How to prepare Japanese green tea

Posted Jun 4, 2007 by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
Because of the often exaggerated health claims in the media, more and more people have started to buy Japanese green tea, but very few people know how to prepare it.
Japanese teapot  filter  cups and tea.
Japanese teapot, filter, cups and tea.
Photo by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
There are several types of tea, such as black tea, oolong tea and green tea among others. Black tea is made of fermented tea leaves. Virtually immediately after harvesting, the leaves start to ferment and discolour (blacken) to become black tea. Green tea is made of unfermented tea leaves. The fermentation is stopped by steaming them for a short time and then quickly drying them. Hence their beautiful green colour.
All tea is made from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, sometimes also called Thea sinensis. There are, however, countless varieties and cultivation methods that result in different tastes, not to mention the effect of different micro-climats and harvesting methods.
There are many different types of Japanese green tea. The most important ones are bancha (番茶), the lowest quality for normal daily use, lower and higher quality sencha (煎茶) with a more beautiful colour, more fragrant and a delicate taste and gyokuro (玉露), an exceptional tea for special occasions.
In years past, genuine Japanese green tea was hard to find. The only stores to carry it were Japanese stores, and there aren’t very many of those. Health food stores were another possible source, but the quality of the tea sold in these stores was invariably the lowest of the low, in spite of the very high prices charged.
Since (largely speculative and unproven) health claims regarding green tea have become popular news items in the media, more and more people have started to drink green tea. Not because they like it, but because they think it is good for their health. As a result, we have seen Japanese green tea appear in mainstream grocery stores in the last few years, albeit usually of low quality.
For the most part, Japanese green tea remains nevertheless a once-in-a-while-is-more-than-enough phenomenon. Most people hate it because it tastes horrible. This is a pity, because Japanese green tea is one of the greatest drinks in the world. It is fragrant, tasty and sweet and it doesn’t contain any calories worth mentioning.
Most visitors of genuine Japanese restaurants have probably tasted a green tea that is indeed fragrant, tasty and sweet and many of them are puzzled why they can’t duplicate this taste at home. The reason is as simple as it looks: they don’t know how to prepare it.
When we hear the word tea, we think of English black tea, the type we pour boiling water over to let it steep for approximately five minutes. This is how most people prepare Japanese green tea. Once you’ve tried it, you understand why this is usually a once-in-a-while-is-more-than-enough experience. The taste is truly horrible and its bitterness often unbearable. Japanese green tea is a very delicate product and it needs to be treated that way.
The general rule for preparing Japanese green tea is: the lower the quality, the higher the temperature and the shorter the steeping time. Inversely, for higher quality teas, the temperature is lower and the steeping time is longer. For the lowest quality teas, a temperature of 90C to 95C is used in combination with a steeping time of no more than 30 seconds. For the highest quality teas, a temperature of 50C with a steeping time of about 120 to 150 seconds should do the trick.
The quantity of tea is largely a matter of taste, but a good rule of thumb is to use about 2 grams per person for the higher qualities and about 3 grams per person for the lower qualities.
Because of the low temperature of the water, it is necessary to pre-warm the teapot and preferably also the cups. The easiest way to do this is to pour hot water in the teapot and in the cups in which the tea is going to be poured. The water that is going to be used for the tea is poured in a “water cooler”. In Japan, special water coolers can be bought, but a ceramic cup is just as acceptable.
After waiting long enough for the temperature to come down to the desired level, the water in the teapot and the cups is thrown out. The tea leaves are then put in the pot and the water from the cooler is poured over the leaves. After steeping for a number of seconds, the tea is poured out. It is important not to use more water than will be used for the first cup. If water remains in the pot after pouring, it is best to discard it immediately after pouring, because the second time you pour the tea, it will be too bitter.
After enjoying a first cup, the tea is reused by filling the pot with enough hot water to pour a second, a third… cup. Every time, the water can be slightly warmer. Usually, the first pouring has the best fragrance, while the second pouring will have the best taste. If you really want the best taste and fragrance right away, a trick is to drip some 60C water over the leaves, a little bit, just enough to wet the leaves, and then to wait for about 30 to 60 seconds before pouring the rest of the water.
Tea sold in teabags is usually junk. In order to truly experience a nice Japanese green tea, one *must* buy a package or a tin of high quality leaves. Unfortunately, these are still hard to find outside Japan. Your best bet is a Japanese store, and then to ask the store owners what tea they recommend. If you are in Toronto, your best bets are Ozawa in Richmond-Hill and Sanko in Toronto.
It is also best to use a genuine Japanese teapot. A Japanese teapot is usually fairly wide and flat. This allows for more air contact. Japanese teapots also come with a large metal filter that looks like a fine-meshed sieve. The tea leaves are put in this filter before pouring water over them. This allows for easy cleaning, of course, but it also allows free contact of the water with the leaves, since they can“swim”freely in the space of the filter.
It is very important to keep the pot and the filter meticulously clean. If you do not keep them clean, the taste of the tea will be affected. Also, the filter will clog up over time.
French press and Japanese tea cups - Photo by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
French press and Japanese tea cups - Photo by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
If you do not have a Japanese teapot, you can also use a French press. Pre-warm the container, put the leaves in, pour the water, let steep for the desired length of time, press down and pour. It is a modern way to achieve virtually the same result as with a Japanese teapot. The mesh in a good French press is even smaller than that in a Japanese teapot. Therefore, cleanliness is even more important, albeit mainly because the filter will clog up really fast.
The Japanese are a practical people. It is also possible to buy empty teabags that can be filled with whatever tea leaves one likes. These are not easily available in the West and on top of that, they are definitely not as desirable as a teapot with a good filter.
Japanese tea cups - Photo by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
Japanese tea cups - Photo by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
Japanese teacups exist in many shapes, sizes and colours. There aren’t any real reasons to use them. Any cup will do. For high quality teas, a white interior is adviseable since it allows one to enjoy the beautiful light green colour. Lower quality teas are usually yellow, so a cup with a coloured interior is no objection.
I have come to like Japanese teacups and only my lack of space is preventing me from starting a collection. The two white cups are my personal favourites. I received them as a gift from a very good Japanese friend. They are porcelain cups made by Noritake and they depict scenes from“Tonari no Totoro”(My neighbour Totoro) a hugely popular animation movie, so they are a Japanese equivalent of Western porcelain cups with say, Mickey Mouse or Bambi.
The health benefits of Japanese green tea are questionable at best. Some information about the health benefits can he found here. People who drink green tea for their health are misguided. My advice is to properly prepare it and enjoy it, and to disregard the health claims. And hey, you never know, it is just might be good for you as well. It would be a nice side-effect, just not a likely nor an important one.