Confession… I’ve always wanted to like Green Tea, but have almost always failed. Apart from the Yamamotoyama bags that we buy in Mitsuwa, Chicago, it always seemed, literally, too fishy to me… an overpowering taste of seaweed and greens that I struggled to enjoy. What better challenge, therefore, to start our journey to better understand Chinese tea? No surprises, a trip to the spiritual heart of 80% of the world’s production of green tea changed my mind…
In Mid-April we took a family holiday in Hangzhou. Although not widely known outside of China, Hangzhou was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and likely the largest city in the world during the same time. Anyone familiar with Chinese currency will recognize Hangzhou’s most famous landmark; The West Lake, from the 1 Yuan note. Apart from being a UNESCO world heritage site and major center of Buddhism in China, it is home to the most famous of all Green Teas; Longjing. Fitting with the history of Hangzhou, green tea has the longest history in China, being the tea that was consumed for the majority of 4,000 years until oxidized teas came to prominence.
There are a number of harvesting seasons (“flushes”) during the year – the Spring flush is broken into three. As with many things in the countryside in China, it is defined based on the lunar calendar – leaves picked in late March (the fifth solar term “pure brightness”) are called “empress”), early April (Pre-Qingming), “before-rain” and “after rain” (Yu Qian). There are subsequent harvests in Summer and Autumn, but these are not as valued as the Spring picking. Harvesting is extremely intensive. Not only are the leaves picked by hand, but the trees are tended throughout the entire picking period (190 to 200 days of the year). During this time the leaves on a single tree may give up to 22 pickings. There are 8 to 9 times pickings in Spring and, if it’s good weather, leaves may reappear within 3 days.
Blanca will say it’s the Protestant in me, but my favorite part of the entire trip also happened to be completely free. We were traveling along the road and saw some ladies working in the field. Our guide pulled over and we went to meet them. Whilst the men tend to maintain the trees, the women are responsible for the harvesting. We were lucky, we had travelled to the best place in China for green tea at the best time of the year for harvesting. Matilde tried her hand picking. Initially she was convinced that the bigger the leaf the better, but after a few attempts of putting them into the one lady’s basket, she began to understand that the smaller the better. In the case of Longjing, only a couple of leaves on the stem are picked. Leaves should be no longer than 2 centimeters. The smallest leaves are left for the next picking, allowing them to germinate and produce more leaves.
First, a little bit of science – there are 6 main teas; the light, pale, delicate, natural vegetable flavors of unoxidized teas (white and green), fuller, darker, yet still delicate semi-oxidized teas (yellow and oolong) and, finally, the full, rich, dark, smooth fully-oxidized teas (red (our black) and black (their puer)). As you can see, it is the degree of oxidation of the leaves allowed during processing that controls where, on the spectrum, the tea will reside. Oxidation is the process that starts the minute a leaf is picked; liquid inside the leaf contains enzymes that bond with oxygen and create new chemicals. Oxidation stops when the leaves become either too hot or too dry. The less oxidation that occurs, the more of the natural vegetable flavors remain in the tea; chlorophyll, phenols etc… making green tea the strongest tasting tea in terms of spinach, seaweed and olive flavors.
the 6 catechins (antixodants) + polyphenol oxidase (enzymes) => theaflavins (tannin responsible for yellow color)
the 6 catechins (antixodants) + peroxidase (enzymes) => thearubigins (tannin responsible for reddish color)
chlorophylls => pheophytin pigment (dark color)
lipids, amino acids and carotenoids => flavor and aroma
Green tea is essentially unoxidized. Once they are picked, the leaves are left to wither for a few hours. After that they are hand-fried in large electrical woks at about 250 Celsius. We were invited by a friend, Lei, to visit the “Tea Research Institute of the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hangzhou” (you can tell if it’s Chinese Government institution if the name is unwieldy long). Along with the field of ladies, it was another example of those serendipitous experiences in life… we arrived a little late, but found Wang and Francesca waiting for us. Wang is a PHD student of green tea and Francesca is a master researcher, visiting from Italy researching the DNA origins of some of Italy’s teas. They took us to visit the “factory” in the institute. About 40 people, each with their own wok, “frying green”. You could see the steam rising off the leaves that they were turning in their woks. The leaves’ surfaces are about 60 degrees. Frying stops any further oxidation of the leaves, after which they are fried at a slightly lower temperature and then left to cool. The hand-pressure applied during frying produces and an incredibly flat (distinctive shape for Longjing) leaf, it’s crispy and can be eaten as a snack (a pretty stimulant snack!). From there we visited the fields where the TRI breeds tea – the less mystic side of Chinese agriculture; the famous Longjing clone 43 in all its glory.
In Part II we’ll look at brewing, drinking and selling Green Tea.