2021-07-12 Preparing Japanese green tea for beginners

The other day I posted something about drinking tea on Mastodon and got two replies by people who didn’t know how some people prepare green tea. It reminded me of myself, many years ago. There is no straight forward way to learn this as there is nothing to teach you in the supermarket and I know I don’t look up every item I buy in the supermarket online. I mean, it’s tea, right? Tea is easy: pour boiling water over it, wait for a few minutes, and drink it!

Not necessarily!

I’m not very well versed in these things, but I can at least point you in the right direction, I hope.

First, if you want to try good tea, go to a tea house or tea shop, and have them serve it. If you buy some, ask them how to prepare it. Around here, tea shops usually write a little something on the bag: how many tea spoons of tea per litre, how hot should the water be, for how long should you let it steep. So even if you don’t get to chat with the salespeople, it’s a start.

Good tea is not usually sold in tea bags. Tea in tea bags is not what I’m talking about unless your buying 10g of Gold Medal Gyokuro for CHF 100. Yes, you read that right. Gyokuro is very special tea, and there is a competition such that tea makers set aside a tree or two just for this competition. If they win, they can sell tea for CHF 10,000/kg. That might be about USD 5,000/lb, very roughly? It’s expensive. This is not the tea I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the tea that you can buy for CHF 15/125g up to CHF 40/50g: loose leaf tea. You measure it out using a spoon or by eyeballing it.

The key is that you buy tea and figure out how you like to drink it. There is some experimentation involved: let it steep for longer, or shorter, see how you like it. Don’t open too many teas at once and just learn about the two or three you have open.

Here’s a quick start.

Bancha is simple tea. I like to drink it in the morning, when I’m about to go to work, or when I come home from work. Use water that is 70–80°C, let it steep for a minute or two until you like the taste. A small tang of bitterness, perhaps?

Genmaicha is also simple tea. It’s bancha with roasted popped rice. Same rules apply.

Sencha is delicate tea. I like to drink it in the afternoon as I sit on the couch while I read a book, for example. Use water that is 60–70°C warm and let it steep multiple times. Yes, that’s right: use a small cup since a tea spoon is going to serve three or four cups. If you think of it like that, perhaps you won’t mind the higher price as much.

After the first steeping the tea leaves are “open” and that’s why the second and third steeping is very short. Take a look at the tea colour. It’ll turn a dark green very quickly. If you wait too long, the tea is bitter instead of flowery. Perhaps you like it that way? I don’t. I like the soft fragrance of a delicate tea…

You can repeat this for as long as you like the taste of it. The better the tea, the more often it can be steeped. Maybe up to seven times!

Lastly, Gyokuro is a very delicate tea. The tree is protected from direct sunshine as the harvest comes closer. This allows it to be very delicate and soft, but it also means more work, and therefore a higher price. High water temperature works against the delicate flavour, but at the same time you need warm water to prepare tea. I like to start with water that’s around 50–60°C if I’m preparing Gyokuro tea.

As you can see, the water temperature is important. Only black tea is prepared using water near 100°C! A good rule of thumb is that the lighter and more flowery the tea is, the cooler the water.

When you start to buy green tea, buy a thermometer. Sure, in the old times, people did not have one. They listened to the sizzling of the water, they watched the size of the bubbles, and that works well – after a while. If you enjoy that feeling of utter harmony with your water heater, then great. Perhaps you want to heat water on a coal fire? I know I don’t, so having a thermometer is the right trade off for me. 😄

Steeping tea and a thermometer

Another trick is to bring water very close to boiling, then pour it into a cup, wait for a bit, pour the hot water from the first cup into a second cup, and repeat if you need to. Each time you pour the water into a new cup, the temperature goes down by 10°C. It’s a very rough rule of thumb, but at least it’ll prevent you from pouring boiling water over delicate tea.

Good tea is like good wine: it matters where it comes from. It’s not necessarily the case that tea from this region or that region is strictly better. It’s just different. So I might buy tea from Kyushu or Yame or Zairai and all I know is that they are going to be slightly different. I buy them for variety. It’s not something I try to memorize.

On Wikipedia:

Note that I did not write about Hojicha, Macha, and so on. Maybe some other day.

And with that, I hope you’re enjoying your green tea.


@Sandra wrote in to say the following:

“I use the bubble size method. I had a thermometer that could ring at certain tempetures, but I was sometimes frustrated because it was so laggy. Then it melted in a kitchen accident and I bought a new one that was easier to use, smaller, had a practical magnet etc etc, looked super snazzy... and it was even laggier! Completely useless!

“Also pro tip for tea steeping: it’s not just the temperature itself but the amount of oxygen in the water. As water boiles, oxygen leaves and then it takes hours and hours for it to get back in there. So water that has been boiled and then cooled down to an appropriate temp is no good. It gets bitter.”

– 2021-07-13 07:00 UTC

See also: A Very Quick Introduction to Japanese Tea Brewing, by @rrix.

– Alex 2021-07-13 19:10 UTC

The back of packaged green tea Here’s an example of some Shincha Yame.

Shincha (新茶), “new tea”, represents the first month’s harvest of sencha.Basically, it is the same as ichibancha (一番茶), “the first-picked tea”, and is characterized by its fresh aroma and sweetness.”Ichibancha” distinguishes “shincha” from both “nibancha” (”the second-picked tea”) and “sanbancha” (”the third-picked tea”). – From the Sencha page on Wikipedia

Here’s what it says on the German sticker:

Sencha-do preparation: 5–10g high quality Sencha/Gyokuro, pour approx. 1dl of 50–60°C warm water, let it steep for 45–60s, then pour into your pot; second and third steeping is 20–40s each; fourth steeping depends on your taste and the tea. European preparation: 12g–5 tea spoons/litre, 60–70°C, 3–4min.

I prefer the first option.

– Alex 2021-07-25 12:25 UTC

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