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Information about Green Tea
Green tea, one of the most original Chinese teas
Green tea is considered as one of the most original forms of tea.
We are all familiar with the ancient Chinese tale of how tea was discovered by the innovative Chinese emperor, Shennong, in about 2737 BC: when he was touring the country on a hot day and while taking a rest under a tree, some leaves fell from above into the pot in which his servants were boiling water for the emperor to drink. The boiled water turned out to be so lingeringly refreshing that it marked the birth of the second most consumed beverage today (after water ) - TEA.
It is believed by historians that people at that time tried to preserve and store the ‘refreshing leaves’ by drying them. This is largely how green teas are still made today: by harvesting and dehydrating the leaves. However, the knowledge, techniques and skills of making green tea have been immensely refined and extended since then and this type of tea has flourished into hundreds of different varieties, each with its own manufacturing process, appearance and taste.
Green tea plants and leaves
All conventional teas (with the exception of herbal teas) are made from a species of plant called Camellia sinensis. Premium green teas are made from the very young tea leaves of the plants. Tea bushes are typically trimmed after each harvest. During the following spring season, the young shoots start appearing between the mature leaves left from the previous harvest and their stems (shown in the image). Only these new shoots are harvested to be made into premium green teas; (low quality commercial teas use any leaves, while for teabags sometimes even the stalks are used.)
The green tea harvest lasts over a month. Apart from many other conditions associated with the quality of the tea leaves, such as the geographic location of the plantations, soil condition, rainfall and sunshine during the year, the timing of these leaves’ harvest is also crucial. For example, teas made from leaves harvested before Qing Ming (one of the 24 seasons of the Chinese calendar - in early spring) could fetch 10 times the price of teas made from leaves harvested at the end of the season, even though they are from the same plantation. The pre-Qing Ming tea production is, however, very limited, as the weather is normally cold and the leaves grow very slowly.
A green tea farmer's tale:
Here is a little secret whispered into my ears by a retired Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea farmer (pictured on the left) during my 2010 visit to Long Jing valley. This farmer told me quietly: ‘when you go looking for premium Long Jing, look at the length of the stem between the top two leaves. The ones with longer distances indicate that they grow on mountains at higher altitude. The temperature is lower up there and the tea plants do not grow as fast. This allows the leaves to take time to stock up all the nutrients and flavours and they are therefore of much better quality.’ This ‘secret’ may or may not be recorded in the university’s text books. It certainly has been recorded in my knowledge collection of teas written while travelling to different tea producers and farmers.
En Jie's pick of green tea
The process of premium green tea harvesting is mostly done by hand and is labour intensive. (There are tea manufacturers now using machines for mass harvesting and the teas produced are generally considered not as good).
I joined in for a morning’s tea picking and the result is illustrated by this image (insert on the right). The dry tea produced from these leaves weighed barely 20g!
Making Chinese green tea
Three basic stages of making Chinese green teas:
- Evaporating ‘greenness’: a process using high temperature to stop the functions of enzymes naturally contained in the fresh green tea leaves. This will prevent future oxidization of the Polyphenons. At the same time, it also evaporates a certain amount of moisture in the fresh tea leaves together with specific flavonoids (ones which evaporate at low temperatures) to enhance the aroma of the tea. During this process, the fresh green tea leaves will wither and become soft.
- Shaping: a step using external force (through tea makers’ hands or machines) to turn green tea into their final shapes, such as needle, flat, curled or other specific shapes.
- Dehydrating: the final stage is to extract more than 90% of the moisture from the tea leaves to maximise the aroma of the tea. This step could be done by baking, roasting or sun-drying depending on individual types.
Hand making Chinese green tea:
Most of the premium Chinese green teas are not only harvested by hand, but also roasted by hand.
This a typical account of a day in a tea producing family’s life in Dong Shan, which is famous for its production of the highest quality Bi Luo Chun green tea.
Wang Ping is in her mid 20s and newly married. She has a university degree, but has come back from the city office, where she normally works, to assist her parents during the tea harvest season. For as long as she can remember, she has been getting up early each morning to go to the hill behind the family home, where their Bi Luo Chun plantation is, to harvest the tea leaves during the spring - in rain or shine, school day or not. By lunch time, the three generations of the females in the family (grandmother, mother and two young daughters) will sit down and sort the leaves they have picked that morning, one by one. They pluck only the top 2-3 leaves including the bud and take the rest out, as the bigger leaves will add a rougher texture and bitter taste to the tea produced.
Once the fresh green tea leaves are sorted (some time in the afternoon), the roasting begins. The premium tea leaves are always roasted by the most experienced member of the family, in this case the mother. The process lasts about 20 minutes. The tea roasting wok is placed on a gas stove and the mother starts by putting the fresh green tea leaves in while the wok is gently heated. The temperature is adjusted constantly, according to her instructions, by a second person. While she skilfully and continuously tosses the tea leaves in the wok, the temperature goes up and down according to requirements. Her personal experience from many years of green tea making enables her hands to be able to sense and direct the right temperature for the entire process: enough to dehydrate but not too much to burn. In this case, all three basic steps take place at her hands, within a wok.
While the tea is being roasted, the room is filled with the aroma of Bi Luo Chun, a sensational experience that is hard to forget!
The children of the family are encouraged to make green teas harvested at the end of the season, which are not as highly valued on the market, until they become as experienced as their parents and are able to take over the tea making task of the family.