Green tea might seem like a new trend, encouraged by medical professionals, news reports and journals for its health benefits, but in fact, green tea is older and more traditional for both China and the west than black tea. Only after some fortuitous accidents did tea drinking in Europe move from traditional Chinese green tea to black tea.
A Brief History of Green Tea
While the history of tea does not begin with green tea specifically, it began with something close. The story goes that Emperor Shen Nong was sitting in his gardens enjoying a beautiful day while tending his cauldron of water. (The emperor discovered that allowing water to come to a full boil before drinking prevented disease). The leaves of the tea plant drifted into his cauldron and boiled, infusing the water with the first tea ever. When Shen Nong tried the drink, he was immediately invigorated,. He shared the drink with all of his court officials, and suddenly, everyone at court was enjoying a jubilant buzz from the first caffeinated beverage.
Early green tea was not exactly the same as the fine green teas we enjoy today. During the famous tea sage Lu Yu’s time, green tea was pressed into cakes, and ground into a powder like matcha. The it was whisked into a froth in beautiful bowls. During the Song dynasty, people would even have brewing competitions to see who could whisk the finest green tea. Of course, the taste of early green tea was very strong, very grassy, and thick. When people sipped the jade green froth of Song era green tea, they were actually drinking the tea leaves themselves as a powder.
Zen Buddhist monks took this style of brewing back to Japan as matcha, and prepared in a chado ceremony (from the Chinese Cha Dao or way of tea). Green tea caught on in Japan after the emperor personally fell for the drink and appointed tea advisors, planting green tea gardens around Kyoto.
Later, the Chinese branched away from powdered whisked green tea and into looseleaf steeping. Famous emperor Song Huizong declared the flavors of looseleaf steeping to be superior to whisking the powder of tea. This may have been a taste discovery, but it may also have been prompted by the development of infrastructure in China (canals and roads) to allow for safer transport of tea in non-brick form.
From that point on, green tea was cultivated and processed with looseleaf brewing in mind. When European explorers first brought tea back from China, they took green tea, which experienced a warm reception in royal courts but didn’t become a widespread drink like black tea. Part of the reason for this is that green tea has a shorter shelf life. It needs to be fresh when it is brewed up. Year-old tea carried in ships to Europe didn’t fare as well. The tea that didn’t spoil due to poor storage was very expensive.
Black tea became the obvious solution to the freshness problem, becoming the national drink of England, and enjoying popularity around the world. Only recently has fast and cheap transportation allowed for fresh green tea to be exported from China and delivered to customers at its peak aroma and flavor.
Caffeine and Health Benefits of Green Tea
There is a lot of buzz right now about all the health benefits of green tea, and the lower caffeine levels. Right now it is too early to responsibly say that modern scientific studies prove the health benefits being claimed. Because green tea grows in so many regions and can be processed in so many different ways, tests on one tea do not prove effects of all tea. Even your brewing technique will change the chemical compounds infused, and their rate of absorption. Because of the number of contradictory studies and the lack of a long term study with control groups, it is premature to make the call on relative antioxidant counts.
However, that does not mean that green tea doesn’t have solid health benefits. The experience based, time tested principles of Traditional Chinese medicine link green tea to many health benefits. Green tea is used by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to reduce heat, boost alertness, relieve headaches, help digestion, and more. Many of these claimed benefits make sense. Caffeine is known to reduce headaches by dilating blood vessels and increasing circulation to the brain. This effect would also increase alertness and help with concentration. For many the effects of caffeine in tea are much milder and more harmonious with their metabolism than the caffeine of coffee. If the lower-level caffeine of green tea can be used medicinally, all the better.
In addition, green tea, like all tea, provides liquid, which helps keep you hydrated, and offers a chance to stop in the middle of the day and enjoy a treat. The effect of even 15 minutes of daily meditation has been documented to relieve stress. Stress and dehydration are major contributors to physical ailment. Combatting these through tea has tangible health benefits, regardless of contemporary studies on EGCG, etc. Decades of lower stress levels help keep a healthy immune system, and have a powerful potential to lengthen lifetimes.
Therefore, even while we wait for confirmation of the health benefits provided by the antioxidants in green tea, we can confidently drink green tea knowing that the effects it has can be powerful and lasting. As you can see, the ritual of the tea and its enjoyment is equally powerful as a health tonic as the actual chemical contents of the tea. This means that you should seek the highest quality, freshest green tea you can find. The flavor and aroma of fresh-picked whole leaf green tea will inspire the contemplative mood needed to reduce stress and help you crave green tea throughout the day and keep going back for more.
How is Green Tea Made?
Green tea is made from the same plant, camellia sinensis, as every other kind of tea, including black tea, oolong tea and pu’er. What makes it different is the way it is picked and processed. Chinese green tea is most commonly cultivated in Zhejiang Province, though varieties grow across all of China, even as far north as Shandong Province in Laoshan Village.
Usually, green tea is cultivated on tea plantations or gardens in more mountainous terrain at higher altitude. It grows in rows of bushes kept at about knee to waist height. The farmers of Laoshan Village cut their bushes all the way to the ground every few years to let the soil rest, and prevent too much large leaf and bark from developing.
