Chinese Green Tea: The Comprehensive Guide
Learn about Green Tea, its varietals, where it's grown, how to properly brew it, and discover tasting notes.
Looking to brush up on your green tea knowledge? Our expert guide will give you a quick, but comprehensive, understanding of Chinese green tea.
You’ll be brought up to speed on the history of green tea, how and when the tea is picked (and why that matters), how to brew green tea and more.
After you’re done reading, be sure to see our tea fundamentals page for our expert guides on the other categories of tea.
The History of Green Tea
Green tea is the oldest form of tea as a standalone beverage.
Its processing method, history and culture is unparalleled by any other tea in Chinese history.
From the Han Dynasty (202BC－220AC) to the abolition of pressed tribute teas by the Hong Wu Emperor (Zhu Yuan Zhang) in 1391, green tea was THE TEA.
Even after the emergence of five additional categories of tea, green tea remains the most studied and refined tea of China, offering us a glimpse of tea as an extravagant form of art since the Han Dynasty.
What is Green Tea?
By definition, green tea is not fermented, however, in reality, enzymes metabolize naturally as soon as the leaves are picked and a micro amount of fermentation is unavoidable.
After the leaves are picked from the trees, they are left sitting under shade for a few hours to let the surface moisture evaporate.
The best green tea leaves are treated very carefully, so they are not bruised or damaged during this process. You can see in the video below how a tea master gathers the leaves after the brief wilting.
Then, the fresh picked leaves are treated with high heat to kill the enzymes present, preserving the tea in its freshest state.
The result of all this hard work is the green tea retains most of the tea leaves' original properties and taste, and is the most astringent category.
Based on processing style, there are 4 sub-categories of green tea.
The 4 sub-categories of Green Tea
Chao Qing and Hong Qing are the most common green teas, with Chao Qing almost always stronger than Hong Qing.
Most green teas involve a shape making process where the membranes of the leaves are hand-rubbed for even contact with the heat source, usually resulting in a stronger taste.
A loose leaf tea without the shape making step or a loose leaf tea that takes on a free-style shape is referred to as Mao Feng – also being a Hong Qing green, Mao Feng is the mildest green tea.
Here you can see a chart of the Chinese shapes (Bian Ping Xing, Luo Xing, Tiao Xing, Zhen Xing, Zhu Xing, Pian Cha, and Jian Xing) with their English translations, as well as example teas. Many of which you can find in our shop.
Green Tea Picking Grades:
The most common picking styles of green tea are one bud and one leaf or one bud and two leaves, as you can see below.
However, picking time during the season is a major factor to the quality and price of the resulting loose leaf tea.
The cooler the microclimate is for the tea region, the later the tea season starts, and the more desirable the loose leaf tea is.
However, this is not to be confused with a late-picked loose leaf tea, because higher-quality tea is picked early (but not too early) during its growth cycle.
What is Qing Ming and why does it matter?
Qing Ming is one of the 24 points in Chinese farming calendar that falls between April 4th and April 6th, depending on the year.
The point is commonly understood as the cut-off date for harvesting the most prized green teas with the picking grade regarded as pre-Qing Ming or Ming-Qian.
In fact, the date is only relevant to teas produced in the Jiang Su and Zhe Jiang tea regions and the date should not be viewed as an absolute parameter for judging the tea’s picking quality.
Chinese ancient wisdom suggests that it usually rains on Qing Ming.
After the rain, the temperature rises and the tea tree’s buds grow much faster, therefore lacking the necessary time for the leaves to develop its complexity.
This is why people are interested in the picking date.
Leaves in warmer climate also tend to develop rougher tannins, which give the tea a harsher mouth feel and more bitterness.
Because the northern tea regions of China, where green tea is harvested, has varying climates, Qing Ming doesn’t apply to many well-known green teas such as Gua Pian, Yun Wu, etc, but the same core concepts still apply.
Green Tea Varietals:
Other than the location - which is fundamentally important for achieving a desired microclimate - and the picking time, a key factor contributing to the resulting tea is the varietal.
Different varietals bud at different times and late budding varietals are more desired than earlier ones.
Although the greatest chance to encounter the traditional technique and indigenous varieties are in the green tea regions, as a category, green teas are also the most “infested” with clone varietals for increased yield and stability.
Old varieties bud late and offer more complex flavor while new varietals are designed to bud much earlier, with a one-dimensional flavor profile.
One of the greatest myths in green tea is that the earlier the tea is produced, the better the tea is.
