Notes on Green Teas (from the July 2020 Monthly Tea Club Insert)

October 03, 2020

With every Monthly Tea Club we send out, we also include a fairly lengthy and detailed insert presenting the teas, their context within the world of tea, and some thoughts on their preparation.  I thought it might be fun for everyone to read these inserts and post them here for posterity.  Many of the Tea Club teas are exclusive to the Tea Club and not on sale through our store, but when they are available I'll make sure to link to them below.  If you're interested in joining our Monthly Tea Club you can do that hereBelow is text from the June 2020 insert.

First, let’s start with just a brief introduction to green tea - and true to (my) form we’re going to take the long way to get there.

There are six categories of tea (or five or seven, depending on who you ask and what era it is when you’re asking) - six basic families that hold all the various teas that are out there. They are: black (actually called “red” or “hongcha” in the east because of the color of the liquor as opposed to the color of the leaves; green; white; oolong (or just semi-oxidized); yellow; and the fermented group (like pu-erh and heicha, as a category most properly called “black tea” but that is confusing to us in the west as we have been laboring under a misnomer around ‘black tea’ for several hundred years now). Green tea is the most popular type of tea in the east and black tea is the most popular type in the west.

Very generally speaking, the definining characteristic of each of these types of tea is their level of intended oxidation. In truth, there really are many other factors that are relevant as to what tea family a tea belongs, but broadly and historically speaking, people use oxidation as the most decisive factor. Oxidation is what happens to a tea when it is plucked from its mother bush or mother tree and it interacts with oxygen in a way that it didn’t before part of its cells’ structure were exposed (like what happens when you cut open an apple and let it sit for a few minutes). Much of the skill in tea processing is learning how to control, coax, and arrest oxidation, and knowing what impact those actions will have on the final product.

Green tea is defined as being unoxidized. The makers of the tea very purposefully arrest the oxidation process so that the chemisty of the leaf doesn’t change much and and it doesn’t develop the bolder flavors, darker colors, fruitier aromatics of more oxidized teas. For Chinese green teas, the prototypical method to arrest oxidation (or rather to de-enzyme the tea because to arrest oxidation one has to de-activate the enzyme that is responsible) is pan-firing. Pan-firing is a dry surface heat (think of a very large wok though nowadays most tea makers also use all sort of machinery to mimic pan-firing). Pan-firing for a short period of time will de-enzyme the tea allowing it to retain its green color and green flavor profile, and like all things that go through a dry surface heat, it will also give the tea a little bit of the maillard reaction flavor profile that can be easily identified in the nuttiness in Chinese green teas. The process of de-enzyming is also known as “kill green,” “stay green,” “shaqing,” or “fixation” and reduces the grassy bitterness in raw tea leaves.

The other main concepts I want to convey about green tea are the primary importance of season and pluck when evaluating these teas. The most prized green teas come from early spring - in fact, it is said that spring didn’t officially start in China until the Emperor had his first sip of that year’s green tea. In early spring. the tea plants are just waking up from their winter dormancy. The new leaves those plants are producing are very tender, small, fairly light colored, and slow growing. They are packed with amino acids and other beneficial plant nutrients that have been slowly building up in the tea plant during its dormancy. On or around April 5 is the annual Tomb Sweeping holiday (‘Qing Ming’). Teas made previous to this festival are the most prized and most expensive as they are early, early spring. Teas made after are also of course quite good, but the weather has shifted - the days are warmer and the leaves grow more quickly so the ratio of plant nutrition in the leaf is different than it is in leaves that have just come out of dormancy. The early spring teas are called either Pre-Qing Ming (before the Qing Ming holiday) or Yu Qian teas (before April 20).

The original, historic green (at least since the time that tea moved from being purely medicinal to being a refreshment) was all buds (buds are the new baby, unfurled leaves that just started to grow in and are typically covered in downy fur).  As the demand for tea grew, it became commonplace for even very sought after green teas to include a bud and a single leaf or a bud and two leaves. As you can imagine, there are many fewer buds than there are leaves on a tea plant, so all bud or mostly buds teas can get very, very pricey. Buds tend to be more delicately flavored than leaves and bring sweetness to tea. Overall, for nearly all green teas from across the tea producing world, the earlier in spring the pluck and the smaller the leaves/buds, the more expensive the tea and, one could surmise, the more care was taken with these once in a year leaves from the tea plant. If you were a tea maker, you’d have to wait til next year to get leaves that are as highly valued thus, a lot of care is taken with these early spring green teas. So generally, what you’re looking for if you’re paying big bucks for a green tea (and the really good ones are generally quite expensive as they really are only made in a very narrow window of time) is what the bud to leaf ratio is; how pristine the pluck is (are the leaves and buds attached to one another or are they separate?); how tender to the touch the leaves are, and what size the leaves are. There are a very small handful of large leaf, no bud, famous green teas but we’ll leave them for another time.

All of that was a very long road to get us to our destination which is these three beauiful 2020 Pre-Qing Ming Chinese green teas. It’s been my personal experience that Chinese green teas are oddly hard to wrap my head around as they generally live in a very narrow flavor range. I wanted to make sure I gave you some tools to use when you’re thinking about and feasting your eyes on these teas.

I’m very excited to be able to send out some 2020 PQM Dragonwell. It can be rather hard to get as the demand is enormous. Dragonwell, known as ‘Long Jing,’ is the most famous tea of China. It has been a Tribute Tea since the Qing Dynasty. The area where the Dragonwell was orginally made (Westlake) is a very popular tourist attraction because of the esteem that this tea carries. Dragonwell has a very distinctive shape - flat, small spears as well as a distinctive chestnut note. The early spring Dragonwell is softer and more floral than the later spring harvests which get a bit more robust and run more of a risk of astringency. Dragonwell is from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

The 2020 Organic Cloud Mountain is a new find for me. It is from Hunan Province, and very little of it is made as it has about a ten day window total for tea picking (remember the importance of time/season for these high end greens). Most of this tea is actually sent to Beijing where it is gifted to government officials and the like (basically, a modern day tribute tea).

2020 Mountain Tea Path is a local specialty from Yuhang county in Zhejiang Province - about an hour and half away from the county where Dragonwell is made. It is not a widely known tea in the states, even though it has been made for several centuries. The pluck for this, as you can see if you inspect the wet leaves, is a bud and a leaf.

The leaf shape for the Mountain Tea Path and the Organic Cloud Mountain is more of an open, light roll rather than the pressed flat shape of the Dragonwell. Open, less manipulated teas are generally less likely to be astringent or robust than is the case for more agressively shaped or rolled teas. The more handling the green tea leaves go through, the more their chemical composition changes. This is particularly true of later spring greens.

For steeping these teas, I recommend staying at around 170 to 175 degrees. You could go a little cooler or a little hotter if you want, but 175 is usually my target temp for delicate Chinese greens and is a decent starting spot. The teas should steep for two to three minutes and I recommend steeping them without the lid on your vessel or having the lid off for the first half the steeping time. In China, green teas are often steeped in a tall glass and the leaves are not separated from the water. Part of the green tea drinking experience is watching the leaves unfurl in the water (this is actually known as ‘the agony of the leaves’).

I’m also including a small amount (10 grams) of Black Dragon for fun. Black Dragon is a black (or red) tea from Shandong Province made using Long Jing 43 plants, the same plants that are almost always used to make modern Dragonwell in Zhejiang Province, like the PQM Dragonwell you have.