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May 08, 2007

Green Tea

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe it's time to start drinking green tea more regularly.

I wish I liked the taste of green tea better than I do. In fact, as an Asia junkie (and Asia fantasist), I feel that I really ought to love green tea. Negative-spacey, non-monotheistic ways of being and perceiving delight me so much that I feel that my soul should mesh deeply with everything Asian, green tea included. Yet, sadly, it doesn't. I don't really like green tea in the same way that I don't really like the game of Go. I get something out of both, it's true. But in both cases I have to actively talk myself into facing them.

Here are a few tricks I've learned to make green tea more pleasant:

  • Spend extra. Using high-quality loose tea can take a considerable amount of the curse off of the morning cup. Green tea made from fresh loose tea is a funky, substantial brew so rich that it can remind you of hand-crafted fermented drinks like brew-pub beer or expensive sake.

    (Hey, did you know that sake is in fact a fermented-grain drink? Although Americans tend to think of sake as Japanese wine, and though it certainly has its taste-and-consistency similarities to white wine, it's in fact more closely related to beer than it is to wine. Another couple of neat things to know about sake: 1) Don't drink the cheap stuff, and don't drink it hot. Bad sake is thin and lame, and is heated-up in order to disguise its weaknesses. The best sake is complex -- it'll stop you in your tracks and make you examine its qualities. It also costs a few bucks more, and it's never heated. 2) While many sakes are a clear amber, like flat ginger ale, some of the best sakes are unfiltered, which means that they're cloudy or even milky in visual appearance. Short version: The next time you order sake at a Japanese restaurant, be willing spend a few extra bucks. Specify to your serviceperson that you have no interest in any such lousy thing as "hot sake" -- you want good sake, and you want it at room temperature or perhaps cooled. You might even think of asking about their unfiltered brands. And then enjoy.)

    Even if you can't face brewing your morning cup up from loose tea -- and I usually can't either; I'm too groggy -- buy the expensive tea bags. No matter what the brand, the quality really is better than that of cheap bagged green tea, which almost always consists not of crumbled-up tea leaves but of tea-sweepings and tea-dust.

  • Don't let the water come to a boil. Water that's boiling hot does something awful to green tea leaves. I'm not sure what that would be in a technical sense. Boiling water seems to me to scald the leaves, or something. In any case, the results are very displeasing.

  • Don't let the tea steep for too long. I've found that three minutes is about right. But, where green tea is concerned, it's always better to understeep it than to oversteep it. This is a tough sell to Americans, I've found. I wonder why. Perhaps Americans tend to think that they're getting more value for their money when they let tea bags steep forever; perhaps they just think they're getting stronger tea. In the case of green tea, though, letting it steep for a long time is a Majorly Bad Idea. The only thing you're brewing up for yourself is sogginess and bitterness.

I've found that when I follow these tips, the result is, well, not a delicious cuppa but an agreeable-enough beverage. I'm sorry that I can't report miracles. Green tea seems to be what it is. And it simply seems to be the case that, while a bad cup of green tea will stir up memories of old sweat sox, a good one will remind you of nothing more tasty than fresh grass. Still, fresh grass ... Old sweat sox ... It's an improvement anyway. Nonetheless, I do wish that I got the same kind of sexy pleasure-jolt out of drinking green tea that I do out of a good cup of espresso or chai.

Here's a site devoted to green tea. Here's one devoted to chai.

Does anyone really like green tea? Or is green tea inescapably something you consume just because it's good for you?



posted by Michael at May 8, 2007


A couple of years ago the Karaoke Queen took me to visit a friend way up by Oneonta. This friend was a liquor distributor. She pulled out half a dozen bottles of very expensive sake, all of them slightly chilled, and poured me a taste of each. What an experience! Every one had a distinctly different, crystaline taste. The clarity of flavor and the purity of the high... wish I could afford the $75 to $200 a bottle price tag. (Well, I have developed a tasted for $55 a bottle Patron tequila.)

The Karaoke Queen is into what I call "poop tea." This is dieter's tea, designed to lubricate the intestinal tract. I can't stand the stuff.

"Negative-spacey, non-monotheistic ways of being..." I like that phrase. Myrna, although she was nominally Christian, was about 80% Chinese and Buddhist. One thing that we seldom contemplate about Buddhist societies is just how different they see morality... particularly sexual morality. Think of the Buddhist nun who is also a prostitute. Myrna leaned toward Taoism. The Western obsession with eliminating and banning things baffled her. She saw evil and good as both having their values, and she thought that destroying the balance between them was the road to catastrophe.

