Green tea has a long tradition in Japanese culture. Famously, the centuries-old practice of the Japanese tea ceremony — still common today — revolves around ritualistic preparations and presentation of green tea. While tea ceremony has a set of strict rules, learning how to make this healthy Japanese beverage will certainly impress company.
Although green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, like black and oolong tea, these leaves do not undergo the withering and oxidation processes that most tea experiences. Within the green tea family, there is a variety of subcategories depending on the type of C. sinensis used and the variables in horticultural practices and processing.
Varieties of green tea include gyokuro, which is covered with shade for the final month before harvest; matcha, powdered tea (more on this later); sencha, sun-grown tea; genmaicha, sencha with roasted rice; guricha, a rare, sweet tea; hojicha, a mild, roasted tea; bancha, a weak-tasting tea; and kukicha, a lighter, nutty tea.
Green tea leaves are more delicate than oxidized teas like black and oolong, so be sure to store them carefully to maintain freshness. Purchase small amounts of leaves that you will use in a timely manner, and always store them in a dark, airtight, odor-free environment away from the elements. An airtight steel canister known as a chazutsu is ideal.
It may seem unimportant, but the water you use can have a big effect on tea. Using soft water — as opposed to tap water that has lots of minerals in it — is best because hard water can change the taste of the tea. If you have to use hard water, be sure to boil it for several extra minutes to help remove traces of chlorination.
The hotter the water, the stronger the tea. However, overly hot water can burn the leaves. Ideally, water should be about 176 F when you steep your leaves, with higher-grade teas closer 158 F. This allows the sweetness from the L-theanine to remain in the brew without the associated astringency of tannin and bitterness of caffeine.
Now it’s time to nail down your tea-making technique. A Japanese-style teapot is, unsurprisingly, ideal for making Japanese green tea. If you don’t have one, use a mesh strainer to strain the loose leaves out of the tea. A good rule of thumb is around 2 heaping teaspoons of tea per cup of water.
Brew the leaves for about 30 seconds; that’s all you’ll need for most types of green tea leaves. Note that gyokuro, however, requires 2–3 minutes at a lower temperature, around 130 F. This allows one to fully appreciate the flavor and characteristic sweetness of L-theanine. The longer you brew the leaves, the stronger, bitter and astringent the tea will become.
To serve, merely pour out all of the water into tea cups without shaking the teapot and lift the lid briefly to release steam and prepare the wet leaves for a second infusion, if desired. For a second steeping, use hotter water and a briefer time, as the leaves will already be unfurled.
Made by grinding up whole tea leaves, matcha powder is whisked into hot water instead of steeped. If you wish to make matcha, invest in the proper equipment. Use a chashaku to scoop about 1.5 teaspoons of matcha powder into 2 ounces of hot water, then whisk with a chasen, a purpose-built bamboo whisk, into a frothy texture.