Longjing. Gunpowder. Junshan Yinzhen. Xin Yang Mao Jian. Sencha. For those of you out there who consider yourselves tea connoisseurs, these names might mean something to you. For the rest of us, these are varieties of green tea we should get to know—and the sooner the better.
The first lesson on green tea is that it originates from Camellia sinensis. All types of tea (black, oolong, white, green, and yellow) are sourced from the same plant. The type of tea changes depending on how the plant is processed: green tea undergoes the least amount of oxidation during processing, while black tea receives the most.
While green tea originated in China, it has more recently become widespread in the West, which was once ruled by black tea. Green tea is a popular beverage option and green tea extract is now finding its way into beverages, supplements, and even cosmetic items.
The First Brew
Green tea is said to have been first brewed in 2737 BC in China during the reign of Emperor Chen Nung. At that time it was used both as a drink and for medicinal purposes. The Chinese believed that this brew would control bleeding, heal wounds, regulate body temperature, control blood sugar, and promote a healthy digestive system—and that isn’t too far off from what studies have shown today.
In the eighth century AD, Lu Yu’s definitive book, The Classic of Tea, had everything from how to make and enjoy tea to where you could find a delicious cup. His list of 28 items used in preparing tea included a crushing block, a charcoal mallet, a “cauldron and cauldron stand,” a water vessel and boiled water vessel, and “fire chopsticks,” to name a few. For Yu, tea was deeply spiritual, symbolizing the harmony and unity within the universe.
Some 450 years later a Zen priest by the name of Eisai wrote Kissa Yojoki: How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea, a book that explained how all five vital organs received positive effects from ingestion of green tea. Eisai wrote that green tea could ease the effects of alcohol, cure blotchiness, cure beriberi disease (vitamin B1 deficiency), and more.
The Perfect Cup of Tea
The process of making a cup of tea is called either steeping or brewing. (Steeping means “to soak” and brewing means “to make a beverage by boiling, steeping, or mixing various ingredients.” Brewing is an umbrella term.) To get the perfect cup of tea, start by adding one teaspoon of green tea for a five-ounce cup. Adjust the ratio slightly to accommodate your tastes.
Normally teas are steeped between 178 and 189 degrees for two to three minutes, but they can go as low as 142 to 156 degrees and be steeped for as little as 30 seconds. Lower quality teas are steeped for a longer period of time at hotter temperatures, though steeping for too long or too hot can result in a bitter, astringent brew.
For Your Well-Being
Thousands of years ago healers knew that green tea was good for you—now we know a little more about why that’s true. Green tea contains a variety of enzymes, amino acids, lipids, sterols, polyphenols, carotenoids, tocopherols, phytochemicals, and dietary minerals. Catechin—a type of phytochemical—scavenges free radicals that would damage DNA and contribute to cancer, blood clots, and atherosclerosis if not found. Catechins also help regulate blood pressure and improve blood flow. Other health claims say green tea can prevent stomach and skin cancers, increase mental alertness, help with weight loss, lower cholesterol levels, and protect the skin from damage.
Plenty of studies have been done to validate these claims about the healing powers of green tea, and the science is still pouring in. One study involving 500 Japanese women with stage-one and stage-two breast cancer found that those who increased their consumption of green tea before and after surgery had lower recurrence of cancer. Another study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Stroke, found that the more green tea a person drinks, the better their chances of avoiding a stroke. The risk factor was reduced by almost 20 percent!
Though green tea comes in countless varieties—depending on the country of origin and the growing conditions, horticulture, the time of year the tea is harvested, and production processing—there are only two main ways tea can be grown: in the sun or in the shade.
Harvesting occurs three to four times a year: the first happens in April to early May, the second from June to July, and the third in late July to early August. The fourth, which occurs less often, comes in early spring and will usually bring the best quality leaves and highest prices.
There are also two main methods for preparing green tea: artisanal and modern. Sun-drying coupled with basket, pan, or charcoal firing are all considered the artisanal method. The modern method would be oven-drying, tumbling, or steaming.
Picking the Right Tea for You
Now that you know green tea is good for your body (not to mention your taste buds) it’s time to decide where to get your tea. When looking for tea, organic is the gold standard—the second
thing to look for is fair-trade certified. Also, pay attention to whether the tea you are reaching for contains caffeine or not: this is a very important quality for some. (It is worth noting green tea contains L-Theanine, a caffeine agonist that offsets the “hyper” effects of caffeine. And caffeine levels are relatively low—a caffeinated eight-ounce cup of green tea will have 30 mg, whereas five ounces of leaded coffee has 170, and eight ounces of black tea has 110.)