What is green tea?

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Find out all about how green tea is made, a little of the history of green tea in Europe, the possible health benefits of green tea and how to brew the perfect cup of green tea.

Related post: The best green tea brands

What is green tea?

what is green tea
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Green tea, just like black tea, is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, a small shrub native to China. The difference between the two starts with differences in the processing of those leaves. In a nutshell, the leaves for green tea are not bruised and oxidized but are instead finished much more quickly by drying and rolling.

The method for this final stage varies by region and the specific type of green tea being produced, but it can be air-dried, oven-dried, steamed or, according to the classic Chinese method, fired in a wok. Small quantities of tea are placed in the wok over heat and the tea maker repeatedly lifts and drops the leaves to ensure even heating.

The processing time of green tea is very brief – a matter of hours rather than the days taken to turn raw tea leaves into black tea

The history of green tea

traditional chinese green tea set
Image by gadost0 from Pixabay

Although there is no way to be sure, it’s almost certain that the first tea imported into Europe in the mid-16th century was green tea, because that is what would have been produced in its native country, China.

The earliest reference to tea in England dates to 1615. In 1660 green tea was introduced into the coffee houses of London. A drink solely available to the wealthiest of the upper classes, it was drunk as the Chinese did without milk or sugar. In 1707, Twining’s Gunpowder Green Tea sold for the equivalent of around £160 per 100g (around £45 per ounce).

However, by the 1720s, tea consumption had overtaken coffee consumption and black tea overtook green in popularity. There are a number of reasons for this, the first of which was the very long journey time from China to the UK and Europe by sail-powered ship. Months at sea will render green tea either less palatable, or it will allow it to oxidize, gradually turning it blacker. The high volumes now being demanded by British consumers meant that in order to ensure a consistent product it was easier to turn green tea into black at source in China and ship black tea rather than green.

Secondly, black tea is more bitter than green so works better with sugar, something the Chinese did not add to tea. The rise in sugar imports into Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries closely matches the rise in tea imports and, if you wanted to signal your high social status, it made sense to be seen to be combining these two high-value high-status commodities.

Green tea fell out of favour in the UK for almost three hundred years: Twining’s, one of the first companies to introduce tea to the UK in 1706, did not reintroduce green tea to its range until 2010. It didn’t disappear so completely from mainland Europe but green tea was still largely not sold there until the late 1990s.

Green tea vs black tea

two cups of tea and some loose tea
Image by happyearthboy from Pixabay

Although there is considerable variation in flavour within the different types of green tea, generally speaking, green tea is much less bitter than black tea. Green tea has a more delicate flavour, mellow, smooth and ever so slightly sweet and is all but obliterated by milk or sugar.

Even if, like me, you drink black tea without milk or sugar, it’s hard to recognise by flavour alone that these two leaves have identical origins.

The process of oxidation that turns green tea into black changes the nutrient profile of the two teas as well, with green having much less caffeine and many more polyphenols and flavonoids than black.

Varieties of green tea

Considerable variation in colour and flavour exist within”green tea”. Different varieties of Camellia sinensis, different growing conditions, different methods of processing and how old the leaves are when harvested are among many factors which lead to these differences. Some of the most popular and commonly found varieties of green tea are:

From Japan: see our in-depth article on Japanese tea

  • Sencha is the most popular Japanese green tea. It has a delicate, slightly sharp, vegetal flavour with a slightly sweet aftertaste.
  • Bancha is plucked from the same bushes as used to produce sencha but the leaves are plucked after the tender buds and leaves used for sencha
  • Genmai Cha is a sharp and bright tea. It is often combined with toasted brown rice and the mixture brewed into a soothing broth, described by a Japanese friend as the Japanese “Chicken Soup for the Soul”.
  • Matcha is produced from plants grown under special conditions before the leaves are harvested and ground to a fine powder. This property makes it ideal for use in cooking.
  • Gyokuro is grown in the shade which makes the leaves dark green and more needle-like than flat. The resulting tea is highly delicate and needs a much cooler brewing temperature than other green tea (around 60°C or 140°F).

