What Is Green Tea?

A Guide to Buying and Brewing Green Tea

Japanese green tea being poured from teapot into cup

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In the West, green tea is nowhere near as popular as black tea. Green tea is the most popular type of tea in Japan and in parts of China, and it is gaining popularity in the West.

What Is Green Tea?

Green tea is a type of tea that is harvested and then quickly preserved. Whereas black tea leaves are allowed to oxidize after they are picked, green tea leaves are immediately heated to prevent oxidation. Oxidation is a natural process. It's the same thing that happens when you slice an apple and it begins to turn brown and taste sweeter as it is exposed to oxygen.
Green teas are processed with either steam heat or with dry heat (such as pan firing, which is similar to stir-frying in a wok, or a quick baking process in an oven). This processing is different from the processing for other tea types, including black tea, oolong tea, white tea and pu-erh tea.

What Does Green Tea Taste Like?

Depending on where they were grown, how they were processed, when they were harvested, etc., good green teas can have a range of tastes. Common descriptors for good quality green tea include: sweet, bittersweet, nutty, vegetal, buttery, floral, swampy, fruity, and oceanic. Steamed green teas tend to taste bittersweet (especially in the aftertaste), while other green teas tend to taste sweet.

How Do I Pick the Best Green Tea Type?

There are many types of green tea to pick from. While some green teas are available at your average grocery store, these tend to be low quality, heavily blended teas that are not very fresh. Some high-end grocery stores (like Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca) and specialty grocery stores (like Japanese or Chinese grocers) carry better green teas, as do most online and brick-and-mortar tea shops.

Finding good quality green tea is only one of the factors involved in finding a green tea you will like (or even love). You might find that you prefer only flavored green teas, steamed green teas or roasted green teas, or that you like a variety of types of green tea.

If you want to order from an online tea vendor or buy from a local tea shop, try starting off with a green tea sampler. Some tea shops also offer brewed samples of tea or let customers order pots or cups of tea to test them out, and this is another good way to test your flavor preferences. Don't be afraid to ask questions to figure out which green teas are best for you—most reputable tea shops want you to end up with a tea you love and are glad to help you find it.

If you'd rather buy green tea from a grocery store, try checking out a few different brands and types. If you can find a knowledgeable staff member, try asking a few questions, but know that you probably won't get nearly as much information as you'd get from a tea shop.

How Do I Make Green Tea?

Many people who think they don't like green tea have simply never tried good green tea that has been prepared correctly. A common mistake in brewing green tea is using boiling water. While it's generally okay to use boiling water to make black tea, using boiling water for green tea can turn even the best leaves into a bitter, nasty mess. Most green teas are best when steeped at around 150 to 180 F, which is only simmering.

It's also important to avoid steeping your green tea too long, as over-steeping will also make your green tea undrinkably bitter. Some teas (especially steamed Japanese green teas) should only be steeped for 20 or 30 seconds, while others (like Jasmine Pearls green tea) can handle up to four minutes of steeping.

As green tea infusion temperatures and times vary, check your tea's packaging or ask your tea vendor for more detailed brewing instructions.

Can I Add Milk & Sugar to Green Tea?

In general, you shouldn't add milk and sugar to green tea for two reasons. First, it's not usually as tasty as black tea with milk and sugar. Second, you negate some of the benefits by adding milk and sugar. If you like green tea with milk and sugar, and you don't mind that green tea with milk and sugar is less healthy than green tea without milk and sugar, then go ahead and add them!