July 12, 2019

Chinese Green Tea: An Introduction to the World's Oldest Brew

Chinese Green Tea: An Introduction to the World's Oldest Brew

One of the loveliest smells in the world is freshly picked Camellia sinensis leaves lying on a bamboo mat, waiting to be tossed in a wok to make tea. Even if I could capture that scent as a perfume, I wouldn’t want to. The bright, floral, grassy aroma that nearly turns the air itself green is a privilege of witnessing the tea-making process, tied to a specific time and place, and too ephemeral to ever trap in a bottle. 

This is the scent that greets you throughout China in April. And in spring and summertime, as the first Chinese green tea lots of the year arrive here in the U.S., this is when the leaves taste and smell their sweetest.

Green tea from China is the oldest form of tea, with production dating back millennia, and to this day it remains one of the most popular. You can now find green teas made all over the world, but there’s something special about Chinese greens that keep me coming back year after year, despite the difficulty and cost that come with obtaining genuine, high-quality lots. 

Maybe it’s the sheer variety: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of regional green tea styles in China, each with its own history and quirks of cultivation and processing. Maybe it’s because that history is constantly in motion: even with famous, centuries-old teas, local tastes and the techniques that shape these leaves continue to evolve. And of course, there’s the tea itself. Chinese greens are a study in contrast; when steeped carefully, the color of the brewed liquor can be practically clear, the aroma delicate and fleeting. Yet the taste and experience is profound—sweet, clean, the sun-dappled essence of springtime, with an aftertaste that lingers in your throat and on your lips. 

Long Jing Tea Factory

Yet many people never get the chance to taste Chinese greens of this quality. Historically, high-end styles like Long Jing (Dragonwell) and Bi Luo Chun were made as tribute gifts to the imperial court, and rarely if ever exported. Today, foreigners have more access to the good stuff, but must compete with an enormous and knowledgeable domestic market. Wealthy Chinese customers pre-order the best lots from historic growing regions months before the season’s first leaves are picked, at prices that can easily climb to thousands of dollars a pound. In a way, the tribute tea tradition is still very much alive—early-harvest green tea is a popular gift for government officials and businesspeople, and frequently functions as a means of greasing palms or granting favors.

As a result, Western drinkers often lack the context or experience to fully appreciate the subtle benefits of Chinese green teas. What makes these teas so special? Why are some so expensive? How to best brew them?

Here is a beginner’s guide to those questions, and several more.

A few key types of Chinese green tea

fresh tea leaves

All green tea production works more or less the same way: 1) use heat to deactivate enzymes in freshly picked leaves so the tea doesn’t oxidize, 2) roll or otherwise manipulate the leaves to give them a uniform shape, 3) and bake them to drive off remaining moisture. Within those steps there are dozens of choices a tea producer can make that will change the outcome of the final batch, and when considering Chinese tea, it can be difficult to categorize these into distinct styles and families. So rather than a comprehensive framework of all of China’s green tea styles, here is a field guide to some common names, and what production techniques distinguish each.

Long jing (Dragonwell)

long jing dragonwell

This is arguably the oldest style of green tea still in continuous production, and certainly China’s most famous. The finished leaves are shaped like flattened feathers, the result of a laborious, small-batch pan-firing method. Infused, the tea has a sweet-pea flavor balanced by a characteristic roasted chestnut aroma; it’s delicate, but thick and buttery, with a long finish. Plucking standards range from one to two leaves and a bud; according to Jason Chen, the author of the seminal tea book Four World-Famous Chinese Green Teas, there are as many as 50,000 buds in a single pound of finished long jing, representing a days’ worth of plucking from five pickers, and six hours of manual processing time.

The tea is made almost entirely in a large, stationary wok. After a brief withering, the leaves are stir-fried by hand to “kill the green,” tea industry speak for deactivating oxidative enzymes. By pressing the leaves against the hot wok, the tea maker begins to form long jing’s unique flattened shape. Once about 70% of the leaves’ moisture is driven out, they’re removed to cool in bamboo baskets, then shaken to sort out any broken leaves. The tea maker then returns the leaves to the wok to refine their shape and completely dry the tea.

Long Jing dates back over 1,200 years to the city of Hangzhou, just south of Shanghai, in a set of villages near the city’s famed West Lake. Because the style is so well-known, regions all over China now make their own versions, and there are no protected-origin laws stopping them from calling it long jing. Some of it is quite good, but true xihu long jing from the West Lake area—especially the venerable Dragon Well Village—is the most prized: for its namesake, yes, but also for the terroir and the multigenerational production knowledge that has been passed down. Limited supply, high demand, and substantial labor costs mean xihu long jing is more expensive than most green teas. 

Bi luo chun

bi luo chun green tea

Like long jing, bi luo chun, or “green snail spring,” is one of China’s tribute teas, and superior grades can reach similarly high prices. It’s also processed in a deep stationary wok, but instead of being shaped into flat quills, it’s rolled by hand into tiny spirals. When steeped, these wee curlicues reveal a complex, creamy, gently nutty aroma that’s less roasty than long jing. The infusion is remarkably thick in the mouth—think barely-set gelatin—with a vegetal flavor that feels rich like steamed asparagus or fresh spring greens with butter.

Bi luo chun also hails from Jiangsu Province, where long jing originated. The plants are harvested early in the spring, when the small leaves are most tender and can be shaped with minimal breakage. You’ll notice these rolled buds are covered with a fine layer of downy hairs; this peach fuzz is a sign of youth and vitality in the leaf, and it contributes to the brew’s voluptuous texture.

