Green tea is a type of Camellia sinensis that has undergone minimal fermentation. It originates from China and is associated with many areas of Asia such as China, Japan and the Middle East although it has recently become popular in the west where black tea is more traditionally consumed. Part of this revival is due to the numerous health benefits that have recently been discovered in green tea ranging from lowering cholesterol, blood sugar levels and managing obesity to being a possible preventative of high blood pressure, certain cancers and neurological disorders.
History of Green Tea
Green tea has been consumed in China for over 4000 years and its true origins are lost in antiquity. According to legend it was invented in 2737 BC by the emperor Shen Nung (the Divine Farmer) who taught the Chinese how to grow grains and personally tested many medicines on himself. One day he was boiling water when some tea leaves blown by the wind landed in his pot and he described the refreshing elixir to his people.
In fact the first reference to tea in China is in a manuscript dated 340 CE. From there it begins its journey around the world through Turkish traders along the Mongolian border in 479 and then into Japan by Buddhist priests as an Elixir of Immortality in 593. Around this time tea cultivation in China had become so important that bricks of compressed tea leaves were often used as currency.
In 780 the Classic of Tea was written by scholar Lu Yu detailing all the methods of cultivation, preparation and medicinal uses that are still practised today. It was due to his writing and the subsequent legends surrounding his perfectionism that tea became a highly refined art form and important cultural icon China and the Orient in general.
Between 960 and 1280 green tea begun to lose its elitist status and become a common crop for all people, with tea making competitions and tea tasting contests are held by the Emperor Hui Tsung, who also wrote a classic treatise on tea, the Ta Kuan Ch’a Lun, and is said to be so obsessed with tea that he doesn’t notice his empire being overthrown!
In 1400 Zen Buddhist priests in Japan refined the “tea making ceremony” into its modern day form taking on an elegant, even religious, aspect in the culture of feudal Japan. This ritual is still an important element of the Japanese cultural identity.
Finally Europe learns of tea through the Jesuit missionary Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560 and from there tea makes its way around the world through Portuguese trade routes. Black tea has always been traditionally preferred in Europe and the Americas but in recent times green tea has been making an impression in Western markets as Asian culture spreads throughout the world and the West hears about its impressive health benefits.
Green Tea Health Benefits
Green tea has been used as a health tonic for centuries in China where it was known to quench thirst, lessen the desire to sleep and sooth the heart. These uses gradually expanded to be a treatment for almost everything but especially for regulating blood sugar, aiding digestion and benefiting the heart, in both the physiological and emotional sense. In recent times these claims have gained more credibility to the modern medical community as active ingredients have been found and isolated that explain these effects.
Green tea contains abundant catechins which help to protect the brain from neurological conditions such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease as well as preventing strokes and assisting the brain recover from damage caused by strokes. It also has plenty of vitamin C, certain essential minerals and is a powerful anti-oxidant. These all play an important role in preventing the development of heart disease and studies show that 4 cups of green tea a day for 14 days has a significant effect on blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat. Green tea has also been shown to increase fat metabolism during moderate exercise and improve sugar tolerance in healthy adults, which should prevent late onset diabetes. Further studies show it helps reduce stress, may prevent depression and boost the immune system.
Green Tea Varieties
Green teas are usually identified by the province where they are grown and prepared or by a specific name that reflects the origin of the tea. The two main categories are Chinese and Japanese green tea.
Chinese Green Tea
There are many teas produced in China but a few are considered to be “famous teas”. These include:
Junshan Yinzhen (Silver Needle Tea) is a type of yellow tea, a subcategory of green tea, grown on the Junshan Island in Yueyang city in Hunan province.
Longjing (Dragon Well Tea) is the most famous tea from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. It is pan fired and has a distinctive flat appearance.
Zhuchá (Gunpowder Tea) is hand-rolled into balls to resemble small black powder pellets. It also originates in Zheijiang province in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) but is now produced all over China.
Pi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring Tea) is so called because it is rolled into tight spirals that resemble snails and it is harvested in early spring. It is cultivated in Dong Ting in Jiangshu province.
Xin Yang Mao Jian (Green Tip tea) is produced in Xinyang, Henan province where the climate is mild and local mountains help create a humid atmosphere ideal for growing tea. It has been considered one of the greatest throughout 2000 years of Chinese history.
Mao Feng (Fur Peak Tea) is named after the small white hairs that cover the leaves and the shape of the processed leaves that resemble the peak of a mountain. It is produced in the Anhui province.
Hou Kui (Monkey Tea) is modern tea first produced at the beginning of the 20th century around the small village of Hou Keng, Anhui province and is known for its distinctive “two knives and one pole” appearance: two straight leaves clasping an enormous bud with white hairs. These shoots can be as long as 15cm.
Japanese Green Tea
Green tea is so common in Japan that it is often just referred to as tea (ocha) or even Japanese tea (Nihoncha). They also have a many speciality variations but the main types are:
Gyokuro (Jade Dew Tea) is the highest grade of Japanese tea grown from a specialized variety of bush that is cultivated in the shade for around 20 days before harvesting. It has a pale green colour and is recommended to be brewed in water well below boiling point with a larger quantity of leaves and longer steeping time than normal tea.
Sencha (Decocted Tea) is the most common type of tea in Japan. It is often flavoured or scented with fruits or flowers such as jasmine or cherry or brown rice grains to produce unique tastes and aromas.
Matcha (Powdered Tea) is also cultivated in the shade like gyokuro but is then ground into powder. It is primarily used in the elaborate tea ceremony but also sometimes used as flavourings in ice cream or sweets.
Green Tea Preparation
Steeping time and temperature varies with individual types. Temperature is generally between 140°F and 190°F (61°C to 87°C) and steeping time is between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. In general the lower the quality of green tea the hotter and longer it must be steeped while the highest qualities are steeped at low temperatures for shorter times. Excessive heat results in the release of tannins which can produce a bitter taste regardless of initial quality so be careful to allow the water to be off the boil before steeping. The highest quality green teas are often steeped 2 to 3 times to give a strong but not overcooked taste. Sometimes the leaves are left in the pot and water added until the flavour degrades. It is also recommended to warm the pot so the leaves do not cool down before steeping. For best results refer to individual packaging for the proper instructions to make your particular type of green tea.