There’s a lot of variety to green tea. Some of it is flavored, some of it is just green, some of it is rolled up into little balls, some of it is in bags, and all of it is of different prices and qualities. This post is a bit of an introduction to the different types of green tea.
Green tea is a true tea. This means that it is the brewed leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, and nothing else. Many things which we tend to call tea, such as rooibos, or any fruit tea, usually contain leaves from other plants, and no true tea leaves at all. True teas are black, oolong, green, and white teas. Each of them is made of leaves from the same plant, but prepared slightly differently. Black teas are allowed to oxidize before being dried, which allows the leaves to age and darken. White teas are dried immediately after being plucked, with no treatment whatsoever. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, then steamed, then dried. Green teas are plucked, then steamed, to preserve the green freshness of their flavor, before they are dried. All green teas are leaves from the same species of plant, which are steamed and then dried, but subtle differences in how they are prepared, how they are grown, where they come from, and what is added to them after they are plucked leads to a broad variety of different types of green teas.
The first important distinction to make regarding green teas is that between flavored and unflavored green teas. A flavored green tea is anything which contains something other than simply tea leaves. This is usually fruit, flowers, or citrus. The standard example of our citrus teas is the Citron Green, which is a green tea made with lemon zest. This creates a very fresh drink, though it is not at all traditional, which is not unlike black teas with lemon. Some green teas contain a mixture of fruits, such as Summer Passion. Perhaps the most common way to flavor a green tea is with flowers, such as the delicate, hand-rolled Jasmine Dragon Pearls, or our most popular green tea, the Kyoto Cherry Rose. Both have delicate floral notes, which cut the grassy flavor which green tea can have. For folks who are unfamiliar with green teas, I highly recommend starting with something flavored, and gradually trying nicer and plainer teas as you become more familiar with them, and develop your taste.
The next important distinction, once we have narrowed the field to simply plain green teas, is of quality. Sencha is the standard. It is a decent tea, but nothing spectacular. It is what you are likely to be served instead of water in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant. What makes sencha sort of unremarkable is the fact that the plant is grown in full sun. It is allowed to grow as quickly as it would like, and therefore tends to be sort of a pale green.
The general measure of quality for a green tea is how darkly green it is. Thus, Sencha is passable, but not excellent. Some teas are forced to be darker by being shaded during the last weeks before they are plucked. Shading forces the plant to make more chlorophyll, in order to feed itself. This is because it needs to fight harder to grow, as it makes use of less sun light. By making the plant darker, the grower also keeps it from growing larger as quickly as it otherwise could. This means that they sacrifice quantity of tea for quality. Some green teas are shaded for a week or so, to darken them slightly before they are plucked. However, the highest quality green tea, Gyokuro, needs to be shaded for a full three weeks before it can be plucked.
Gyokuro, that highest quality of green tea, can still be prepared in a variety of ways. Some gyokuro is served like a regular tea, by simply being steamed and then dried. However, gyokuro can also be turned into matcha after being brewed. Matcha is such a unique and exceptional drink that it actually got it’s own post here, but the basic idea is that it is ground up between granite stones. Matcha is mixed directly into water, rather than being brewed in it, and contains both more antioxidants, and more caffeine, than any other type of green tea. This is because, when you drink matcha, you are consuming the whole leaf of the plant, rather than just water into which is has been infused.
Green teas can also vary widely based on where they are grown, and how they are prepared. The best example of both of these is Dragonwell, traditionally called longjing. Dragonwell tea is only Dragonwell if it is grown near the city of Hangzhou, in the Zhejiang province of China. It also has to be steamed by being pressed flat against the sides of a wok, which is generally done by hand. Dragonwell tea is thought to all come from the same family of 15 original plants, though this is most likely just a myth. Regardless, it yields a high-quality tea. A good Dragonwell tea should be somewhat lighter than a shaded green tea, and brews to a bluish green color.
Curious about other types of green tea? Ask us about them in the comments below!