Legends of the Leaf: 3 Chinese Green Teas

Legends of the Leaf- 3 Chinese Green Teas.png

One of my favorite things about Chinese tea is the rich cultural history that can be traced back thousands of years. Many teas have legends associated with them that have been passed down through the centuries. These are a few of my favorites.

Bi Luo Chun

Bi Luo Chun's original name XiaSha RenXiang translates to scary fragrance. Legend has it that tea pickers ran out of room in their baskets so they placed tea leaves between their breasts. Body heat caused a surprising aroma to be released from the leaves. I don't really find this tea scary at all but it is definitely delicious. It was later renamed green snail spring by the Kangxi Emperor.

Dragonwell

There are several legends that surround this famous tea. In a city by the same name, there is a well that was said to be inhabited by a dragon. The local people would pray to it for rain when there is a drought. I have heard from several people who have visited the well that after rain, the lighter rainwater floats on top of the dense well water creating a rippling effect. It is this curious phenomenon that is often attributed as the source of the legend.

Another story tells of Emperor Qian long visiting a temple and watching the ladies picking tea. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to give it a try.While he was picking the tea he received a message that his mother was ill. In his haste to leave he shoved the leaves into his sleeve. When the Emperor visited his mother, she noticed the smell of the leaves and he had it brewed for her. It is said that the distinctive flat shape of Long Jing is designed to mimic those leaves.

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Taiping Hou Kui

Taiping Houkui is an unusual green tea that is produced at the foot of Huang Shan in Taiping County. The name is most often translated as peaceful monkey leader. You might ask yourself, what does that have to do with tea? A local legend holds that the monkey king fell ill and died after losing his son. A farmer discovered his body and carefully buried it. Tea trees grew from this spot the next year and the farmer harvested the leaves, making them into the distinctive blade-like shape.

Do you have a favorite legend involving a Chinese green tea? Let me know about it in the comments!

What Green Tea and MSG Have in Common

In elementary school science class we all learned about the four basic tastes that our taste buds can detect: sour, bitter, salty and sweet. There is also a fifth taste called umami. It's a word borrowed from the Japanese language that describes a savory or meaty taste. It can be a be a bit hard to describe but seaweed, mushrooms, and aged cheeses are all examples of foods with umami.

MSG, aka monosodium glutamate, is an amino acid that is naturally found in our bodies as well as in food. MSG is commonly used as an additive to enhance the savory effect of umami in food. It's hotly debated whether or not MSG is bad for us. I won't get into all of that because this is a tea blog. Feel free to Google "Chinese restaurant syndrome" if you feel like being buried in fanatical internet commentary.

So, what does all of this have to do with tea? Green tea happens to be rich in glutamate. Theanine, another amino acid found in tea, is also very similar in structure to MSG. Theanine is believed to contribute to the sweetness of a tea. Catechin antioxidants are responsible for bitter tastes while caffeine causes us to experience astringency. Glutamate gives us the savory flavor that can best be described as umami. Other categories of tea may contain some the levels won't be as high due to the chemical reactions caused by oxidation and processing.

 Theanine

Theanine

Japanese green teas, in particular, are higher in glutamate because of the way they are grown and processed. The first spring flush (ichibancha) is highly prized for this reason. Gyokyro and matcha also have more umami because the leaves are shaded for a time before harvesting. The longer the tea is shaded the sweeter the taste will be and the more umami the tea will have. 

Chinese green teas can also have umami but it usually isn't as pronounced. If you're seeking umami in a tea outside of Japan, you'll want to look for higher elevation regions where the climate naturally shades tea plants with clouds and mist. Roasted teas like hojicha have much lower levels of glutamate. 

 Japanese green teas are usually higher in glutamate

Japanese green teas are usually higher in glutamate

The data in the chart below is a bit old but it's still pretty interesting to see different types of tea compared. Although there aren't really studies to back it up, I personally believe that the method of "kill green" used in Japan as well as the terroir and plant varieties used has an effect on how much umami a tea will have. The same tea can be produced in an identical way elsewhere but it will not have the intense umami that Japanese teas possess.

Do you have a favorite tea that has umami? Let me know about it in the comments!

Chinese vs Japanese Green Teas

Part of the fun of discovering tea is getting to know the different types that each country produces. There are so many nuances and grey areas that the possibilities for nerding out are endless. I thought it might be helpful to put together a comparison of the green teas from two of the largest producers of this type of tea.

History

No one really knows for sure when people began preparing tea as a beverage but most experts agree that the Camellia Sinensis plant originated in China. Lu Yu's The Classic of Tea, supposedly written during the Tang Dynasty, was the first documented book on the subject of tea. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century by Buddhist monks who carried seeds with them from their travels to China. Eisai usually gets the credit for establishing tea in Japan because he wrote the first Japanese book on tea, Kissa Yōjōki.

