Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
Here at Lucy Bee, we love nothing more than chatting away with friends and family over a steaming hot drink. From rich, chocolatey cacao to creamy bulletproof coffees, our mugs are always filled with delicious new drinks.
Yet with its distinctive taste, soothing scent and mountain of health benefits, there’s one drink that (to us at least) stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Yep, the ancient, healing wonder that is green tea is a staple in the Lucy Bee diet.
But why is this bittersweet, vibrant green drink so good for you? Where the heck does it come from? And from matcha to bog-standard green tea, which variety should you be drinking?
Pop the kettle on (we guarantee that you’ll want a green tea by the time you’ve finished this) and settle down for the Lucy Bee guide to the superhero of drinks.
All way from the Far East, green tea is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. Although the majority of the world’s green tea (around 80%) comes from China, you’ll also find varieties from Japan, Southern India and even South America.
These plants often grow in warm climates and can flourish in mountainous regions. Actually, some of the very best green teas are grown in rocky landscapes where the leaves will be left to mature slowly for a richer flavour. Amazingly, it can take up to five years before a plant is ready for harvest – and then, it can produce leaves for a hundred years.
However, to us, the most amazing thing is that, once upon a time, all tea began as green tea.
Confused? Well, it’s quite simple, really. You see, green tea leaves are simply tea in its most natural form – they haven’t been through the oxidation process, which is why the leaves you’ll see are still green in colour.
This oxidation happens naturally and takes place when the leaf enzymes react with the air. This turns the leaves brown, giving them the flavour and fragrance you’ll find in your daily black teas. For instance, black tea is a fermented version of green tea, while Oolong is semi-fermented.
However, green tea leaves are treated a little differently. By gentle heating – traditionally done in a wok - oxidisation can’t take place, leaving us with wonderfully fresh, beautiful green leaves.
As with many ancient teas and drinks, green tea is steeped in myth and legend. It’s thought that it was discovered in China an impressive 5,000 years ago, making it the oldest herbal drink known to man.
It’s unsure how it was discovered, with plenty of Chinese whispers developing about this beloved drink. However, perhaps the most popular legend tells of Emperor Shen Nong, who was sitting in his gardens while tending his cauldron of water (this same emperor first discovered that allowing water to boil before drinking kills disease). While he was sitting, the leaves of the tea plant tumbled into his infused the water, magically creating the world’s first ever tea.
When the emperor sipped his drink, he felt refreshed and revived. Jumping for joy (or, at least, that’s how we like to imagine it), he rushed to share his new discovery with court officials, who also fell for this super elixir.
After this, green tea became a huge part of Chinese culture – although not always as a drink. During the Tang dynasty (from the 7th – 10th century), it was pressed into cakes and even ground into a powder, like matcha is today. There would even be brewing competitions, where people would compete to see who could whisk the finest green tea.
Slowly but surely, it became introduced in tea ceremonies and it even became a focal point in the famous Classic of Tea book written by Lu Yu - the first book on tea the world has ever known.
Eventually, the Zen Buddhist monks helped green tea to make its way through Asia, starting with Japan, where it became a huge part of tea ceremonies. The emperor of Japan loved green tea so much that he even appointed tea advisors, planting tea gardens all around the beautiful Kyoto. The Japanese also introduced many of the different variations on green tea that we still drink today, including that foodie favourite, matcha.
Eventually, tea fever spread across the globe, although green tea was not as popular in Western societies as black teas for a long time. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that green tea has a relatively short shelf life and tastes best when brewed fresh. As you can imagine, stuffy old tea carried in ships to Europe didn’t always taste quite so delicious.
Nowadays, as you’ll know, the Western world is embracing every delicious variation of green tea, enjoying it for both its taste and its body-loving benefits.
As you now know, green tea is made from the leaves of the same plant (the camellia sinensis) as every other kind of tea. What makes green tea special is the way in which it gets picked and then processed.
Chinese variations of green tea are usually from Zhejiang Province, although this precious leaf is grown across the whole of China, right the way up to the Shandong Province in Laoshan Village.
Green tea is often cultivated on tea plantations (or even special tea gardens) in mountainous areas in rows of bushes, which grow to knee-height. These leaves tend to get picked in early spring, although in the more tropical climates, it can be picked almost all year round.
