by Phil on February 6th, 2015
Warning: this blog is not for green tea experts. It is for those who have never tried green tea or at least never enjoyed it. It’s not very technical; it’s just a few thoughts and experiences, and some drinking suggestions.
One or two people might remember that I wrote a blog a while back with the provocative title ‘What’s so great about green tea?’ In that piece I confessed to finding green tea a bit challenging, especially in the context of experts who are obsessed with infusion techniques and temperatures: it all seemed too difficult, too much could go wrong.
But I’m going to take a different tack this time. In 2012, before my involvement with Canton, I visited the most famous green tea producing areas of China. There was a lot to see and a lot to learn. I remember seeing Dragon Well (Long Jing) being made, but perhaps more than that I enjoyed the sheer pleasure of drinking it in a relaxed, informal way.
How to enjoy green tea
To enjoy green tea, water temperature is everything. Green tea is fragile, and if the water is too hot the leaves will scald, producing a taste that is bitter, cabbagey, even fishy. This is many people’s only experience of green tea, and you can’t blame them for not going back. It’s not their fault.
The true taste of a fine green tea is a world away from this. A fine leaf variety brewed at 65-70 degrees will gradually release delicate flavours on successive infusions with a sweetness and silky texture that are a real surprise the first time you experience them.
Once you know the secret, it’s very easy to make and enjoy fine green tea. Don’t be too put off by the experts: there is a lot to discover as you delve a bit deeper into the various varieties and qualities, but you don’t have to do that.
The most enjoyable green tea drinking experience I have had was in West Lake (see below), simply brewed in tall glasses. No complicated kit, no ceremony, just glasses half-filled with water, leaves added, then topped up with more water as many times as we wanted. Marvellous.
That way of drinking it works here too, or you can use a teapot, or whatever brewing kit you have to hand. The key thing is to get the temperature right, and to infuse the leaves several times. There is plenty of helpful information on the Canton Tea School.
What exactly is a green tea?
The key process that is common to all green tea making techniques is the ‘kill green’ stage. In very simple terms, there are flavour compounds and enzymes in the green leaves that are kept separate when the leaves are intact, but come into contact when the leaf cells are broken. When this happens, the flavour compounds start to oxidise, and black tea colours and flavours start to develop.
In order to prevent this oxidation, the leaves must be heated to denature the enzymes, hence ‘kill green’. This can be done by direct heat (e.g. in a wok) or by steaming. In some cases this is a separate stage, and in others it is part of a continuous process of pressing and shaping the leaves while they are being heated. The former is generally used for bulk manufacture, the latter for smaller scale specialist hand-making.
One simple way of categorising green teas is as ‘steamed’ or ‘pan fried’.
Once the enzymes are out of the way, the leaves can be rolled, pressed and shaped without any oxidation happening. These different shaping techniques play a major part in determining which variety of tea is made, and each area has its own traditions and specialities.
Long Jing, literally translated as Dragon Well, is perhaps the most famous green tea in China. It is known for its distinctive flattened leaves, strong aroma and deep long-lasting flavour. The best varieties have yellowish leaves, indicating less chlorophyll and younger buds. The better quality teas also have a higher content of theanine and free amino acids, which are thought to contribute to the sweeter flavour.
High quality Dragon Well has a strong aroma – try putting the dry leaves in a warmed pot with a lid, swishing them round a bit and then taking in their deep aroma. The infused tea starts off almost savoury, with a slightly nutty character, but becomes sweeter and thicker as the infusions develop.
It is probably the most rewarding of all green teas, as the flavour just keeps on coming. There is something about the wok-pressing process that seems to develop a richness of flavour that other green teas don’t have.
The visit to West Lake
Traditionally, authentic Dragon Well is only produced in Zhejiang province, in the area around West Lake in Hangzhou. It’s an attractive place, and the Chinese enthusiasm for ‘scenic areas’ means that tourist coaches are nose to tail, and everywhere people are having their photographs taken. It’s the tradition in China for wedding photos to be taken a week or so before the wedding itself, so it’s quite usual to see very smartly dressed people posing in small groups by the lake.
Wen Jia village, just above the lake, has an almost Mediterranean atmosphere, and felt slightly unreal to me after some of the more rural tea areas: Dragon Well is produced here in huge quantities, and the area has become very rich as result. It’s hard to escape the feeling that it has become a bit of a tea theme park: there was almost a world-weariness about the tea maker I visited, obviously very used to being photographed and filmed as he crafted the tea.
Having said that, it was fascinating to watch, and I put together a short video to show the process. It’s deceptively simple, but very skilled.
Canton’s Dragon Well.
Quality has become unreliable in the main town area, and better teas are generally to be found away from West Lake itself, in places where farms are smaller and tea making is more traditional and more skilful. The Canton products – Organic Dragon Well and Wild Mountain Dragon Well – are both examples of this.