Green Tea 101

A couple of years ago a friend of mine brought me a small gift back from the Orient: a little canister containing some “tea” that was vaccuum-sealed in a silver plastic bag. I say “tea” because when my pal gave it to me he just said, “Here, I brought you some tea.” No further details. The container and info sheet that came with the package was wall-to-wall Chinese writing, so I had no idea what variety/flavor of tea it was, nor how to prepare it.

Yesterday I decided to try the stuff. I cut open the bag and found a pile of dried, compressed leaf and stem bundles, each a little bigger than a pea. Now, I’m strictly a Lipton-type tea drinker, and this did not resemble the ground up tea powder you find in your average supermarket teabag. Thinking that “tea is tea” I measured out approximately the amount of tea you’d find in a teabag, and dropped it in a cup of boiling hot water.

My first observation was that this was definately not Lipton-type tea; the brew turned a weak shade of green, not brown. So, I concluded that this must be Green Tea.

Secondly, I soon realized that I must have used too much, because in short order the brew looked like someone had dropped a salad in my cup. All the tiny freeze-dried leaves swelled up to full size, virtually filling my cup.

Okay, I’m through with the experiments. Can someone tell me if, in fact, I have Green Tea here? If not, what kind of tea might it be? And, most importantly, how exactly do I prepare it?

Thanks all, in advance.

Congratulations, you’ve got either green or Oolong Tea.

If the leaves are actually pea-shaped little balls, it’s known as “gunpowder tea”. That isn’t a particular variety, it just describes how it is packed. This is primarily a Chinese method of preparing it, and only used for green or Oolong (not black).

Determining whether it’s green or Oolong depends on what it looks like and the flavor. Green tea leaves have not been fermented before drying. Black tea leaves have. Oolong tea describes anything in between - partially fermented, but the finished product is closer to green than black. If you compared it directly to green tea you’d probably see the difference - Oolong is slightly darker and the liquor (the color of the tea you drink) is usually more greenish-brown. There’s a lot of variety since Oolong describes a big middle ground.

The biggest distinction of green tea is in its flavor. It’s much different from black tea, as you’ve no doubt noticed, and it’s also the biggest difference between it and Oolong. Good, fresh green tea has a strong vegetal taste and smell. Oolong tea is similar in taste, but usually subtler. (In my opinion Oolong lacks the best qualities of green or black).

If I had to guess, I would say you have green tea since you said used ‘salad’ to describe it. It doesn’t much matter as long as you like it.

How to prepare it:

It’s best to steep it in a pot so the leaves can unfurl. One with strainer on the spout is the easiest if you have it, or you could use a French press. Lacking that, just make it in one cup and strain to another.

In general, and especially for green tea, you should not use water at the boiling point, which will make it quite bitter. Unless you like the astringency. Whole leaf non-black tea like this can steep for a few minutes longer if you want. I’d experiment with 3-8 minutes to see what you prefer.

It will contain caffeine, but not as much as something like Lipton. This has little to do with whether it’s green or black; caffeine amount depends largely on how much the leaves are broken up.

Green tea is usually enjoyed with a meal (common in China and Japan), or you can have it on its own for relaxing. I don’t recommend sweetening, and adding milk would just be bizarre.