When it comes to harvesting, usually only the bud and the first couple of leaves are picked. Amazingly, most tea picking will still be done carefully by hand, with farmers then placing the leaves into baskets. The best “tea pluckers” can pick around 40 pounds of leaves a day – that’s roughly enough to make 10 pounds of tea.
Each of these hand-picked teas come with their own taste and will often be sweeter and less bitter than those teas that are processed by machine. This is because the fragile leaves are less likely to be broken when picked by skilled farmers and workers.
Once picked, the leaves will be placed in bamboo baskets to dry, either in the sun or in airy rooms. The dried leaves will then be steamed or wok-fried before being pressed flat, twisted or rolled, then dried and sealed ready for distribution.
Delicate, fragrant and beautiful, there are hundreds of types of green tea on the market. But what separates them from one another? Well, quite a lot really!
That huge, sometimes overwhelming array of green teas you’ll see on supermarket shelves will come from different regions or different climates. They can even be cultivated differently.
Incredibly, in China alone there are more than 600 types of the camellia sinensis plant, meaning there’s a green tea to suit pretty much every taste bud going.
Chinese teas will often be earthier than Japanese teas and will traditionally be pan-fired, oven-dried or sun-dried (Japanese blends will usually be steamed).
Green Teas from China:
As one of the most popular green teas on the market, Dragonwell is grown in the Zhejiang Province of China and is picked by hand. Renowned for its quality (lending it a higher price tag), it is roasted straight after picking to stop the oxidisation process. Once dried, it has flat, jade coloured leaves and is famed for its gentle and almost sweet taste.
Also produced in the Zhejiang Province of China, each small leaf of the Gunpowder tea has been rolled into a pellet. It often has a smoky taste, although gunpowder blends are also described as delicate.
This is a fairly rare tea believed to be among the very best. It has a beautifully fragrant, floral taste, thanks partly to the plum, peach and apricot trees it is grown around in Zhejiang. It’s also known as Green Snail Spring because it’s rolled into a tight curl, which resembles a snail.
Perfect for people who love black tea, this full-bodied leaf is grown at high altitudes. The leaves of this tea are long with silvery tips and are harvested after they’ve been left to ferment for a short period of time.
This beautiful, floral tea is one of our favourites. It’s scented with the fragrance of jasmine blossoms and often uses green tea as its base. However, some jasmine teas will use black or even white tea as a base.
To scent the tea with jasmine, the tea and flowers will usually be placed in alternating layers for around four hours, although this process can get repeated up to seven times for the top grade jasmines, such as Yin Hao. This tea is so loved in China that, in certain areas, it’s tradition to serve Jasmine tea to welcome guests.
The hyson teas have a fresh, green flavour and come from old to medium leaves which are rolled and sometimes clam-shaped. This tea is particularly historic and was so popular in the 1700s that the infamous British Tea Tax was higher for this variety than for other teas. Lucky Dragon is regarded as the best of the hyson teas and is full-bodied, with greenish yellow leaves.
Also known as Monkey Tea, these leaves are grown in the Anhui Province where they take on the flavour of the beautiful surrounding orchids. This tea is said to have a lingering, sweet aftertaste with floral notes.
Japanese Green Teas:
Although most green teas are grown in China, the health world in particular has fallen for the Japanese charms – and for the famous ceremonies which surround it. These two are our pick of the best:
Sencha tea is your everyday Japanese tea, making up almost 80 per cent of the tea found in Japan. Sencha is one of the few teas that will be made through steaming rather than frying (in fact, “sen” means steamed and “cha” means tea). This steaming is said to lend the tea a unique, almost grassy taste, although there are dozens of different varieties.
There are plenty of types of sencha available to buy, which will be picked in different regions and even during different seasons. However, Shencha (or “new tea”) is among the first flush of leaves to be picked each year and is said to be the best.
Sencha tea is so beloved in Japan that there’s even a Sencha Tea Ceremony, which was introduced in the 17th century by Ingen, the founder of the Obaku school of Zen Buddhism. This is an every day ceremony that was adopted by Japanese intellects and is much more relaxed than the formal Chanoyu powdered tea ceremony.
During sencha ceremonies, the green tea leaves are brewed in a small pot and then served in tiny cups.