The truth is, many earlier picked teas are clone varietals from plantations, likely with the assistance of fertilizer.
Below is a list of dates for some of the most well known green teas’ harvest season for the indigenous varietals.
How to Properly Brew Green Tea
In China, surprisingly, green tea is usually drunk directly out of the glass cup that it is brewed in.
Some find the floating tea leaves that inevitably find their way into the mouth bothersome, and resort to using teapots.
The key to brewing green tea is to avoid covering the vessel.
To further ensure that heat does not get trapped during brewing, a thin-walled vessel is preferred.
Since green teas are the freshest loose leaf teas, watching the leaves unfold into its natural shape is a part of the green tea drinking experience.
Therefore, glass fairness pitchers and thinly walled white porcelain pitchers are the preferred vessels for green tea brewing.
Two open vessels are used: one vessel is for brewing while the other is to receive the brewed liquid before it passes through a filter.
The best way to appreciate the aroma of green tea is to lightly shake the dry leaves in the empty brewing vessel after the glass has been heated by hot water.
To cool down the temperature of the water, it can be transferred back and forth between the two vessels.
One of the trickiest parts of brewing green tea is to find the ideal water temperature – given that the tea is never covered.
Green Tea Brewing Temperatures
The temperature used for brewing green tea is closely related to its picking grade and making style – the earlier the picking is and the more the tea has been rubbed, the lower the water temperature.
One common practice is to brew bad tea at a lower temperature to dilute its flaws.
While a late-picked tea should be brewed at a higher temperature to bring out its true flavor profile, using lowered temperature can result in flatter but less astringent tea. Below is a list of teas and corresponding temperature guideline.
Water should be poured into the loose leaf tea around the edges of the vessel with the goal being to completely moisten the loose leaf tea leaves with minimal disturbance.
Green tea usually takes 2-3 minutes to brew. Always leave some water, keeping the leaves submerged before refilling for the next brew, to prevent the tea from further oxidizing.
Green tea usually produces three to four brews, with the second brew being the strongest.
Green Tea Tasting Notes
Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun
Small and tender, but delivering one of the sharpest tastes in green tea, Bi Luo Chun does not taste as delicate as the leaves look.
Bi Luo Chun has a warm and fuzzy mouthfeel from its hairy buds, with notes of toasted rice and flowers.
To receive its signature spiral shape, Bi Luo Chun is very tender and has been rubbed heavily by hand during the making process.
Because of this, a green tea brewing method called Shang Tou (top-down) is used.
On the first brew, we place the tea leaves into the water instead of pouring water over the leaves.
A well-made Bi Luo Chun should sink to the bottom right away.
An early spring Bi Luo Chun is expected to clog the strainer with tea hair from the second brew on.
Learn more (and taste) Bi Luo Chun here.
Xi Hu Long Jing (Dragon Well)
Since the Qing Dynasty, no tea has enjoyed fame comparable to Long Jing.
Often regarded as the King Tea of China, knock-offs of this famous tea are so common that a majority of the Long Jing sold on the market is fake.
Because Long Jing was regarded highly by generations of tea connoisseurs, its desired locations have long been ranked.
The true origin of Long Jing is Xi Hu or West Lake. Within Xi Hu, the ranking goes Shi (Lion), Long (Dragon), Yun (Cloud), Hu (Tiger), Mei (Plum).
Long Jing is strong but unlike the sharpness of Bi Luo Chun, Long Jing is blunt.
A textbook description of Long Jing’s flavor profile is roasted chestnuts.
While nuttiness is a prominent flavor trait of Long Jing, well made Long Jing also has floral notes with plenty of refined tannins.
Learn more (and taste) Long Jing here.
Xin Yang Mao Jian
Mao Jian is the name - refering to the pointy shape - of a baked dry green tea.
While there are many Mao Jian among Chinese teas, the most well known are Xin Yang Mao Jian and Du Yun Mao Jian.
Due to the location's relatively north latitiude, Xin Yang Mao Jian's prime harvesting time is in the second half of April. Xin Yang Mao Jian also goes through a vigorous rolling process to make the shape tight and pointy, which makes it stronger than other bake dry green teas.
Though in He Nan Province, these tea mountains are still part of the Da Bie Mountain range, giving it similar thick and sugary undertones with Lu An Gua Pian and Huo Shan Huang Ya.
Che Yun Shan (chariot cloud mountain) is one of the top 10 terroirs for this tea.
Che Yun Shan is actually also where He Nan and Hu Bei border, home of two villages with the exact same name, both named after the mountain, but belonging to two different provinces.
