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What is Green Tea?

You've probably heard the buzz-worthy news stories about how green tea is the healthiest tea or green tea is the best tea for weight loss or that green tea has the most caffeine. But what is green tea, really?

two cups of green tea served with a tea cake

So... what is green tea, really? 

While part of me wishes we could simply put a sentence here that says "Green tea is..." and give you a one line definition, the other part of me doesn't want to oversimplify a tradition literally thousands of years in the making. So first, I'm going to roll things back a bit and very briefly discuss tea as a whole before diving into what makes green tea green. (If you're too impatient, you can skip down to: How is Green Tea Made?)

What is tea (and where does tea come from)?

Tea is a beverage made from steeping the dried leaves of the tea tree (latin name camellia sinensis) in hot water. The tea tree is a plant native to China and other tropical and subtropical regions with a few notable variants. Over thousands of years, humans have cultivated tea trees, developed processes for creating a variety of delicious beverages from the camellia sinensis leaves, and fought many wars to ensure they can continue cultivating and drinking tea.

Do green tea and black tea come from different plants?

tea plants (camellia sinensis)

In a word, no. But if you thought green tea and black tea were different plants, don't spend too much time dwelling on it. The idea that green and black teas come from different plants is a common one - especially in Western countries where tea is consumed but not cultivated, like much of North America and Europe. In fact, until botanist Robert Fortune disguised himself as a tea merchant to gain access to Chinese tea gardens in the mid-19th century, most Europeans labored under this exact misconception because it makes so much sense. Black tea and green tea taste so wildly different, it's almost more fantastical to believe they come from the same leaves. (Aside: We're going to ignore the shady corporate espionage aspect of this discovery for now and save that for another day and another blog.)

All types of tea that we drink come from the same plant: camellia sinensis. As with many plants, there are different varieties that may lend themselves better to growth in certain regions or to the production of one type of tea over another.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is mainly cultivated in China and is used to produce all types of tea, from white to green to oolong to black to pu erh

Camellia sinensis var. assamica was discovered by Scottish Major Robert Bruce growing wild in the Assam region of India in the early 19th century, and it is now mainly grown in India, Africa, and Sri Lanka to produce black teas. 

Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis is rarely used to cultivate teas since it is less aromatic and flavorful than the sinensis and assamica varietals, but it is often used in the creation of new cultivars. (Cultivars are hybridizations selected for their specific characteristics, like flavor, hardiness, etc. Some famous cultivars include Long Jing 43 or Tie Guan Yin.)

(Note: Most Pu Erh from the Yunnan province in China will be from var. assamica, which also grows wild in Yunnan, while Darjeeling is actually cultivated from var. sinensis plants the British transplanted from China.)

Does green tea have more caffeine than black tea? Learn more >>

How is Green Tea Made?

freshly picked tea leaves being sorted into baskets in Taiwan

There are six main stages to making green tea. These stages will vary based on country, tradition, and type of tea made. For purposes of this blog, we will only break out the most significant differences in production between the two most prolific producers of green tea in the world: China and Japan.

  1. Plucking
  2. Withering
  3. Panning (China) / Steaming (Japan)
  4. Rolling
  5. Drying
  6. Sifting

1. The Process of Making Green Tea: Plucking

Plucking is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: harvesting the tea leaves. For high quality teas, especially in China, much plucking is done by hand. Most green teas consist of the bud and first one or two leaves of each stem, though there are exceptions. Japanese green teas may be plucked by hand or by machine depending on the type of tea and region. 

2. The Process of Making Green Tea: Withering (Mostly China)

Once the leaves are plucked, they are immediately transferred to the factory where they will be withered to remove the water content of the leaves. Withering time will vary based on the leaves themselves, weather conditions, and the type of tea being made. Traditionally in China, leaves were withered on bamboo racks for 1-3 hours. Now they may be mechanically spun dry for a few minutes while fans blow air through the leaves. 

This is also the step where green tea begins to differ from oolong and black teas. As soon as the leaves are plucked, they begin to undergo a natural process of oxidation in which the enzymes in the leaves are reacting to the air. To create green teas, this process of oxidation must be interrupted and halted, which brings us to our next step in the process of making green tea.