From China

green tea being sorted by hand
Image by highnesser from Pixabay
  • Longjing (Dragonwell), originally from Hangzhou in China and one of the most popular Chinese green teas. This tea is ironed flat in the wok during firing. It is astringent and nutty, almost like chestnuts, has a lovely sweet after taste and a beautiful green colour.
  • Chun Mee is especially popular outside of China, originally from the Jiangxi region of China. It has a slightly acidic taste, less sweet than other varieties, which is highly refreshing.
  • Jasmine tea. A scented Chinese tea, it is now possible to find jasmine scented white, oolong and black tea as well as the traditional pairing with green tea. The flavour is simply beautiful, floral without being too perfumed, and the perfect accompaniment to Chinese food.
  • Gunpowder tea is a description of a processing method rather than a particular type of tea. It consists of leaves which have been withered, steamed, dried and then rolled into small pellets, said to resemble grains of gunpowder. It is usually made from green tea but oolong is sometimes processed in this way.

Health benefits of green tea

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

It is the high concentration of polyphenols and flavonoids in green tea which have nutritionists and medical scientists excited in their hunt for compounds which possibly do everything from promoting weight loss to reduce cancer risk.

Many of these claims are based on ancient Chinese medical tradition, which doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but at the current time there have not been many high-quality, long-term, evidence-based studies as to its benefits, so these claims need to be treated with caution.

It’s pretty obvious that if you switch from creamy lattes with added sugar to a drink containing only hot water and some plant leaves, you’re going to see an improvement in your health: losing weight, lowering your risk of diabetes, improving your heart health and lowering your risk of cancer. If you adopt green tea as part of a healthier lifestyle which involves cutting refined sugars, sodium and saturated fats and taking up exercise then even better.

That being said, there is a lot of research being conducted into the possible health benefits of green tea. It is definitely high in active flavonoids called catechins, and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which have been shown to function as powerful antioxidants.

Antioxidants, which are mainly found in fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods, are a vast group of chemicals which have been shown to protect the body against disease. Green tea is therefore likely to be of benefit but it needs to be seen as part of a healthy diet, not a replacement for it.

Some of the so-called health products on the market which say they contain green tea contain only trace amounts of it. I’ve seen green tea iced doughnuts promoted as a healthy option. Literally, your standard doughnuts with an icing containing a tiny amount of green tea plus some green food colouring.

If you think that a trace of green tea will somehow cancel out the negative effects of that doughnut, or of a diet consisting of nothing but fried potato products and chicken nuggets, then you’re almost certainly wrong and you’re probably wasting your money.

Green tea is not a “magic bullet” but if you’re using it to replace a less healthy drink and if doing that makes you feel better about yourself and your health, and as a result you’re more likely to snack on an apple than a triple chocolate cookie, then great, it is definitely improving your health.

A couple of notes of caution

All teas made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, green included, contain tannins. These compounds interfere with the body’s absorption of iron so don’t wash down your iron supplement with a cup of tea – best leave an hour between the two.

Also, although green tea contains less caffeine than either black tea or coffee, it does still contain significant amounts of caffeine so it will have the same stimulant effects which can interfere with your ability to sleep, especially if you’re not used to caffeinated beverages, so it’s best to switch to a zero caffeine alternative in the hours before bed

Brewing green tea

This is very different from the advice for how to steep black tea. Green tea should be steeped at a temperature between 61 °C (142 °F) and  87 °C (189 °F): it will taste bitter if prepared with boiling water. Depending on the grade of leaf used, it should be steeped from between 30 seconds for low-grade tea, up to around three minutes for whole-leaf grades. Again, it will start to taste bitter if allowed to steep for too long.

Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve found this article interesting and that it’s answered the question, “What is green tea?”. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below. Thank you!

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4 thoughts on “What is green tea?”

  1. I like green tea a lot but a lot of people make it badly and then think they don’t like it. It must not be left steeping for too long. Much better to steep it for only three minutes and use the leaves again to make another brew. Often tastes better on the second or third steeping IMHO. Good article though would like to know more about the different types of green tea, especially the Japanese ones.

  2. Hello Admin,

    What an amazing post you have shared! I am a tea lover. I like green tea very much then black tea. But I did not know about the benefits of green tea. From your post I gathered huge information on it including it’s history. I really enjoyed your article. It is interesting that green tea is good for cancer and gives us nutrition. Is there any benefits of black tea? Would you please tell me that?

    Thanks dude. I will share your interesting and informative article to others.😘

    • Hi Snigdha and thanks for your comments,

      Black tea, like green, contains small amounts of vitamin B2 plus important dietary minerals like magnesium, potassium, folic acid and copper. It also has smaller amounts of various polyphenols which act as antioxidants. The one compound missing from black tea is ECGC which is the compound in green tea being most researched at the moment. And aside from its physical health benefits, any British person will tell you there’s nothing like a cup of (black) tea for steadying the nerves, refreshing you when you’re tired, and an all round booster of mood. Tea is the best!


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