The He Nan side (Xin Yang) is regarded as better therefore demands higher price.
Learn more (and taste) Mao Jian here.
Lu Shan Yun Wu
Yun Wu means cloud and fog.
Grown in one of the coldest and cloudiest tea regions among all teas, Fog Tea is an appropriate name for Yun Wu.
In the old days, there was a saying that tea loves Yin, not Yang, and there's no tea region we have visited that is more Yin than Lu Shan.
Yun Wu originates from this scenic mountain, with the top micro-lot being Xiao Tian Chi with over 3000 feet in elevation.
It is extremely foggy year round and at all times throughout the day, not just in the mornings.
For a tea region that is relatively north, this elevation is impressive – that tea can survive this extreme climate is a miracle.
Lu Shan Yun Wu remains as one of the "tribute" teas in China with selected bathces reserved for high officials and visiting diplomats.
Well-made Yun Wu is savory and floral, with lingering flower notes and sweetness. It's showy profile grants it passionate likings and aversions.
Learn more (and taste) Yun Wu here.
Lu An Gua Pian
Contemporary tea from a historical tea region, Gua Pian is still made with impressive ancient techniques and picking style, making it one of the most distinct teas of China.
Being the only green tea with only leaves and no stems nor buds, Gua Pian is surprisingly not astringent.
The unique La Da Huo (Puling the Big Fire) step offers the tea a pleasant toasty flavor that compliments its grassy umami taste and bold sugary undertone.
The indigenous varieties of Gua Pian is humbly called Ben Cha (stupid tea) by locals and buds much later than the clone of the varietals; they are virtually two different tea seasons.
Learn more (and taste) Gua Pian here.
Tai Ping Hou Kui
With a leaf length of over 70mm, Hou Kui is the largest green tea.
It is made with a big-leaf varietal called Shi Da, highly unusual for a green tea.
There is no tea more tedious to make than Hou Kui.
Every single leaf of this tea is individually hand pressed and if you look closely, you can see the pattern of the fabric in the leaves!
Hou Kui is grassier and significantly more floral than the other green teas.
Many people become fans of this tea not only for its umami and fresh taste, but also for its elegant dance in the glass.
China has a history of giving our best teas as national gift to visiting dignitaries.
Hou Kui has historically been known, it has found renewed fame in recent years when it reached the status of a national gift.
Though there's no official confirmation of this status, the legend was widespread enough for Hou Kui to demand the highest price out of green teas for almost a decade.
The true origin of Hou Kui is Tai Ping country, with Hou Keng (Monkey Dip) hailed as the top terroir.
Other notable terroirs include Lu Xi Keng, Yan Jia Lu, Hou Gang, and San Men Ling.
Hou Kui is one of the latest harvested green teas of China due to colder climate as well as shape requirement.
It is usually harvested end of April in a 10 day period.
The genuine Hou Kui is always darker than the machine-flattened Hou Kui which is light green and usually harvested using empty buds.
Learn more (and taste) Hou Kui here.
Huang Shan Mao Feng
Huang Shan is one of the most magnificently beautiful mountains in the world and its tea has long been ranked among China's best.
Though the history of Huang Shan tea can be traced as far back as around 1050 AD, it's not until the 1500's that it has gained popularity and fame.
Huang Shan tea at the time was called Huang Shan Yun Wu.
There's a time gap between the Huang Shan Yun Wu and this Huang Shan Mao Feng, but due to the defined location of Huang Shan, Mao Feng is generally viewed as the continuation of the celebrated Yun Wu (which is not to be confused with Lu Shan Yun Wu).
Unlike most of China's traditional teas where there's a shape-making step during the making, Mao Feng is "free style".
The leaves naturally curl up to a "bird tongue" shape due to the high temperature, making Mao Feng one of the hardiest and fluffiest green teas.
Mao Feng is also quite savory.
It's one of the mildest green teas with an almost unusual tenderness for its category.
The earlier the picking is, the lighter the color of both the dry leaves and made tea is.
The buds are significantly smaller in earlier picks (more desired) and curl more naturally due to higher moisture content.
Learn more (and taste) Mao Feng here.
Continue your Tea Education
By now you’ve learned what makes Green Tea one of the most popular categories of tea in the world.
But your tea education is only just starting.
Here are some other resources to continue learning about true tea.
Our Visual History of Tea article.
The Thorough Tea Brewing Guide.
Our Green Tea Shop (packed with information.)
And finally, our YouTube channel.
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