What is Green Tea?
Green tea is the most pristine tea in China, with the longest history, and consistently selling for a very high price. Next to black tea (hong cha), green tea is the most recognized tea across the world. But what makes a tea green?
Compared to the other five categories of tea, leaves made into green tea are placed on high heat the soonest. After the tea is picked, it is let to wither to pull out some of the surface moisture. Then, the leaf is exposed to temperatures around 200 degrees celsius to kill the green. Most other teas also go through the kill green step, but usually not right away. (For example, in wulong making, the leaf is shaken first.) In the kill green step, enzymes working in the tea leaf are halted, preserving the tea in its current state. Since green teas go through this step the earliest, its leaf is in the freshest state compared to the other categories of teas, often imparting the most bitter and tannic notes, but also the most refreshing and liveliest flavor.
The four major subcategories of green tea all refer to how the tea is made–baked green (Hong Qing), steamed green (Zheng Qing), pan fried green (Chao Qing), and sun dried green (Shai Qing). Each making style describes the step after the enzymes are killed, where residual moisture is removed from the leaf. Stir-fry green is the most well known style and includes famous teas, such as Bi Luo Chun and Long Jing. Stir-fried greens are usually stronger. Baked green is one of the most common styles and includes teas such as Mao Feng and Hou Kui. These tend to be softer and have a savoriness. Sun dried is very rare and is most well-known as Sheng Pu. While steamed green is almost unused in China, it remains the main method of green tea making in Japan. There is still one famous Chinese green tea that is steamed and that is En Shi Lu Yu.
Green tea has the longest history. The earliest writings mentioning tea are from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), when poet Wang Bao records buying and preparing tea in “A Contract With a Servant”. How do we know this is green tea? Well, for a long time, tea was a tribute item to the emperor, forcing strict regulation on how tea was made. It wasn’t until the Hong Wu Emperor that these restrictions were abolished and other kinds of tea were allowed to be produced. Thus, up until the Ming Dynasty, all tea was made in the green tea style
Brewing Green Tea
When it comes to brewing green tea, things are a little different than most teas. Since the leaf is in its freshest state, it is the most delicate and susceptible to temperature. So it is common knowledge that you should use lower water temperature. To dive a little more deeply into water temperatures you should use different temperatures depending on the the type of green tea, taking factors like leaf size, tenderness and pick time into account. Teas that are smaller and picked earlier are more tender and should use slightly cooler tempetures. A good example of this is Bi Luo Chun. Teas that are larger or picked later, like Mao Feng our Hou Kui, can handle a little more heat.
Another trick to brewing green teas that is less known is to not cover the leaves and they are brewing and to never completely drain the water. Covering the leaves as they brew traps the heat and bakes the leaf. Why this won’t completely ruin the flavor, you will lose the softer more subtle qualities that often separate an high quality tea from an average one. Draining the water completely will also have the same effect. Between each steep leave some water in the bottom of the vessel. Just enough to completely submerge the leaves and give them room to move a bit. This will not only keep the leaves from oxidizing, but it will also act as a temperature neutralizer so in your next steep you will no longer need to cool the water off as the water standing there will already do that.
In China though, it is common to just through the leaves in a thin walled vessel and drink directly from that; chewing any leaves that get into your mouth. This will make the tea strong and it wont usually last as long, but it is convenient for times when you are doing something else and just need tea. A good green tea should float when you first add water. (Exception being Bi Luo Chun and other rolled teas). If it sinks to fast it is the sign of a dead leaf.
Judging the Tea
The flavor of green tea should be very refreshing and lively. It is once again the leaf in its freshest state. What is very important for a good green tea is come back sweetness. After you swallow the green tea there should be a sweet taste left in your mouth. This can be the key factor to tell apart a green tea and a yellow tea in a blind tasting. (They taste very similar).
When looking at the liquid it should be light. A light tea, such as green tea or unroasted Tie Guan Yin, should have a light. At the same time though the liquid should be lively as well. I always describe good tea liquor as giving off a neon like glow. Green tea liquor that is too dark or looks dead is the sign of a bad tea.
It is hard to generalize the visual apperance of green tea because their are so many. Hou Kui has a vastly different shape than Bi Luo Chun, yet both are historically famous. Usually though a sign of a bad green tea is leaves that are too large or that look spread apart. Green tea is most sought after in the earlier picks, when the leaves are young and tender. A green tea with leaves that are too big means that the leaf was picked later in the season and wont have the same complexity and sweetness as an earlier picked leaf. When a tea leaf has an unclear shape, that means that the leaf isn’t as tender. When tea leaves are young and healthy they are tender and juicy. Tender leaves stick to themselves better during the making. (This is important when looking at rolled wu longs). A green tea leaf that is spread out with no clear shape means the leaf was not tender enough to maintain during making. This can be from a late pick or a bad terroir. These leaves are often bitter and tasteless. The image below is from a company claiming to have Long Jing. See how the leaves are much too big for a Long Jing and have no clear shape.