A Beginner's Guide to Drinking Better Green Tea

If you're starting to drink your tea more seriously, chances are you're beginning with green tea. While black tea rules over the Americas and Europe, green tea is the daily staple in the East, and it's often the first "fancy" tea we try after only sipping Lipton.

The marketing that praises green tea as a miracle tonic that'll fight cancer, make you lose weight, and give you clear skin is, largely speaking, bollocks. Green tea isn't necessarily "better" for you than any other kind, but there are still plenty of reasons to drink it. A great green tea is sweet but as crisp and refreshing as a glass of white wine, as invigorating as a cold shower, and as sunny as a warm spring day. It certainly feels good to drink, even if it won't give you superpowers.

But "green tea" isn't a particular drink. It's as broad category as that white wine, and there's plenty of junk between you and the good stuff. So if you've been curious about green tea but want to know more about what you're drinking, consider this your handy guide.

What it Means to Go Green

Like avocados and bananas, tea leaves turn brown as they oxidize, which in the case of tea begins the minute you pluck a leaf off the bush. Let this process continue unabated and you get completely oxidized black tea, which draws its dark, malty flavor and rounded astringency from this enzymatic activity.

To make green tea, you have to stop this oxidation in its tracks as soon as possible, by oven-roasting, pan-frying, or steaming the leaves. Doing so fixes the tea's flavor to something on the fresh, grassy, and herbal side of the spectrum. Within that set of flavors, a particular green might turn out creamy and nutty, or melon-sweet, or seaweed-savory and as as crisp as a sharp whiff of pine. The specifics all come down to where the tea was grown and how exactly it was processed.

Green tea comes in all grades and price ranges, and in the premium Asian market, where customer knowledge and demand are both sky-high, it can get expensive fast—upwards of hundreds of dollars a pound for prized varieties.

What are you paying for by going premium? That depends on the tea, but higher grade greens tend to be far less bitter and much more sweet and aromatic. Their flavors are more balanced, making for a smoother, rounder sip. They tend to have more body, a lipsmacking viscosity like good chicken soup, and they leave a fresh, bright finish on your tongue for a few minutes after a sip.

These are subtle upgrades, not obvious ones, and if you're looking for the most full-flavored green teas, you're actually better off on the lower end of the price spectrum. What the premium grades offer is balance, complexity, and an unparalleled sense of freshness as clear and bright as a spring afternoon. You won't get any of those things from a tea bag.

Good Greens to Know

If there's one thing to know above all else when looking for green tea, it's this: it doesn't last. Though modern airtight nitrogen-based packaging (how Japanese greens are often sold) can keep sealed leaves fresh for months, the clock starts ticking once you rip that package open. Green tea's fresh, sweet vibe is an ephemeral thing, and stale green tea tastes just like that: stale.

Spring harvests, the first of the growing season, tend to yield the most aromatic and sweet greens. And as of this writing, there's still plenty of spring 2015 stock floating around from trustworthy vendors. So no matter where you buy your tea, don't sleep on it. Drink it fast, within a few months, while it's at its fresh, fragrant best.

With that out of the way, here are some styles to look for from the countries that do green tea better than anywhere: Japan and China.

Sencha

Japanese processors steam freshly picked leaves to halt oxidation. The resulting tea develops an almost savory, saline character and subtle bitterness that adds wonderful balance to fragrances of pine and melon and a deep, rich, and sweet grassy flavor. Sencha is the prototypical Japanese green, sold in grades from everyday cheap and brawny to complex premium versions with sweet, delicate flavors and hauntingly long finishes.

Traditional asamushi (lightly steamed) sencha brews up yellow with a bright and sweet fragrance. Fukamushi, a newer style, is more heavily steamed, yielding a darker, cloudier brew with less aroma but a bolder, more savory taste. Both are great introductions to Japanese-style greens, and worth sampling across a range of prices.

Recommended vendors: Ippodo, O-Cha, In Pursuit of Tea

Longjing (a.k.a. Dragon Well)

China's most prized tea, which means top grades can get comically expensive. But don't worry, those don't leave China; us peasants must bear to make do with only the very good versions. Quality longjing is hand-roasted in large woks to shut down those oxidizing enzymes, and careful roasting brings sweet, chestnut flavors to leaves with all the vegetal sweetness of pea shoots and asparagus. Great longjing tastes at once rich and refreshing, and it's a fine introduction to the wide world of Chinese green tea.

Since good longjing doesn't come cheap, it's important to know what to look for. High-quality leaves are short and pudgy, not long and flat, with a pale green-yellow color and sometimes a fine coat of peach fuzz. Spring harvest longjing is regarded as the best of the lot, so the best time to buy (and drink) is in late spring/early summer. Good vendors will likely run out of their stock later in the season.