Myrna was equally baffled by my western determination to confront people directly in conflict.

"Turn yourself into water," she would say. "Don't try to go through them. Go around them and under them. Look for the crevices."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 8, 2007 12:31 PM

If I'm not mistaken, green, black and white teas all come from plants that are pretty much the same. Most of the differences in the teas result from the ways the leaves are processed.

Posted by: Peter on May 8, 2007 1:03 PM

Green tea doesn't have as much caffeine as black tea. It's hard to get past that.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 8, 2007 2:05 PM

I believe I'm cheating.
I brew up large cups (18 oz) of tea once a day using two tea bags. One's Green Tea; the other is Mint Tea. The latter makes the former taste "better"; the latter hopefully makes me feel "better".
Self-delusion helps a lot as well.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 8, 2007 2:51 PM

If you are not a fan of traditional Green Tea, there are some fine flavored Green Teas:

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 8, 2007 3:01 PM

I'm a tea fanatic, as well as a wine, absinthe and sake junkie. Really, the best green tea tastes absolutely sublime, nothing vegetal about it. Here's the key: You have to buy whole leaf, fresh, from a reputable supplier. Whole leaf really makes a difference. When you brew tea from chopped leaves, more of the tannins and other nasty tasting stuff can make it's way out of the damaged cell walls of the leaf. The best brew comes out of leafs that are whole and have been gently rolled or otherwise manipulated.

That's generally only a rule of thumb that comes from the different varietals used in making tea. Black tea is simply green tea leaves that have been aired and "fermented" (not an actual fermentation process). That being said, the type of leaves that make better black tea are the not the same that make good green tea. Black teas, especially the cheap bulk Breakfast tea stuff gets most of it's caffiene potency from the usage of Assam teas, pretty high potency on it's own. In general tea used for blacks have more caffiene than greens, with some notable exceptions, like Darjeeling (which is probably closer to an Oolong anyways). However the most potent tea I ever had was a Jasmine Tea that was given to me as a gift from a friend who traveled to China. Despite it being a green tea, that stuff gave me the jitters like a good cup of Red Eye.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on May 8, 2007 3:13 PM

I'm strictly in the "because it's good for me" camp. Nevertheless, for a few years I had weaned myself off breakfast coffee, until I started dating my (now, not then obviously) wife, who dragged me kicking and screaming back to morning capuccino. The kicking and screaming were I admit fairly muted.

I can't drink the stuff in the evening - it keeps me awake even mre than coffee. Back tea doesn't at all - I usually have one at bedtime.

Posted by: Alan Little on May 8, 2007 3:58 PM

Ohayo Goizamasu,
What better than a blow hard? I've been to the land of the rising sun and if anyone is buying it at the grocery store, it isn't green tea. It's some concocted melamine replacement sourced in Chinese sweat shops along with our dog food. I did not like GT when I first tried it but it has actually become something that has replaced coffee as my drink of choice. I no longer need caffeine to come out of my morning coma. Loose leaf at a Japanese grocery store......and the rankings of quality go as expensive as hundreds of dollars a pound. The tastes are drastically different but not necessarily better. I eat the leaves after I steep them. I do like the tea but don't like the leaves. But, eat them as many Japanese do in matcha for my health. I feel like Superman and recently blasted around the world in one mighty jump. I attribute it to green tea.

Posted by: BDG on May 8, 2007 5:08 PM

I grew up in China and Taiwan (45 years ago) but was never able to stomach the ubiquitous cup of hot tea that was offered by gracious Chinese hosts. Of course, my missionary parents made sure that I didn't offend, so I gagged it down with a typically surly teenage attitude.

College and work made caffeine a necessity, so a cup or two of coffee in the morning and one in the afternoon became my routine for forty years. Twenty years in, I managed to wean myself off sugar and cream.

After retiring four years ago, I decided to test my character by giving up coffee. Surprisingly enough, after a lifetime of imbibing, I found it fairly easy. Still, there's something nurturing about a hot (non-alcoholic) drink in the morning. And, given the health benefits of tea, and green tea in particular, I gave it another try. Now I prefer tea to coffee as a morning pick-me-up. The taste is lighter and the reduced caffeine content is just right.