Terroir

The environment in which tea is grown has a large effect on the way that the finished product will taste. China and Japan are geographically close so they share a lot of similarities. Both countries are mountainous with widely ranging microclimates. Most of China's tea-growing regions are located in southern provinces, away from the coast. Japan, on the other hand, is comprised of more than 6,000 islands. The proximity to the ocean is definitely a factor in the way that the brewed tea tastes.

Varieties

Both the Chinese and Japanese governments operate research stations where varieties of tea are studied, developed and cultivated. They might be selected for taste, pest resistance or because the leaves have a particular coloration. In China, the varieties are frequently named after the tea that is produced with them (Tie Guan Yin or Long Jing No. 43 for example). In contrast, Japanese tea production is dominated by the Yabukita cultivar. I highly recommend checking out +Ricardo Caicedo's blog for a thorough list of registered Japanese varieties .

 Mao Feng before steeping

Mao Feng before steeping

 Mao Feng after steeping

Mao Feng after steeping

Processing

The biggest difference between Chinese and Japanese green teas is how they are processed. When manufacturing tea heat must be applied to the leaves in order to stop oxidation. This is referred to as fixing or the kill-green step. A large wok is typically used to do this in China, effectively stir-frying the leaves. Ovens are also used to achieve the same effect in some places. In Japan oxidation is stopped by steaming the leaves. The level of steaming, ranging from about 20 seconds to 160 seconds, is one of the factors that determine the category that a tea is placed in.

The way that tea is harvested also has a big effect on the what the tea that ends up in our teacups looks like. China has a long-standing tradition of hand picking tea leaves whereas Japanese tea is most frequently harvested by machine. The result is mostly intact leaves in China and a more broken leaf in Japan. While there are exceptions to this rule, I don't come across them often. Regardless of whatever cultural bias you might run into, one method is not any better than the other. They are simply different, each reflecting the region that produced them.

 Sencha before steeping

Sencha before steeping

 Sencha after steeping

Sencha after steeping

Taste

Chinese green teas typically have a nutty or more roasted character. The chestnut notes in Dragonwell are a great example. This is mostly caused by the pan frying during the kill-green step in processing. Japanese green teas have a much more vegetal, almost seaweed-like, quality. Kabuse (shade-grown) teas like gyokuro highlight this particularly well. The leaves are usually so tender after brewing that you can eat them quite easily.

Which type of green tea do you prefer? Let me know about it in the comments!

5 Things You Should Know About Matcha

1. Matcha can only be produced in Japan.

Matcha can only be made in Japan just as Champagne can only be made in Champagne, France. More specifically, matcha should be made from a shade grown tea known as tencha. In order to meet market demand a ton of "matcha-like" powdered teas are being produced in China and other nearby countries. This is definitely one subject that I get on my soap box about. Would you want to pay Champagne prices for California sparkling wine? Of course not! Inexpensive powdered green tea has its place but it should never be called matcha when it isn't the real thing.

2. Powdered tea originated in China during the Song Dynasty.

Matcha is very much associated with Japan but a lot of tea drinkers don't realize that powdered tea has roots in Chinese history.  At that time tea leaves were pressed into cakes, much in the same way that puerh is. Pieces were broken off, ground into a powder and whipped into a froth. This style of making tea was popularized by the Buddhist monk Eisai when he publushed the book Tea drinking cure 喫茶養生記 in 1214. It eventually involved into the matcha that we all know and love today.

3. It can take up to an hour to grind just 40g of finished tea.

As you can imagine, it takes quite a lot of leaf in order to make just a small amount of matcha powder. Matcha is ground into a very fine powder using stone mills. Other materials will cause too much friction which would negatively affect the taste of the tea. This is part of why you wouldn't get the same results by throwing your leaves into a food processor or spice grinder. Check out the video below from +Aiya America Organic Matcha green tea to see the entire process:

4. Ceremonial grade doesn't mean anything.

Despite what your tea vendor's advertisements might say ceremonial grade is a meaningless term. While it's usually used to imply higher quality, there are no regulations as to the use of the phrase. Ask your supplier if their matcha is endorsed by a tea ceremony school such as Urasenke or Omotesenke. It's also important to learn the differences between high quality and low quality matcha. Color is always a huge indicator. Look for a vibrant, deep green color with a silky smooth feel.

5. Since it's a powder, matcha can easily be added to almost anything!

I love cooking and baking with matcha. It's super easy to add to cookies, cupcakes, pudding and more. Just remember that a little bit goes a long way. Using too much tea in your batter can make for a bitter taste. Matcha is also a great addition to smoothies and shakes. I even mix into my orange juice! In Japan they have everything from matcha noodles to green tea Kit Kat's.

Is there something that should be on this list? Let me know in the comments!