A Beginner's Guide to Green Tea

Picking Dragon Well tea, Hangzhou 
Qingming Festival, on April 5 this year, is a day when families pay respects to their ancestors by tending their graves. It's also an important date on the annual calendar of Chinese teas because it marks the harvest of the first flush of early spring tea leaves. I've been lucky enough to catch two Qingming harvests of Dragon Well tea in Hangzhou, while there was still a winter chill in the early morning air followed by the growing warmth of the spring sunshine. 

After picking was over for the day I sat and sipped tea in the cool air of the tea terraces There really is nothing quite like the chestnut aroma and clean grassy taste of freshly-roasted green tea - it makes all the worries of the world fall away.

Green teas are a perfect introduction to the family of Chinese teas because they are more lightly flavoured and easy to prepare, with a taste everyone enjoys. Here's an easy guide for learning more about Chinese green teas.

Dragon Well tea leaves. The picker's fingers are stained with tea oils.

Chinese Tea: The Basics
It helps to consider Chinese teas in three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):

1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: pu'er tea, black tea

Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which tea is grown, the age of the bushes, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of different teas.


An Introduction to Green Tea Types
There are dozens of green tea types, some well-known, some produced and drunk entirely in the homes of the farmers who grow it. Try a few for yourself to see which you like best, and be sure to enjoy the experience of different local green teas when you travel in China. Here are some of the most well-known for starters.

1. Dragon Well Tea - longjing cha 龙井茶
China's most famous green tea grows on the tea terraces south of Hangzhou's West Lake, in Zhejiang Province. Longjing tea is considered the pinnacle of China Famous Teas, and some would consider it the best green tea in the world.

The name, longjing 龙井 or Dragon Well, is thought to have come from the heavy water of an old well. When rain fell, the lighter rainwater would swirl like a dragon's tail as it joined the more dense well water. 

Longjing tea is harvested twice a year, in spring and again in autumn, although the spring harvest is the most important. Harvest begins about ten days before Qingming Festival, and continues for around six weeks. 

Just after picking the leaves are gently wilted, then wok-roasted by hand. The roasting halts any oxidation and flattens the leaves into their typical grass blade shape.

Longjing tea comes in various grades according to the location of the tea terraces, and the time of picking. Pre-Qingming tea, known as mingqian cha, is thought to be the most refined in taste and fetches the highest price, sometimes in excess of $1000/kg. 2015 Mingqian is just starting to appear in shops now.

Longjing tea has a light, pure colour and a pleasant chestnut/grass aroma with floral notes. The taste is complex - savoury, nutty, grassy without any bitterness, with a lingering slightly sweet aftertaste.

2. Blue Conch Spring Tea - biluochun 碧螺春
Biluochun tea
Grown on the shores of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province, biluochun 碧螺春 is a green tea with a very delicate appearance and taste.
The leaves are silvery green, and after spring harvest they are dried in a hot wok using a different hand motion to longjing tea. The leaves are lightly twisted to impart the shape of a spiral shell, hence the name. 
Biluochun is very light, with a pale colour and light floral aroma. The tea terraces are found amongst persimmon, peach and apricot orchards and when these trees come into blossom they are thought to impart some of their floral sweetness to the tea bushes. 

3. Gunpowder Green Tea ping shui zhu cha 平水珠茶
Gunpowder green tea, or pearl tea
The British thought these tightly-rolled balls of green tea looked like gunpowder pellets, hence the name, but the Chinese prefer to think of them as pearls. The tea is named for the town of Ping Shui in Zhejiang Province.
Gunpowder green tea has a robust flavour and a deeper colour than other green teas due to the release of tea oils from the leaves during the tight rolling process.

4. Yellow Mountain Fur Peak Tea - huangshan maofeng 黄山毛峰
Coming from the slopes of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province, the high altitude means this green tea has small white hairs (mao毛) on its leaves, and the dried leaves have an appearance similar to Huangshan's pointed peaks, hence its name. The tea has a sweet, mellow taste. 

5. Jasmine Tea - molihua cha 茉莉花茶
Technically not a pure green tea, jasmine tea is nonetheless a beautiful partly-green tea. I have included it here because it is usually made with a base of green tea leaves, and also because it is one of the most widely known and popular teas outside China, making it easily accessible for new green tea drinkers.
The best jasmine teas come from warm Fujian Province, where summer jasmine blossoms are mixed with dried spring green tea leaves and left to infuse their scent for several hours. Jasmine 'pearls' slowly unfurl in hot water, releasing both the jasmine blossoms and their beautiful scent.

Brewing the Perfect Cup of Green Tea
Cup, glass or pot?
Green tea actually doesn't require any fancy tea equipment. It can be brewed in a cup, a glass, a traditional gaiwan (above), or even a teapot. 
Many Chinese tea drinkers prefer a clear drinking glass so they can see the beauty of the unfurling leaves. Others prefer a gaiwan 盖碗 (a lidded cup) particularly for longjing tea, so the leaves can be brushed gently away from the surface of the water when drinking.
Tradition dictates that each person has their own glass or cup, so they can control the steeping time to taste and also so that the tea leaves can be regularly refreshed with hot water. For these reasons a pot is less preferable because the leaves can become over-steeped and bitter.

Brewing Green Tea
For all green teas a water temperature of 80C (180F) is preferred because green tea leaves are delicate, and boiling water will destroy many of the subtle aromatics. Use a temperature controlled kettle, or boil the water and then leave it for five minutes to cool a little.

Place a pinch of leaves in your glass or cup, and add water. 

(If the leaves are a little dusty, you can rinse them first by pouring water on the leaves and draining it off after four or five seconds. This won't affect the taste.)

Wait until the leaves unfurl and fall to the bottom of the glass. Steeping times vary with each tea and each tea-drinker's taste, usually 3-5 minutes.

Add more hot water as needed - most green teas can be steeped four or five times, with subtle flavour differences between each steeping.

Storing Green Tea
Green tea will keep well in a dark or opaque container with a tightly fitting lid, away from light, humidity and heat. A Chinese tea jar is perfect.

You might also enjoy: A Beginner's Guide to Pu'er Tea

Tea Footnote:
Qingming was a rewarding time for me because it marked the date of my very first, very tiny, publication about Chinese tea for Saveur, a food magazine I consider one of the world's best. It has been a long-held dream to write for them, however small! 

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