I agree with Michael and some of the other comments: good, loose tea is important, as is steeping time. I rotate between two green teas and two black teas that I purchase at a local tea shop. And, I try not to fetishize the whole process.

Posted by: David in KC on May 8, 2007 6:56 PM


Wow, it's really, really hard for me to believe that there's a green tea out there that will taste "sublime" to me as belgian ales, whiskey, gin, coffee, or chocolate can, but I just may give it a shot. I generally only drink it in Chinese restaurants, and I prefer it as weak as possible. I like mint, chamomile, or rose hips, but rarely any tea tea. I think there's something in black tea, less in green, that makes me a little nauseous.

Posted by: J. Goard on May 9, 2007 2:31 AM

I'm too much of a pu'erh freak to find much time and tummy-space for other forms of tea, but, for those interested, the '07 greens are hitting the market now. Many of the fine Chinese spring varieties are out there, albeit at a price, and I notice that some '07 sencha is available for Japanese tea lovers. Chinese sites like Jing Tea shop and Teaspring are good sources. Upton in Boston are good for range, but I'd check that you're getting '07 if you're buying a spring green tea. Use more leaf, shorter (but multiple) infusions. Water temp for brewing these greens varies from 60 to 80 centigrade (sorry, I'm Aussie, and I forget the farenheit stuff) so just-off-the-boil is way too hot. Keep it fresh, drink it up quick...and enjoy the autumn greens when they hit the market!

Last word (dogmatic, I'm afraid): Westerners are stubborn boilers. Take the water-temperature thing very seriously.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on May 9, 2007 3:06 AM

ST -- As always, Myrna sounds like a fascinating dame. That's a great tale about breaking out the good sake. It's a different experience than the crap they usually pour at sushi joints, isn't it?

Peter -- I think that's right, they're all the same plant. What I've never been able to figure out is if they've pushed the one plant in lots of different directions too (as well as figuring out different ways of processing the leaves). Kind of like all dogs are dogs, but chihuahuas and dobermans are still quite different.

Agnostic -- The tea kick and the coffee kick are very different, aren't they? They are for me anyway.

DarkoV -- Self-delusion rules. Where would we be without it?

Ian -- Flavored green teas? Do you take me for a wuss? Well, maybe the time has come for me to embrace my inner tea wuss ...

Spike -- Many thanks, fascinatin'. I had no idea that chopping the leaves released bitterness. I've tried some fancy rolled-leaf teas and they really were an intense experience.

Alan -- A good blogposting for one us to write: the impact on our eating habits of getting married.

BDG -- You eat the leaves? That seems like ... beyond the call of duty. Still, maybe there's something to it. You certainly seem to be bursting with health. Time for scientists to do a study!

David in KC -- That's funny, I rotate between black and green teas too. Just can't face green tea all the time, though Ian has me thinking maybe I should just give in and go over to the flavored versions. That's also a nice little mini-autobio-via-caffeine you've written ...

J. Goard -- "...belgian ales, whiskey, gin, coffee, or chocolate ..." Now those are some great flavor-worlds!

Robert -- We do love to boil, don't we. I wonder why. Fantasies about hygiene? Because it seems dynamic? Anyway, that's some great info, and obviously coming from an expert, many thanks. There's little I like better than free and friendly expert coaching...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2007 11:46 AM

If different varieties have different chemicals, why expect the particular green tea you get to have the relevant ones?

It's hard for me to imagine that the people writing those press releases know what green tea is.

Posted by: Douglas Knight on May 9, 2007 1:44 PM

If it's so good for you, can't I just take one of those pills on the shelf at Sam's and then go ahead and have a cup of coffee, too?

Posted by: Scott on May 10, 2007 11:27 PM

Oddly enough, I don't really enjoy black teas, but have always liked green tea. I never really worry about overbrewing, either -- just leave the bags in there forever. Maybe what we're both responding to is the slightly bitter caffeine-ey taste of black teas. You like it, so you think green teas are missing something; I don't, so I like the mildness of green teas.

Posted by: Zach on May 13, 2007 3:17 PM

I love green tea especially bi luo chun green tea fro

yummy cuppa. besides that i go for dragonwell once in a while.

Posted by: Sue on May 25, 2007 8:02 AM

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