What You Should Know About Green Tea

published Apr 28, 2014
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(Image credit: Emily Han)

There’s black tea and there’s green tea, but within each of these categories is a vast and flavorful array of different varieties. Today we’re looking at green tea, what it is, how much caffeine it really has, and some of the most popular kinds from China and Japan. If you’ve been sipping just one or two types of green tea, you may be surprised at how many other kinds there are to explore.

What is green tea?

Green tea is widely touted for its health benefits (such as antioxidants), and this is nothing new. In fact, green tea was first consumed as a medicinal herb in China over 4,000 years ago. The tea probably made its way to Japan around the 11th century, brought home by Buddhist monks who had studied in China. Eventually it spread to other parts of Asia and the Western world.

Like all true teas, green tea comes from a shrub called Camellia sinensis. The aroma, taste, and color of different green tea varieties may be affected by the species of Camellia and how it was grown, harvested, and processed. Green tea is minimally processed compared to black tea, and thus has a fresher, brighter color and flavor.

In temperate regions, green tea leaves are generally harvested three or four times a year, beginning with first harvest or first flush, moving onto second harvest or second flush, and so on. In tropical areas, the leaves may be harvested year-round. After plucking, the leaves are withered and dried using a variety of methods such as sun-drying, oven-drying, pan-roasting, and steaming. The leaves may also be rolled or twisted into different shapes before final drying.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

Varieties of Green Tea

There are hundreds of varieties of green tea. These are a few of the more popular ones from China and Japan. Green tea is also grown in countries like Korea, Sri Lanka, and India.

Chinese Green Teas

  • Biluochun or Pi Lo Chun (Spring Snail): Grown near fruit trees and rolled into a snail-like spiral. Floral, fruity aroma.
  • Chun Mee (Precious Eyebrow): Rolled into an eyebrow shape. Fruity, somewhat plum-like flavor.
  • Huangshan Maofeng (Yellow Mountain Fur Peak): New buds and leaves grown near the Yellow Mountain range. Mildly sweet flavor.
  • Longjing (Dragonwell): First-flush pan-roasted leaves. Mellow with a toasted chestnut aroma.
  • Lu’an Guapian (Melon Seed): Leave are shaped like melon seeds when they unfurl. Full-bodied and slightly sweet.
  • Taiping Houkui (Peaceful Monkey Leader): Often grown in a more wild manner. Sometimes has an orchid-like aroma.
  • Xinyang Maojian (Green Tip): Plucked from new growth with silvery tips. Delicate, sweet green flavor.
  • Zhu Cha (Gunpowder): Rolled into small pellets that unfurl as they steep. Robust, sweet, and a little smoky.

Japanese Green Teas

  • Sencha: Whole, sun-dried leaves from the first or second harvest. Deep green and moderately bitter.
  • Bancha: Harvested later in the season and may include stems and stalks. Weaker and more astringent than sencha.
  • Genmaicha: Sencha or bancha combined with toasted brown rice (genmai). Savory and nutty.
  • Gyokuro (Jade Dew): Shade grown, hand plucked, and highly prized. Vegetal, sweet, and smooth.
  • Houjicha: Bancha or sencha roasted over charcoal. Toasted grain flavor with little to no astringency.
  • Kabusecha: Sencha grown in the shade, but for less time than Gyokuro. Mildly sweet flavor.
  • Konacha: Made from the dust of sencha or gyokuro. Clean taste, often served alongside sushi.
  • Kukicha (Twig Tea): Made from twigs, stems, and stalks. Mildly nutty, sweet flavor and low astringency.
  • Matcha: Shade grown and usually finely ground. Rich, vegetal flavor. Can also be used to impart color and flavor in cooking.

Caffeine in Green Tea

Although green tea typically has less caffeine than black tea, this is not always the case. Caffeine content may vary depending on the plant varietal, processing, and brewing methods. Shade-grown teas and teas made from tips and buds generally have higher caffeine levels. Teas made from mature leaves, twigs, and stems generally have lower caffeine levels. According to the Mayo Clinic, the caffeine content of green tea ranges from 24 to 40 milligrams per cup.