Green tea is picked in the early spring. In Yunnan, picking can happen almost year-round in the tropical climate, while in traditional Zhejiang province where Dragonwell Green tea grows, picking starts in April. Most tea picking in China is still done by hand, with skilled farmers collecting the leaves in baskets. In Japan and elsewhere, some high quality green teas are still hand picked, but many are processed by machine. Hand picked green tea tends to be sweeter and less bitter because the leaves are not broken as much during picking and processing.
After picking, green tea is allowed to wither in bamboo baskets in air-circulated rooms, or in some cases, to sun-dry. After withering reduces the moisture of the leaf, the tea is steamed, or wok fired, then pressed flat, twisted or rolled final pressed flat, curled, or twisted and finally the tea is dried and vacuum sealed for distribution.
How to Brew Green Tea
The finest green tea in the world is rich, sweet and full in flavor with lingering aftertastes. Unfortunately, many people try green tea first when it is either no longer fresh, or when it is brewed improperly. This leads to the perception that green tea is bitter or extremely grassy. Following a few simple green tea brewing techniques can elevate your experience and make it easier to understand how green tea captivated China and Japan in early history, with whole ceremonies developing around it.
1. Start with good water and good tea. Water should be filtered, not distilled. Spring water often has the sweetest taste, but well-filtered tap water can be just as good. Bring the water to a low boil. You should see small bubbles coming up quickly in strings like pearls.
2. Brew green tea in smaller cups instead of big pots. A general rule is brewing no more than a 6-8 ounce quantity at a time. You can use a gaiwan, ceramic teapot, tempered glass tumbler, or any cup with a brew basket. Try 3-4 grams of leaf for a cup of water. You can estimate with about two teaspoons if you need to.
3. After adding the green tea leaves, slowly pour the water into the cup or pot. Do not cover the green tea while it is steeping. Letting the water temperature drop even more while brewing yields a sweeter cup of tea. Steep for about 10-20 seconds. This may seem like a short steeping, but you are using a lot of leaf.
4. Brew your tea again. High quality green tea can be steeped many times. Just increase the steeping a little each time.
Simple Green Tea Brewing Technique
All the rules are a lot to remember. Here is a basic summary that works for just about anything:
Two teaspoons of green tea, one cup of not-quite-boiling water, 15 second steeping
That’s it! Have fun brewing green tea and don’t be afraid to experiment.
How to Buy Green Tea
With every company in the US jumping on the health benefits bandwagon and scrambling to bring in green teas regardless of the quality, it is important to be aware and look for a few important factors before choosing your green tea.
1. Look for a season or picking date. You want to at least know how old the tea is. Under proper storage conditions, green tea can stay fresh for a year and a half after picking. However, if you can find green tea under eight months old, that is best. The absolute ideal is buying green tea with the seasonal harvests and enjoying it while it is under 3-4 months old. This will yield the sweetest and fullest taste. If a vendor does not have basic information on harvest date for time-sensitive teas, that is a red flag. Don’t limit yourself to just spring harvest tea. There is a common misconception that only spring tea is of high quality. Actually, there are rich, full-bodied summer harvests and crisp autumn harvests to try too.
2. Look for a region- the more specific, the better. The best vendors have a direct relationship with farms, or work with a broker that gives them that relationship. They should know what province the tea comes from at the least. Even better if the county is listed, or they give you info on elevation, regional weather, or name the specific family or workshop producing their tea. This does not guarantee quality, but shows a certain dedication, and at least lets you know that the tea is single origin, and not a blend from different growing regions.
3. Look at pictures. If you can’t pick out the tea in person, you want to have good pictures to judge. You should be able to see the shape of the leaves and the texture of the leaf. Is it fuzzy form downy spring hair, wiry, rough, broken, etc. Color can be an indicator, but many companies will photoshop alter the images to look greener than the tea actually is. You don’t want tea that is bright neon green, or that is brown-green. You are looking for a natural green color. Dragonwell should be more yellow green, while Laoshan Green from north China is a more silvery green.
4. Try a small quantity before you invest in a lot. If you can get a sample, try an ounce, or get a sample pack, that will help you determine if you like the tea.
5. Try to feel out the vendor collection. Does their green tea offering make sense? Does it feel like a confusing jumble of different ‘premium’ and ‘imperial’ grades, or is the collection paired to a set of teas that the vendor seems to care about? There are many players out there who go down a check list and make sure that they have every major kind of tea out there, but you might have better luck with a more specialized approach. A company with 50 green teas might have some knockouts, but without more buying and tasting experience, you might not find the good ones buried among the others.
How to Store Green Tea
Once you have made your investment in a few ounces of green tea that you like, you want to make sure that it stays as fresh as possible. Resealable, airtight and light-blocking packaging is a must. Most reputable vendors provide this kind of packaging, but if not, you will have to get resealable tins, or something like them. Ultimately, green tea keeps best when properly vacuum sealed and stored at near-freezing temperatures, but the possibility of humidity and condensation, plus the smells inside most refrigerators rule this option out for many home tea drinkers.
The best option is to buy smaller quantities of green tea, drink it often and reorder as needed so that you don’t keep anything for more than 4 months.
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