A tremendous amount of media attention has been devoted to green tea in the past few years, most of it centered around claims that everyone should drink gallons of it per day for health reasons. The overall impact of this hype is probably good since it may lead consumers to try some teas that might otherwise be largely undiscovered in Western countries, but if those discoveries are not accompanied by attention to proper brewing techniques the result can be too many cups of unpleasant green tea, swallowed down stoically, like medicine.
Japanese green teas are particularly easy to brew poorly, most commonly by using boiling tap water, which scalds the leaf and produces a bitter liquor. Many Japanese green teas are delicate, and they can be challenging, increasingly so the further you go up the cost ladder. But with a bit of knowledge and a little more care you can brew up a green tea you will enjoy drinking.
Japan produces many different types of green teas, from roasted Hojicha to the finely powdered Matcha used in the tea ceremony, but this discussion will focus on a brief description of just three of the more easily obtainable types and how best to prepare them. With any of these teas use the best water available. I prefer pure spring water. While Japanese green teas can be brewed in porcelain, glass or ceramic teapots they are improved by brewing in cast iron teapot. Tokoname clay pots are also suitable, but the higher quality, hand-crafted pots can be quite costly. Cast iron teapots are affordable, attractive and reliable and the ferric content reacts positively with the water and tea, resulting in a mellower brew. (Caution: using a cast iron tea for brewing other types of teas, like harsh English-style black teas, will ruin it.)
Sencha is a standard type of Japanese green tea. It is what will usually be in a package of generically labeled “green tea” if it is from Japan. Naturally, if you purchase a higher grade of loose leaf Sencha you will end up with a much nicer cup of tea. Use water at about 160-170 degrees and steep for 1-3 minutes, depending on personal preference. If you do not have a variable temperature water kettle or a thermometer you can take the water off boil and let it sit for about two minutes before pouring over the leaves. You can also cool it by pouring it into back and forth into different containers. The taste of scorched green tea is bitter and terrible and sadly all too common so it is something you want to avoid. Pre-moistening your tea with a little fresh water before pouring the hot water over it can help prevent burning the leaf, or pour along the side of your pot rather than directly onto the leaf. A well brewed cup of Sencha is sweet and strong, and not bitter. If you don’t like the taste, experiment with water temperature and amount of leaf.
Genmaicha is Sencha (or Bancha) with the addition of roasted, puffed brown rice. Some varieties are also supplemented with a dusting of Matcha. The addition of rice lends the tea a smooth, mild, earthy quality. Genmaicha is frequently the type of tea you will be served in a Japanese restaurant if you request “green tea,” or just “tea.” It can be brewed hotter than other Japanese green teas. Generally around 190 degrees is good, but it can stand up to boiling water. Brew times will vary depending on preference, but 1-3 minutes is usually good.
Of these three teas, Gyokuro is the most delicate. Grown under shade, the Gyokuro leaf is very green and brews into a very vegetal, bright tasting tea. Use water no hotter than 140 degrees and steep for a very short time: 30 seconds to a minute. The taste can take some getting used to, but if you take the time to accustom your palate to this very Spring-like tea you may find it quite wonderful.
One thing to keep in mind is that Japanese green teas are particularly sensitive to air and age. They must be kept cool and dry in an airtight container. It is vastly preferable to order small quantities more frequently than to drink stale teas.
Drinking Japanese green teas can be quite a rewarding experience, not because you’ll suddenly be impervious to all forms of disease or gain the ability to fly, but because the teas themselves are so interesting and pleasant in your cup!
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