3. The Process of Making Green Tea: Halting Oxidation

Chinese Green Teas: Panning

Stopping the natural oxidation reaction is a key part of creating the green teas we all know and love. In China, the traditional method to stop the natural oxidation reaction is called panning. Small quantities of the leaves are pressed to the bottom of pans or vats heated with wood, coal, or electricity. The leaves are stirred constantly to prevent them from burning. 

Panning may also be a mechanized process, in which leaves are heated in rotating cylinders at least three times.

Halting the oxidation in this manner gives Chinese green tea its characteristic nutty aroma. Try our Organic Long Jing Zhejiang (Dragonwell) for a stellar example of a lovely, nutty Chinese green tea.

Shop Chinese green teas >>

Japanese Green Teas: Steaming

While some Japanese tea producers will wither their leaves, many opt to send freshly plucked leaves straight to the steamer. 

How long the leaves are steamed has a surprisingly intense effect in regards to the aroma and flavor of the teas. Short steaming periods (20 to 40 seconds) produce light teas with larger, broken leaves and notes of green vegetables in the Asamushi style. Longer steaming periods (40 to 80 seconds) cause the leaves to soften, leading to smaller, more broken leaves with a more intense flavor and color. This is known as the Fukamushi style and is the type of Japanese green tea preferred by most in Japan today. Our Kabusecha Takamado is a lovely example of a longer-steam Japanese green tea. 

Japanese Green Teas: Cooling & First Drying

At this stage, Japanese green teas undergo two extra steps: cooling and first drying. Once the leaves are steamed, they are cooled in one of two ways: by being blown through tubes using air jets or being placed in large rotating cylinders. You can think of this as almost a reversal of the middle two steps in Chinese green tea processing: the Japanese remove the moisture and excess humidity from their green tea leaves after halting oxidation instead of before. 

After cooling, the Japanese green tea leaves are then dried in a rotating cylinder at 210 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 min, then again in a similar machine at a lower temperature (about 175 degrees Fahrenheit). These cylinders contain mechanical arms made of bamboo that mix the leaves continuously and affect color, tannin, and - of course! - taste.

Shop Japanese green teas >>

4. The Process of Making Green Tea: Rolling

After stopping natural oxidation, the tea leaves are rolled. In Chinese teas, this step gives them their characteristic shapes and breaks down the cell structures to release aromatic oils. Rolling Japanese green teas softens stems and similarly releases aromatic oils.

5. The Process of Making Green Tea: Drying 

Chinese green teas are dried to stabilize the aromas released during rolling and reduce any remaining moisture content to about 2-4%, eliminating the risk of mold. 

Japanese green teas also go through a second drying after rolling for 20 to 40 minutes at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Similar to the reasoning for the drying in processing Chinese green tea, this step stabilizes the aromas and oils released in rolling and reducing moisture content further.

Japanese Green Teas: Shaping & 3rd Drying

After the second drying, Japanese green teas are then manipulated into their characteristic needle-like shape in a mechanized process that takes 40 to 60 minutes at high temperatures (between 158 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit). 

After shaping, Japanese green teas will then circulate on a conveyor belt for about 30 minutes for a third drying at about 185 degrees Fahrenheit. 

6. The Process of Making Green Tea: Sifting & Sorting

Both Japanese and Chinese green teas are sifted and sorted to remove leaves that broke during the process, sort out stems, etc. Different batches may be grouped together and blended. 

Japanese Green Teas: Final Drying

After grouping, sifting, and sorting, Japanese green teas will undergo one final drying at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit, though temperature and time will depend on the type of tea and desired taste. As with Chinese green teas, the longer the Japanese green tea leaves are fired in this final drying, the more the leaves will move away from their fresh, grassy notes towards aromas of fresh, grilled nuts. 

Why is green tea called green tea?

And now we come to the 'Thank you, Captain Obvious' portion of our blog where I get to tell you that green tea is called green tea because... it's green! 

Green tea is prized for being as close to the original color and flavor of the tea plant as it is possible to get. Thanks to the many, many people who figured out how to process tea leaves over thousands of years, we are able to halt the natural oxidation process and create the drink that truly resembles the fresh, vibrancy of the living tea plant. This is why tasting notes for green teas will often include words like vegetal, spring shoots, or even grassy. 

Which is your favorite green tea? Explore our collection of Chinese and Japanese green teas and let us know which style you prefer on Facebook or Instagram!

Green button reading: Shop Green Tea

Sources: 

Gascoyne, K., Marchand François, Desharnais, J., & Américi Hugo. (2016). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books. Ltd.