Green tea, a delightfully refreshing beverage that has long been consumed in Asia and the Middle East, has become a regular staple in the United States. Once related to culinary exotica, green tea is now commonly available which is a good thing since this delicious beverage is steeped in history and may be one of the most nutritious super-foods to gain mass appeal in recent memory. Green tea can be readily purchased in many forms: as dry tea, mixed in health drinks, and even in ice cream.
Unlocking the Mystery
While all true teas come from the same tropical plant (Camellia sinensis), the variation in styles lie in how the leaves of this plant are harvested and processed. There are certainly many varieties of tea that are cultivated throughout the world, and differences in flavor and style can be attributed to these variations as well as soil, climate, and other environmental factors.
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the history of tea consumption, but it can safely be said that tea has been consumed for thousands of years. The first written reference goes back the first century AD, while the first text devoted to tea consumption, Cha-Sing (The Art of Tea), dates to around the 8th century. It goes without saying that people had probably stumbled across tea much earlier than this, as many plants were exploited for medicinal and culinary purposes before being immortalized in text.
Tea drinking as we know it, steeping leaves in hot water was probably not codified as a tradition until around the 13th century or so. Since this time, important customs and traditions have been developed around tea many of which still exist in some form today. One only needs to think about the various tea traditions of China, Japan, India, the Middle East, Britain, and even the American South to realize the unique ways in which tea has become part of our shared consciousness.
The Four Major Types of Tea
White tea: Primarily produced from young tea leaf buds, this tea is minimally processed and has a mild flavor. This style of tea makes up a fraction of the world’s consumption.
Green tea: The tea leaves are picked and steamed to keep them from undergoing the process of fermentation (or oxidation). The application of heat allows the green color to remain while they are steamed, dried, and rolled. Green tea is not fermented, which is why it retains a green (some would say grassy) quality. This minimal processing is also integral to the retention of key chemicals that add beneficial nutritive power.
Oolong tea: Oolong tea is dried through exposed to the sun and allowed to partially ferment. It is generally lighter in character to black tea, but has a more delicate flavor and nuance.
Black tea: To produce black tea, leaves are picked and allowed to completely ferment. This process is what gives black tea its characteristic color and deep flavor. The vast majority of all tea consumed is black tea.
How to Prepare the Various Types of Green Tea
Green tea, like all other types of tea, is available in bags or as loose tea. One of the primary differences between brewing green tea and other kinds of tea, however, is that green tea requires cooler water for proper brewing and optimal flavor. Unlike other teas, green tea can be used up to three or four times.
Within these major classes of green tea, there still exists great diversity as various producers have concocted their own unique harvesting and processing methods. Some require special treatment, and it takes years of tea drinking to fully explore the nuance of green tea. The guidelines below are certainly not exhaustive, as different green teas demand slightly different preparation and brewing temperatures.
Sencha: This is the most widely consumed type of green tea in Japan. Sencha means “roasted (?) tea (?)” however, the process by which sencha is created differs from Chinese green teas, which are initially pan-fired (and could probably therefore more accurately be called “roasted” teas). Japanese green tea is first steamed for between 15–45 seconds to prevent oxidization of the leaves. Then, the leaves are rolled, shaped, and dried. This step creates the customary thin cylindrical shape of the tea. Finally, after drying, the leaves are fired to aid in their preservation and to add flavor. Most sencha teas are mild, herbaceous, and calming. Shincha refers to young sencha tea. This tea is prized for having a sweeter, less astringent flavor. To brew sencha, use 1 teaspoon of leaves with 6-8 ounces of hot (150-160°F) water.
Macha: A green tea powder, macha is produced by steaming, drying, and grinding green tea leaves into a fine powder. It is typically consumed in small cups. To prepare this brew, mix 1 teaspoon or so with a small cup of hot water (150-160°F) and stir to combine
Houjicha: This unique type of green tea is made by roasting (instead of steaming) the leaves). Because of the processing technique, it has less caffeine than other green teas, but has a nutty, deep flavor. These are a great alternative to those who want some of the health benefits of green tea with a more pronounced flavor reminiscent of black teas. Brew for 90 seconds or so to extract the full flavor of this unique green tea.
Bancha: This type of tea is considered low grade and uses the larger leaves that are harvested late in the season. Because of the strong flavor, bancha tea can be brewed in as little as 15 to 30 seconds.
Health Benefits of Green Tea
Over the past 15 years, there have been hundreds of scientific studies and papers that have verified the health benefits of green tea. These studies have been conducted by major universities and medical journals. Their findings simply verify what many have known for hundreds of years that green tea has powerful medicinal qualities and provides long term protection to a great variety of illnesses.
Tea contains a number of polyphenols, bioactive chemical compounds that have healing properties. These compounds actually exist in many food items, but are particularly high in green tea. Tea polyphenols are strong antioxidants. That is, they actually help to maintain and repair the health of your cells by cleaning up the agents that cause cancer and other sorts of degeneration and mutation.
- In general, green tea has one-half to one-third the caffeine of black tea
- Green tea may reduce high blood pressure by inhibiting constriction and narrowing in blood vessels
- Green tea has been shown to significantly reduce incidence of stomach cancer
- Among smokers, green tea drinkers have lower rates of esophageal cancer
- Green tea has been shown to reduce recurrence of breast cancer
- Tea consumption has been proven to improve cardiovascular health and may aid recovery from heart attacks
- Green tea has been shown to be part of effective weight loss regimens
- Compounds in green tea may alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
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