into the world of green tea. Starting with the crop and ending with the final blend, we take you through all the choices our master tea craftspeople make to create your favourite green teas.
WHAT IS GREEN TEA?
Get ready to put your science hats on! The textbook definition is this: green tea is any varietal from the Camellia sinensis tea plant that is not left to oxidise (the process that eventually creates oolongs, black teas, and pu-erhs) but still undergoes more processing than white teas.
Specifically, green tea farmers halt the leaf’s natural oxidisation by either steaming, pan-frying or roasting the leaves. Alternatively, leaves that are left to air dry eventually become white teas.
Given oxidisation begins as soon as the tea leaf is taken from the stem, it would be inaccurate to say that green tea doesn’t undergo an oxidation process. If we had to put a percentage to it, we’d say:
White tea = 0-10% oxidised
Green tea = 10-30% oxidised
Oolong = 30-80% oxidised
Black tea = 80-100% oxidised
Pu-erh = 90-100% oxidised
While it’s at the processing stage that a tea’s type becomes apparent, there are so many variables even at the harvest and crop-growing phase—orthodox plucking, spring flush harvests, tea grading, and chemical vs. natural withering process—that can make a green tea distinct and unique. We cover some of the favourite crop-growing green tea methods below!
Shaded green teas
A subset of the green tea family, we famously associate the shaded green tea-growing method with gyokuro. This is because gyokuro is one of the most expensive Japanese teas on the market. However, tea farmers use this method across many Japanese green teas, including matcha and sencha too.
Image source: shungate.com
Why is this one of our favourite crop conditions, you ask? Because this method is directly responsible for giving Japanese green teas their distinctive umami flavour and sweetness!
This explanation does require a little science. When green teas are shaded (either on traditional shelves or under bast fibre mats like the gyokuro above), it reduces the amount of sunlight that the tea plants receive by approximately 85%.
As a result, the plant produces more chlorophyll (making for brighter green teas), sugar content (due to lower photosynthesis), and retains its high L-theanine (an umami trigger) and low catechins (bitter notes) count.
Farmers usually shade sencha the fortnight prior to harvest. Alternatively, farmers will shade gyokuro and matcha for up to a month. This is one reason why the latter teas often boast a higher price point.
Mountain-grown green teas
If you ever want an example of delayed gratification, look no further than green tea grown in the most pristine mountains around the world. While planting tea in such cold conditions does slow its growth, this delay allows the leaves to develop more complex (read: delicious!) flavours and aromatics.
Moreover, the first wild tea plants were said to have grown in the crags of China, so you can’t get more traditional than mountain-grown tea! Among China’s most famous would be the likes of Lung Ching Grade 1 and 3 (also known as ‘Dragonwell’ or ‘Longjing’ tea). If you’re after a green tea that’s a little closer to home, however, we’d recommend Australian Alpine Sencha.
Grown in the windy Victoria Alps near Wangaratta, such a high elevation speaks to this tea’s smooth mouthfeel and pleasant astringency. Another bonus of growing tea in cold climates? It slows not only the growth but the oxidation of the leaf upon harvest! Therefore, a mountain-grown tea retains more health benefits in comparison to leaves grown at lower elevations.
Tea merchants don’t just pluck leaves from the crop and send them your way! Every type of tea undergoes some form of processing where artisans wither, oxidise, and shape the leaves before distribution. Some forms of processing are unique to green teas; find out more below.
When talking about spinach or broccoli, the idea of ‘steamed greens’ sounds a little meh. But when it comes to green tea, the phrase is synonymous with delicious!
Heating green tea is crucial as it stops the leaves’ enzymes from continuing the oxidation process. We commonly associate the steaming method with Japanese teas. However, it was actually born in China and brought over to Japan by a monk called Kobo Daishi in 804 A.D.!
Brews like Shimizu Sencha and Gyokuro are steamed, and the result is often green leaves that have a distinct curled-in cylindrical shape. However—as proven by the pellet-like shape of gunpowder green tea or matcha tea powder—some steamed green teas go through further processing and sport different shapes simply due to tradition.
In which case, what are some other ways to tell it a green tea has been heat-steamed as opposed to wok-fried or roasted? Another tell-tale sign is a green tea that smells particularly herbaceous and sports a grassy flavour. Steaming is a more gentle form of processing. Therefore, the leaf does tend to retain more of its catechins and characteristics. While this can make green teas more astringent, a side benefit is more catechins = more antioxidants too!
When it comes to a green tea from China, more often than not they’ve spent a minute of being tossed inside a pan or wok! We produce green teas like Lung Ching and Jasmine Chung Feng via pan or wok firing as this is the most popular processing method in China.
However, the western parts of Japan also boast a special form of pan-firing called kamairicha. This method heats tea over 300℃ with continuous movement to prevent the leaves from burning.
Another exception is our beautifully unique Hōjicha! This particular tea was born in the 1920s after a tea trader had leftover bancha tea leaves (a steamed green tea) and made a new tea from the excess. They did this in order to minimise wastage and maximise profits! To do this, they roasted the bancha leaves in a porcelain pot over charcoal, resulting in a delicious new tea!
It’s easy to spot the difference between pan-fired and steamed green teas, as the former is always more earthy and some even or caramelised in comparison to the latter. This method also tends to produce more brittle leaves that break easier upon infusion. Similarly, roasted teas are also earthy, although charcoal does give teas like Hōjicha an extra smoky taste.
The fun doesn’t end there! After processing comes blending and packaging. While you’ll be familiar with bestseller green tea fusions like Morning Flower and Japanese Lime, we want to introduce you to some more traditional blends!
Can you get any more traditional than fifteenth-century Kyoto? This was the time when genmaicha was first made! At least that’s how the rumours go…
One origin story says that genmaicha was made by a servant to please a samurai. Another says it was Japanese housewives! While the ‘who’ is unclear, the reason why genmaicha was created remains the same. It was to eke the most of out a commodity (green tea) that was very expensive at the time by mixing it with a more affordable ingredient—brown rice.
While originally made with bancha (the cheapest of green teas), genmaicha only became when tea merchants began mixing brown rice with higher-grade sencha and gyokuro! Our genmaicha is made with sencha.
The only other green tea blend that could rival genmaicha in age is jasmine tea, which is thought to date back to the Han dynasty! If you want to learn more, be sure to read our Tea Journal entry about jasmine tea here. However, there are two particularly unique ways of creating jasmine tea that we’ll be exploring below: rolled teas and green tea flowers.
Woven/blooming tea balls: it’s an artisan blending method that’s reserved for highly aromatic green teas like jasmine or rose teas.
Made to serve as both a visual and tasty delight, tea artisans will hand stitch flowers and tea leaves together into a ball. Then, they continuously add flat tea leaves that creates the ‘unfurling flower’ effect upon infusion. You can see for yourself when watching a ball from our ‘Garden Party’ blooming tea box unfurl in a glass teapot upon adding water!
Weaving tea and flowers into a spherical shape also serves a more practical function too. A tight ball of tea leaves better retains the delicate floral aromatics that tea artisans work so hard to integrate into the loose leaf. It also makes for a better release of flavour upon infusion too.
This is why other green teas like Moroccan Mint (also known as Maghrebi tea) and Buddha’s Tears (Jasmine Downy Pearls) are shaped into pellets/balls. These shapes also lead to less breakage, allowing the leaf to remain whole even when unfurling in water.