Jasmine pearls

jasmine pearls

In southern China, scenting green tea with jasmine blossoms is a common practice. As with all tea, there are low- and high-quality versions of this technique. Large-scale producers toss commodity green tea with jasmine essential oil (real or synthetic) in rotating drums; the oils dissipate quickly, and the tea used for flavoring can be coarse or lacking in flavor. High-end jasmine pearls, on the other hand, are a cultural and aesthetic wonder.

In traditional production, young spring green tea bud and leaf sets are rolled individually by hand into tiny balls, an artisanal skill all its own. Then, the pearls are set aside to await the summer jasmine harvest. The tea is intermingled with the night-blooming jasmine flowers for several evenings—which is when most of its essential oils are released—that may take place over a period of a few weeks, depending on the variable quality of the flowers. The blossoms are carefully removed each morning, leaving the tea redolent of floral sweetness.

The result of this painstaking effort is a delicate, fresh-tasting green tea with an incredible floral fragrance that doesn’t turn bitter with prolonged steeping. By using real jasmine flowers rather than chemical flavorings, the tea’s floral character is potent but not overbearing; perfumed rather than perfume.

Other notable shapes: needles, eyebrows, and pellets

chinese green teas

Long jing leaves are pressed flat; bi luo chun leaves curl and spiral. A number of famous Chinese greens are processed into vertically rolled needles or twisted eyebrows, and often baked in ovens rather than stir-fried in woks.

The exact method used to shape other green teas varies from region to region. Lu’an gua pian leaves, for instance, are relatively flat and oval shaped; their edges curl inward like a cinnamon stick, forming a shape that looks similar to a melon seed, which is how the tea was named. Mao Feng leaves are less rigid; they’re more twisted than rolled, resembling an arched eyebrow. The teas’ subtly distinct characters are a result of individual shaping methods, baking nuances, and natural environment, but all have a fresh and crisp flavor profile, with a balance of verdant and nutty notes. 

One newer example of an eyebrow-shaped tea is our Jade Spring, made in Zhejiang Province, from leaves originally intended for long jing-style production. While still labor intensive, rolled and baked teas can be processed in higher volumes, which means a more affordable tea. Like long jing, this Zhejiang Green has a notable chestnut aroma, but a hot-air processing gives the tea more of a fresh corn character often found in other needle-shaped baked teas.

Other Chinese greens are rolled into tight balls. The most common of these is gunpowder, a green tea made from low-value, late harvest leaves formed into tight pellets (once done by hand, now by machine). Rolling makes the leaves less prone to breakage during transport; this feature, plus gunpowder’s brisk, robust flavor, made it a popular tea for 19th century Western drinkers, and gunpowder remains vital in North African tea culture, where it’s brewed fiercely with plenty of sugar and mint.

You may also come across a strange-looking tea with unusually long, wide leaves, pressed completely flat, as if left under a heavy weight. This is tai ping hou kui, a specialty of Anhui Province that breaks all the green tea rules. Unlike most Chinese greens, it hails from the large-leaf assamica variety, and instead of tender buds, it’s made with larger leaves and tender stems. These are individually laid out on screens and pressed by hand into flat bookmark shapes. The extra manual labor adds considerable cost, but the tea’s striking appearance and floral, grassy flavor have won it many fans.

How to brew Chinese green tea

Chinese greens benefit from steeping with water below boiling, so as to prevent bitterness or astringency. Whether you use a teapot, gaiwan, or basket infuser, we recommend water around 180° F and an infusion time of about 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Thin-walled pots and cups are ideal for Chinese greens, as they won’t cool down the hot water or trap excess heat in the vessel. However, compared to Japanese greens, Chinese green teas are somewhat less sensitive to overbrewing, so experiment with ratios, water temperature, and steeping times to find what works best for you.

The most common method in China is the most simple: a tall, narrow glass with a pinch or two of tea leaves that is filled with hot water. After a minute or so of steeping, most of the tea leaves will have settled to the bottom, and it’s possible to drink straight from the glass using your lips and teeth as a filter. When about half the liquid has been consumed, the glass can be topped off with more hot water. Subsequent steepings may have a thinner texture, but due to the opening of the leaves, a stronger flavor with more potent vegetal notes. Good Chinese green teas can be steeped two or three times to extract a range of flavors, and they’re also deliciously refreshing when iced.

An added benefit of this method is the chance to watch the leaves float and unfurl as they infuse. Chinese producers go to enormous effort to make beautiful-looking tea leaves, and on the specialty market, appearance is one of the attributes you’re paying for. We think the visuals absolutely add to the experience. Consider the way Chen describes a brew of bi luo chun in Four World-Famous Chinese Green Teas:

With a glass cup, admire all around the beautiful dancing leaves. Now use your nose to enjoy the incredible fragrance, like fragrant snow, and use your eyes to admire the “snow within the ocean.” .… Drinking bi luo chun epitomizes the true art and pleasure of tea drinking. It is visual, palate-pleasing, sweet lingering, it lasts so long.

How to store Chinese green tea

As a fleeting taste of the season, Chinese green tea tastes most vibrant in the spring and summer after harvest. If stored well, however, it will retain its freshness for about a year. 

Keep your tea in an airtight container that’s not too large; the less oxygen packed in with the tea, the less the flavor will flatten over time. These glass canisters are handy for keeping headroom at a minimum, but since they’re transparent, the canisters should be kept in a cool, dark place away from sources of light, heat, and strong odors.

At our warehouse, we keep our high-end green teas in cold storage. If you’re planning to store your greens for an extended period of time, you can do the same in a refrigerator, but do ensure the package is tightly sealed (or ideally, unopened) to keep out unwanted fridge odors. It’s also wise to let the tea come back to room temperature before opening the package, to reduce risk of condensation on the leaves.

As with most teas, the best advice we can offer is to savor it quickly, not save it indefinitely!