This month we take a look at green tea; why it is often labelled a superfood, what you will taste when you drink it, how it is different to black tea and how to brew the perfect cup.
There are six different types of tea made from the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark tea. You can pluck one leaf and make it into any of these six types.
While green tea is the most common tea consumed in Asia, New Zealanders are heavy drinkers of black tea, due to our British-influenced past. However, over the last few years the popularity of green tea in New Zealand has increased, most likely due to its widely communicated health benefits.
How high quality, loose-leaf green tea is made
Green tea is one of the least processed of all the tea types (second to white tea). The main difference between green and black tea is that the leaves for green tea are not oxidised, while black tea leaves are fully oxidised.
To create green tea, leaves are plucked from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, withered to reduce water content, then heated. Heating serves two purposes: 1. to prevent oxidation (so it doesn’t turn into black tea) and 2) to influence the tea’s flavour. In China, heating is often done by hand in a hot pan or vat or by machine in a rotating cylinder. In Japan, green tea is steam heated, which produces a different aroma and flavour to Chinese tea. The leaves are then rolled to release their natural aromatic oils and shaped into either a twisted, curled, flat, needle-like or bead-like shape. Finally, they are dried then sifted and sorted to remove any unwanted pieces of leaf or stem.
Green tea’s flavour profile
The aroma and flavour of green tea is influenced by the terrior the tea is grown in, its plant cultivar, and how it is processed. Because of this, one green tea can taste very different to another. Green tea can be light, sweet and aromatic; full bodied, strong and astringent or anywhere in between. Green tea typically has a savoury flavour profile but you can experience a range of flavours such as vegetable, fruit, nut, herb, floral, grass and marine notes.
Japanese green teas often have marine characteristics (seaweed, fish, ocean air) due to the specific tea plant cultivars grown in Japan as well as the steam heating process.
Occasionally, other plants are added to green tea leaves such as fresh Jasmine leaves, which are lain over the tea leaves during the withering stage to impart their fragrance into the leaves (and are then removed) to create Jasmine Pearls (China) and roasted rice which is added to green tea leaves to create Genmaicha (Japan).
Green tea and health
You will often hear green tea called a superfood. While vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants are found in all types of tea, green tea is naturally high in a powerful antioxidant called Epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC), which is the reason green tea’s health benefits are more widely communicated than those of other types of tea. ECGC is known to have beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties and may also improve brain health, boost your immune system, support weight loss and help to lower cholesterol.
Of all green tea, matcha has the highest concentration of ECGC and other nutrients. This is because tea leaves are finely ground into a powder – so when you drink matcha, you are ingesting the entire leaf, not just the infused liquor as you do with loose leaf tea.
The secret to brewing the perfect cup
When prepared carefully, good quality green tea will be smooth and refreshing and never taste bitter.
The secret to brewing green tea involves three steps:
1) Choose good quality leaves
A lot of care goes into crafting loose-leaf artisan tea and price reflects both quality and flavour. Look for fresh, full leaves that are no more than one year old, and that come as loose-leaf tea or in a pyramid teabag (which gives the leaves room to expand). Be mindful that flavours are often added to poor quality green tea to disguise the flavour – particularly in cheaper traditional teabags.
2) Be deliberate about your water temperature
Because green tea leaves are not oxidised like black leaves, you should never use boiling water as it will scorch the leaves and you’ll miss out on the tea’s full flavour profile. Steeping your leaves in water at 85°C for Chinese green tea and 70°C for Japanese green and will draw out the best flavours from your leaves. If you don’t have a temperature variable kettle, boil freshly-drawn (ideally filtered) water, then open the kettle lid and leave it to cool for three minutes. Or simply add a splash of cold water into your cup or pot.
3) Time your tea
Different green teas often need a slightly different brewing duration, but a good rule-of -thumb is to steep them for no longer than 3 minutes. This is the most important step to making sure your tea doesn’t taste bitter. I always use my smart phone timer to make sure I don’t leave them too long.
Steep: 3 – 4 mins (China) at 85°C (185°F), 1-2 mins (Japan) at 70°C (158°F)*
We often include a green tea in our monthly subscription boxes. Last month, we featured Cui Ming, a premium 2018 spring tea from Yunnan, China. Cui Ming has large, twisted, bright green and silver-white leaves and a bright, sunshine yellow liquor. It tastes of roasted chestnut, green vegetables and has a hint of fruit. Both Gyokuro and Hojicha – two very different green teas from Japan - appeared in our June box. Gyokuro is a high-grade tea that is shaded a few weeks before plucking to intensify its nutrient content and the colour of the leaves. It deep jade, slender leaves infuse into a pleasant, savoury tea with notes of seaweed, spinach and green beans, followed by a mild nutty, umami aftertaste. Hojicha on the other hand is roasted, which turns the leaves into a soft tan colour, and creates a flavour of coffee, hazelnut, toast and caramel.
And finally, green tea pairs well with food; in particular sushi, fish and steamed greens, plant-based salads, chicken and rice dishes – so along with its health benefits and flavour profile it’s a worthwhile tea to have in your pantry.
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*While it might seem unusual to use a shorter steep time and cooler water for Japanese green teas compared to Chinese green teas, the reason for this is that Japanese green teas are made from a different tea plant cultivar, grown in different 'terroir' and processed using different methods than Chinese teas. The result is that Japanese green teas tend to be stronger in flavour profile and also have smaller/thinner leaves than Chinese green teas and therefore suit a shorter steep time and cooler water. While the times/temperatures are general 'rules of thumb' a drinker can of course play around with both to see what resulting flavour they prefer best.