Flavor Investigator: Green Tea

Green tea is the worlds most popular beverage and has a rich history that dates back over 4000 years. Green tea is a type of tea which comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis shrub. There are two major varieties of this plant that we drink- Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica. The former is a small-leafed variety native to China and is traditionally used to make green and white tea. The later is a larger-leafed variety which is native to the Assam district of India and is used for black tea.

Green and black tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinesis. The difference between the two varieties is how they are processed after being harvested. Green tea leaves are not oxidized and therefore not fermented. After the tea leaves are harvested they are quickly preserved by either pan firing or steaming. In contrast, black tea is obtained after the leaves are harvested, withered and then crushed, torn, curled, or rolled and allowed to oxidize before being dried.

A Brief History of Green Tea

It is believed that green tea originated in China during the Shang dynasty as medicinal drink.  One legend states that green tea was first steeped in 2737 BC during the reign of Emperor Shennong. During his travels a few green tea leaves fell in his hot cup of water. After enjoying the hot beverage, he requested the members of the convey to prepare even more from him. An alternative story suggested that the emperor was looking to test the medicinal properties of different herbs and found that tea worked as an antidote.

Alternative sources believe that Buddhists during 500BC discovered tea. During this period Buddhists would travel back and forth between China and India. At the same time Buddhist monks would grow, harvest and produce teas like what Catholic European monasteries would do for wine.

The popularity of tea is believed to have originated from the Japanese in 1190 when a Zen priest studying in China’s great Buddhist monasteries and temples returned to Japan with tea plant seeds. A priest Eisai used his experience of growing and drinking tea in China to popularize the way of cheese meditation with his own community of Buddhist monks.

Japanese vs Chinese Green Tea

The Chinese and Japanese have very different styles of processing when it comes to green tea. The Chinese dry the tea leaves in pan over a source of heat. Tea leaves are heated in vessels such as wicker baskets, steel wok-like pans or metal drums. Heat sources include charcoal, gas flame, electric heat or hot air- all methods which affect the overall flavour of the tea. Japanese tea in contrast is dried using a steam method where tea leaves are heated by steam.

Flavor Differences in Green Tea

You might have noticed that if you order green tea it always seems to vary from place to place. Why is that the case? There are many factors which play a role in the flavour of green tea. Staring with the “terroir” or environment of the tea is grown in. For example, in Uva, Sri Lanka this region experiences dry Cachan winds. This initiates internal change within the cells of leaves to replace lost moisture. Teas in this region are regarded as being especially flavorful and have a higher price.

Processing also plays a significant role in the flavor of tea. Factors like how the leaves are shaped, rolled and dried all play a role in flavor development. As mentioned previously Chinese green teas are pan fired and this is why Chinese teas are generally regarded as bring grassy, earthy and roasted in flavor. In contrast, Japanese teas are typically described as being sweet, vegetal or seaweed-like.

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