In the first serving, only a teeny amount of tea – just enough to cover the bottom of the cup – is served. In the second brewing, slightly more will be poured and served, before a sweet is dished up, along with a cup of water to cleanse the palate. During the following servings of tea, guests will chat with each other, as well as the server.
Nowadays, sencha gives the Japanese the chance to enjoy tea with family and friends – ceremonies are renowned for ending in raucous laughter. Since it’s fairly delicate but very strong in taste, sencha doesn’t need to be infused for long before drinking.
The world seems to have gone nuts for matcha, with health food circles sprinkling it into everything from lattes to doughtnuts. You see, this vibrant green powder packs a serious punch when it comes to our body and, as one of the healthiest foods on the planet, we love it very matcha (sorry).
But while you’ll no doubt have heard about matcha, what is it? And what’s all the fuss about?
Matcha originated in Japan and is simply a stone-ground, powdered green tea (the word “ma” is Japanese for powder, while “cha” means tea). However, it’s produced in a special way, which makes it more potent than other green teas - and often gives it a higher price tag to boot.
The reason matcha is so popular in health circles is all thanks to its rich antioxidant content. Amazingly, it has up to 15 times more nutrients than loose-leaf green tea, although the quality can vary massively from matcha to matcha.
You see, because matcha powder is made up of the entire ground tea leaf, you get every last bit of lovely green tea goodness. Meanwhile, in bog-standard green tea, many of the nutrients and vitamins will be left behind in the tea leaf, which is often discarded.
Matcha is made from tea leaves grown in the shade, which aims to slow down growth, boost clever chlorophyll levels and turn leaves a deeper, darker shade of green, resulting in far more amino acids.
Once the leaves are ready to be harvested, only the finest will be picked before being laid out flat to dry. The leaves then start to crumble (this is known as tencha) and can then be de-veined and de-stemmed, ready to be ground into the matcha we know and love.
Matcha can vary in flavour, although the higher grades of matcha – often more vibrant in colour – have an almost sweetness to them, as well as a slight umami (a pleasant savoury taste). However, it’s worth noting that many of the cheaper matcha teas available to buy aren’t necessarily pure and can even be ready-sweetened – if you aren’t sure, always check the label before buying.
As with many of the green teas, matcha is hugely important to the Japanese culture. In fact, according to the 8th century Zen priest Eisai, who brought the tea over to Japan, matcha is “the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete”.
Matcha quickly became popular in religious rituals, particularly in those performed by Buddhist monks, who sipped on matcha to keep them alert and focused during long days of meditation.
Miraculous matcha (or, at least, the ceremonial grade of matcha) is also used in traditional tea ceremonies, called chanoyu, or the Way of Tea. The ceremonies were closely linked to meditation, with the ceremony a symbol of peace, harmony and happiness.
While you don’t need to be a master of Zen or a Buddhist monk to perform a matcha ceremony, there are quite precise rules you need to follow. In fact, there are even tea ceremony students and tea clubs across Japan to teach the art, which requires an almost dance-like choreography.
Before each ceremony begins, guests must gather together in a room before walking across a dew-covered ground as a cleansing ritual. Guests must then wash their hands and mouth in a stone basin before the host will greet each guest with a silent bow. Before the tea is even served, the host must take great care in preparing and cleaning the pouring utensils.
Once it’s finally time for the matcha, the host will gracefully add scoops of matcha powder into the group bowl, along with hot water. Using a traditional bamboo whisk, the mixture will then be stirred to a bright green paste, before extra hot water is whisked in to produce a thick, rich tea.
For every day matcha lovers like you and I, a super-charged matcha latte wlll do…
To traditionally prepare your marvellous matcha, you’ll need a bamboo whisk and a special tea bowl. To do this:
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you could always try a matcha latte too. To make a super frothy, creamy matcha latte, you need to:
You could even try adding matcha into your morning green smoothie (we like to blend with apple, celery, mint and pear), or try adding a teaspoon blended into milk to make a matcha milkshake.
If you’re feeling a touch more hardcore, try a matcha tea shot – whisk together ½ tsp. of matcha with a shot of liquid, such as water or fruit juice, then down in one.
Check out our follow up article which looks at the health benefits of green tea.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.