Shincha Season Begins!
A few (thousand) notes on green tea:
- Sencha is the loose-leaf variety of tea, as opposed to Matcha, which is the powdered green tea of chanoyu.
- Really good green tea cannot be found on the shelves of your local grocery shelf; that stuff is shite (believe me, I've tried them all) so don't waste your money. Pay a few extra bucks to get real green tea flavor, straight from Japan.
- There is a distinct difference between Japanese green tea and green tea from other countries. Among other Japanese tea growing techniques, the tea is not fermented; it is steamed immediately after harvesting, then air-dried and packaged in air-tight foil envelopes or containers. It is then refrigerated until sold to keep the flavor bright and fresh.
- The highest grade of loose green tea is called "gyokuro". Gyokuro tea bushes are covered with reed screens a few weeks before harvesting. Growing in diluted sunlight, the level of chlorophyll stored in the leaves is increased, producing a mild, sweet taste. Only the top leaf buds are used, which are picked by hand. Lower grades are comprised of the second and third set of leaves and maybe some stems. I don't drink gyokuro on a regular basis, as it's pretty expensive. However, I will be springing for a high-grade gyokuro this year during shincha season!
- A good medium-priced tea for everyday drinking is sencha (like my Fukamushi cha) and it comes in all grades and varies from deep green to a greenish-yellow in the cup. There are some senchas that are combined with lower-level leaves and stems from gyokuro bushes, but I haven't tried any of those yet.
- The temperature of the water used to brew green tea is very important (as is the quality of the water itself) and depends on the style of the green tea being used. Suffice it to say, NEVER use boiling water! You'll just scald the leaves and end up with a crappy, bitter cup.
- Only make as much tea as you can drink; you don't want your tea leaves standing in water and getting bitter while you finish off that first cup. The amount of time the leaves should be steeped depend on the style of tea and can vary from 1 minute to 5; anything longer will result in bitter tea - blech! For the money you'll be paying for quality sencha, you want to be very attentive while brewing. Don't run off and forget it!
- If you're buying tea from a good tea merchant, you'll receive instructions for proper brewing time and temperature for that particular tea. Use those instructions as a baseline, but try experimenting as well. I like my tea a little stronger than "normal" so I use a little more tea and steep it just a little longer. Remember, it's your money and your tea, so make it how you like it!
- You should get 2-3 infusions per batch of tea, sometimes more. At each stage, the tea reveals different flavor notes; it's like drinking a different tea each time. My favorite is the second infusion, after the leaves have already been wetted. It's the strongest cup of the batch - oishii!
- A good way to get aquainted with green tea is to try the green tea sampler at http://www.adagio.com. It's an inexpensive way to try several different styles of green tea from all over the world. Their ingenuiTEA tea pot is the most brilliant and un-fussy tea infuser I've found; I swear by it! Put the tea in, pour the water, let it steep, then place it on the rim of your cup: the tea drains from the bottom, nice, neat, no mess at all. I keep one at work and one a home. There's even a 32 oz version so you can share the love...
- Traditionally, one does not add cream (gross!) sugar or sugar substitutes to green tea. However, often green tea will be accompanied by a sweet of some sort, to offset the astringency of the tea. But really, it's up to you. You'll get the most health benefits by drinking it sans additives.
- Other types of sencha to try:
- Houjicha - roasted green tea, it actually looks like black tea in the cup and has an interesting, smokey taste. I've read that the roasting of the leaves reduces the caffeine present in the green tea leaves, already quite low, compared to coffee, and is good for evening drinking. But don't let that fool ya...this stuff WILL keep you up.
- Genmai-cha - sencha mixed with puffed rice; another interesting flavor.
Since I transitioned from coffee to tea, my usual tea of choice has been the organic Fukamushi cha from Shizuoka @ http://www.japanesegreenteaonline.com/. It's amazingly fresh and sweet, and a gorgeous jade green color in the cup. I drink roughly 24 ozs of it every day and it keeps me humming all day long, without the jitters or sour stomach that too often results with coffee. Their shincha should be posted soon.
Another great site I have found for tea is http://www.o-cha.com. Lots of good tea, I have found their iced green tea bags make excellent tea for a hot summer day. Good price, too.
Another good site is http://www.zencha.net/. Their selection of shincha is already posted and due to start shipping by the first of May. I'm going to try them out this month. They're a bit expensive: their best sencha is about $35 /100 gm, about twice what I normally pay. We'll see how good it really is!
The number of green tea sellers on ebay have popped up recently:
yansifugel - Tried them for the price, but their tea was just "OK". Not active since Jan 05.
ytcimports - Haven't tried them yet
satisfaction100 - LARGE selection, will try them soon
magosdream - mostly matcha (powdered green tea)
I was lead to believe the the best green tea comes from the areas around Uji and Shizuoka, but my Sensei disabused me of that notion. According to her, the very BEST green tea originates from Kyushu, which just happens to be the area where full-scale tea growing was started back around 800AD. Growers there usually end up selling their harvest to the wholesalers in Shizuoka, who then apply the Shizuoka appellation to the product. Sensei told me to look for Yamaguchi tea from Kyushu. I'll let you know as soon as I find an online source for it.
Why go on and on and on about green tea? Because green tea helps keep you "genki" - healthy & vigorous. It's full of cancer-fighting compounds (catechins & polyphenols) and, in the case of matcha, can actually help with weight loss. It tastes good and makes you feel good. Try it for a week or two in place of your coffee - you may never go back.