Recommended vendors: Song Tea, Verdant Tea, Red Blossom

Bilochun

Another popular (and more affordable) Chinese green, bilochun is more fragrant and less nutty than longjing, with more of a vegetable vibe that recalls steamed edamame. The best versions, when brewed right, yield a slightly viscous, lipsmacking tea that glides down your throat. And I'd say those top teas come from Taiwan, where they're made with different cultivars than Chinese versions resulting in larger leaves and a greater balance of flavor and aroma, with hints of juicy pineapple smoothing out the beany notes.

Recommended vendors: Everlasting Tea, Beautiful Taiwan Tea

Gyokuro

Japanese green tea with superpowers. Gyokuro bushes are shaded for three to six weeks before harvest, which deprives the plants of light and forces them to produce extra nutrients like chlorophyl to feed on sunlight. That induced starvation yields an exceptionally flavorful tea with a decidedly brothy character that's been compared to seaweed and dashi (Japanese seafood stock). But those savory qualities are balanced by an intense green sweetness best savored in small servings. Gyokuro doesn't come cheap, but for many tea folk, myself included, it's as good as Japanese tea gets.

Recommended vendors: Ippodo, O-Cha, In Pursuit of Tea

Laoshan

The above teas are pretty established heavy hitters, so let's throw in a more obscure curveball in from a lesser-known growing region: Laoshan in Shandong Province. Good Laoshan greens exemplify the creamy, almost buttery smoothness that Chinese green tea can exhibit, as good a case as any that green teas are just as valuable for their texture as their flavor and aroma. As for that taste, it's super-refreshing spring peas, but with a side of buttermilk biscuits.

Recommended vendor: Verdant Tea

Genmaicha

Japan doesn't only produce top-tier tea like gyokuro and fine sencha; lower grades are by far the country's daily drinkers, and they have plenty of merits beyond a lower price point. Genmaicha is one such budget tea, a low-grade sencha bulked up with puffed rice or sorghum for deep, toasty flavors reminiscent of longjing (if less refined). Though genmaicha lacks high grade sencha's soft sweetness and viscous body, its heartier, more robustncharacter makes it an excellent alternative to coffee, and it's a great stomach-settling post-meal digestive.

Recommended vendors: In Pursuit of Tea, American Tea Room

Matcha

This powdered Japanese tea is enjoying a trendy moment, but its origins are very old. The practice of grinding tea into powder and frothing it into a drink dates back to Song Dynasty China, circa 1000 AD. These days, proper Japanese matcha (beware lower-cost Chinese fakes) is made with premium shade-grown leaves similar to gyokuro that are processed, dried, deveined, and stone-ground. The labor-intensive work means matcha's an expensive product, but its savory qualities, potent bittersweetness, and unique creamy texture all mean it's a prized brew for many. Great matcha is best kept refrigerated to preserve its freshness, which dissipates even faster than other greens. After all, if you're paying a dollar a gram or more for tea, you don't want it to go stale.

Recommended vendors: Ippodo, O-Cha, In Pursuit of Tea

Now Brew it Right

If you're spending good money on premium green tea, it's worth putting in the effort to brew it in a way that will let the tea shine. There's no one recipe to brew every green tea, or even every batch of a single style of tea. But here are the important elements to keep in mind:

  • Water: Tea, as certain crystalline entities would say, is mostly water, and if your water tastes foul, it doesn't matter how good your tea is. As a general rule, if you wouldn't drink your tap water straight, don't use it for tea. Consider a filter or bottled water instead.
  • Water temperature: The lower your brewing temperature, the sweeter and less bitter your green tea will taste. Japanese greens tend to thrive around 160 to 170°F (and gyokuro even lower at around 140°F), which brings out just a bit of bitterness as a complement to the teas' sweetness. Chinese greens are more flexible, and I tend to hit them with hotter water for a fuller-bodied brew, but it's worth experimenting with different temperatures to find your favorite. (Or skip the hot water altogether and cold brew.)
  • Leaf amounts: Obviously, the more tea leaves you use, the stronger your tea will taste. But it'll also have more body and viscosity, literally more dissolved "stuff" in all that water. Start with five grams (a teaspoon or two) of tea per 100 ml (about 3 1/3 ounces) of water for a rich, full-bodied tea and leaves that'll stand up to multiple steepings. But play around with amounts to find what tastes best to you.
  • Steep times: With quality tea, a good general guideline is using more tea leaves for less time. Following the quantities above, each steeping should last all of 30 seconds to a minute, and you'll be able to get three to five steepings out of a quality green before it's completely wrung out. Again, adjust to your taste.

Need more tea guidance? Here's all the teaware you'll need to get the most out of your greens. Now get ready for the caffeine rush.