Updated: Sep 3, 2020
When it comes to green tea, often the first thing that comes to mind is Japanese matcha—so common that it shows up everywhere from bubble tea to cake, nowadays. Other popular green teas that may come to mind are sencha or gyokuro, all of which are available in various grades, the top ones often exquisite. The water temperature used on these would be 75 to 85°C (167°F to 185°F) at the most. These young leaves produce a viscous liquid, often with a seaweed-like flavor and taste that makes you salivate. Can you say umami? Gyokuro is also a tea that I love to ice-steep, a trick I learned from my tea guru. Add some tea leaves in a gaiwan and top it with ice cubes. When fully melted, filter and enjoy a chilled lime green "soup." Loads of fun to make during the summer.
Different and absolutely delicious, Korean teas are also favorites of mine for their complex sweet and savory flavor and aroma. I think about wheat grass when I drink these, the mouthfeel somewhere between thick and thin with a lingering taste that stays on the palate for quite some time. Silky smooth feeling on the tongue! Some of the most sought after are picked within a week of each other and known as ujeon (1st pick), saejak (2nd pick) and jungjak (3d pick), respectively. The ones I am currently enjoying, grow wild around Mt. Jirisan and Seomjingang River in rural Hadong, a province famous for its green teas.
While many tea leaves require an initial rinse or two prior to steeping, Japanese and Korean green teas do not. They are super clean and have undergone minimal processing. A rinse would not be wrong, but rather unnecessary.
The world of green tea is vast, and China has some of the most delicious, complex leaves from which one often experiences a cooling effect, which is perfect on a hot and humid summer day when you need to keep dry. Chinese green tea from the mainland, I have found, can absorb excessive moisture. Sweat be gone!
An initial taste and aroma more or less reminiscent of fresh cut grass can describe many green teas at the base. From there, the conditions (terroir) under which the leaves are grown and harvested along with processing technique define a specific green tea. I have tasted dozens upon dozens of green teas, each unique and some boasting hints of herbs, wheat grass, seaweed, and or floral notes. Some might have a subtle smokiness as well, like the Szechuan mao feng (pictured above) I tried recently and was all too happy to add to my private stash. Different variations of sweet, citrusy, fruity notes are other characteristics that come to the surface as well, and each steep is different, from mellow to full-bodied to mellow again, coming full circle.
Some Chinese green teas leave a dry feeling on the tongue, while some induce salivation, with lots of variations in between. Expect a full sensory experience, each steep refreshing and generally vibrant and energizing, with a sort of rawness that is somehow also very calming. This all depends on how you choose to prepare the tea and where your mind is in the moment.
Each green tea is similar in that the processing is minimal, but each delivers a different experience based on terroir and processing technique, resulting in a wide range of teas. Some are especially soft and elegant while others can be pungent and in your face. While some can be forgiving, other truly require proper steeping. A green tea can get bitter and unpleasant very quickly, if you are not careful.
Naturally, the best way to steep the leaves, is for seconds at a time, not minutes. That is true for all premium loose leaf teas. Honestly, it would be a shame to steep delicate leaves for minutes, resulting in a "soup" that is lacking any subtlety, and is far too acrid to enjoy. If you steep green leaves for 10 seconds with water at a temperature of 75°C to 90°C (167°F to 194°F; the higher the temperature, the shorter the steep) on average, you'll really enjoy these teas. Always mindful of the beautiful leaves, the temperature I choose, largely depends on the weather. (During the winter, I might just go with a higher temperature to lift the chill off my bones, for example.) After the 3d steep, increase the steeping time to 15 seconds, then after 2 more, perhaps 20 seconds and so on. Quality leaves will give you at least 5 steeps, and often quite a few more.
Some of our favorite green teas that we love but have sold out of:
MAO JIAN - From the Henan province, one of the coldest provinces of China, north of the Yantze ("yellow") River, and produced in the the southern prefecture of Xinyang. Mao jian ("hairy tip" or "tippy green") is arguably one of the top 10 teas in China, and made with tiny bright green leaves. Its soup is also a beautiful green hue. Its aroma is of fresh cut grass with an initial taste that is a pungent bittersweet note, a nice little kick that eventually mellows on the tongue. It has a very long finish, though it feels dryer than other green teas, providing an immediate cooling effect. Its appearance is needle thin rolled leaves, revealing a furry white down on one side. This is a robust green tea that will give you 9 steeps using the gong fu method. It can also be cold-steeped, which is particularly nice during the hot summer days. 85°C (185°F) is a perfect water temperature for this tea.
LU'AN GUA PIAN - From the Annui province, east of Henan and north of Fujian. Lu'an gua pian ("Little Melon Seeds") is subtle at first but finishes strong yet balanced. With origins going back to the 14th century (Ming Dynasty), unlike many green teas, this one is made with mature leaves. Ribs removed, the leaves are shaped resembling melon seeds, hence the name, then baked to stop oxidation.This tea has a lot of presence with a pungent sweet herbal aroma and taste. You will enjoy a nice cooling sensation with a silky mouthfeel. I also love this tea steeped at 85°C (185°F).
KOREA'S SAEJAK and JUNJAK from Hadong province, are the 2nd and 3rd pluck, respectively, meaning that they are picked a few days apart. Somewhat viscous on the tongue, these leaves have a lingering silky mouthfeel that starts off thick. And though cooling, the soup can also be warming the more you salivate, and you will. I love these anytime of the year. They also do very well cold-steeped and will offer up a full-bodied liquor for at least 5 steeps. I've enjoy 7 or more depending on my water temperature. (Also read Jungjak Hadong, Korea's "Soman" Tea.) I find this tea is best steeped with water warmed to 75°F (167°F). It is also delicious ice-steeped. Just wait until the ice cubes melt all the way before drinking a refreshing and very cooling brew.
SZECHUAN MAO FENG from China's western province known for its spicy cuisine. Sandwiched between Yunnan (known for its prized Puerh) to the south and Tibet to the north, this green tea is a great find and absolutely delightful and easy to steep. The leaves are a gorgeous blueish-green, with a soft lime green "soup." A sweet, with a slight bitter note that quickly turns back to sweet on the finish. I love this tea in the summer but can absolutely drink it in Autumn without hesitation, just a slight increase in water temperature. Enjoy many steeps with this one. I like to steep this one at 85°C (185°F)