Part 1, The Golden Triangle
With over 3000 types of green tea produced in China alone, a better question might be 'what is the best green tea for me?'. For when it comes to finding ‘the best’ tea, it all comes down to personal taste and mood. One way to find your favourite green tea is to try them all, but that may take a while. So we'd like to offer an easier solution. Over the next three posts we'll look at the main green types – where and how they're produced, and what influences their character – to help you make an informed choice.
Firstly, what is green tea?Green tea is a class of tea produced predominantly in China and Japan. It is typically made from the spring-harvested leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (aka ‘China bush’ ) tea plant. After harvest, the leaves are processed quickly to prevent oxidation and capture their naturally 'green' character. In China this is typically (and traditionally) done by heating the leaves over fire, while in Japan it is done with steam. Beyond this, there are three principle variations that influence the finished character of a green tea:
- Where the tea is grown (and the particular tea bush cultivar)
- When the tea leaves are harvested (spring or summer)
- The method of final drying used to ‘fix’ the leaves
How is green tea made?The leaves for artisan Chinese green teas are typically plucked in the morning, with harvesting starting in the early spring and going through to early summer (depending on the tea bush cultivar and style of tea being made). Soon after picking, the leaves go through the primary drying stage, which helps ready them for manufacture and prevents oxidation starting. The leaves will then be sorted and left to rest to begin the reduction of their moisture content. While these early steps don't really influence the finished tea's style, even these simple procedures are open to a multitude of regional variations.
Next, the tea leaves go through the 'manufacturing' stage, where the tea's finished style will be determined. The tea artisan's work here involves gently manipulating the leaves so their precious inner sap (aka 'juice') can be released into the water when brewed. It's a finely balanced process, as the sap also needs to be kept from oxidising and losing the leaves' precious 'green tea' character. The Chinese are the undisputed masters of hand – working teas – artisan skills which are handed down through generations. In China, the appearance of tea is almost as important as its taste, so a lot of the tea makers' craft is concerned with the aesthetic presentation of the tea leaves as well as flavour and aroma.
After the handworking stage of manufacture – or as part of it – Chinese green tea goes through the all-important firing stage. Again, there are many techniques here, from the most traditional – simply dried in the sun, or the ancestral and time-consuming basket firing – to the most famous – skilfully pan-fired tea leaves by hand in hot woks – to the more modern methods, such as tumble-drying and oven-drying. This drying, or 'fixing' stage is one of the keys to understanding fine Chinese green teas, as the process brings about distinct flavours and aromas in the finished tea, while letting the artisans express certain characteristics and add layers of secondary flavour.
Where are the best green teas made?Origin is acutely important for artisan green teas, especially in China. This is because a) the ‘terroir’ of a region (it’s climate, geology and topography) greatly influences the character of the tea, and b) because most tea regions have developed their own style over hundreds – even thousands – of years. So knowing where a tea is from gives you some indication of its style.
China's Golden Triangle of TeaChina is the original tea producing country. Its 6000-year-old tea traditions have seen it develop pretty much all styles of tea imaginable. The sheer diversity of green tea from China is akin to wine: a vast array of styles linked to geographical regions and cultural nuances. While tea is pretty much produced everywhere in China (save for the dry north) most of its fine green teas come from the southeast – especially the provinces around Shanghai, known as the 'Golden Triangle of Tea' – and the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian.
The Golden Triangle intersects the provinces of Anhui, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Their tea-growing regions lie in the hills and mountainous slopes that characterise this part of China. The temperate, misty climate in these hills and mountains is perfect for growing tea. Moreover, the regions' close proximity to the historic seat of the emperor ensured the Golden Triangle was home to many of China's historically revered imperial tribute teas.
In southern Anhui province lies the beautiful Haungshan (aka 'Yellow') Mountains, from where the famous Maofeng tea originates. This spring-harvested green is produced in the mountains' unique microclimate. The best Maofengs have a soothing, natural sweetness and a floral, somewhat tangy note. Maofeng should taste clean and refreshing, its flavours lingering on the palate long after you've finished drinking. The finest artisan examples have a hint of charcoal from the traditional firing technique used to fix the leaves.
Other famous greens from southern Anhui include the late spring-harvested teas of the Song Luo mountains. Famed for their delicate appearance and refreshing fragrances, these teas are often said to have a green olive-like flavour. Song Luos are also one of China's first pan-fried teas, their history dating back to the Ming dynasty.
Another large-leaf Anhui tea comes from further north in Luan. Known as Luan Guapian (aka 'Luan Melon Seed' due to the rounded appearance of the leaves once brewed), this tea is produced from the local Da Guazi tea bush cultivar. The leaves are harvested in the early summer, which lets them develop the unique bittersweet flavour and rich velvety texture that Luan Guapian green teas are famed for.
Cooler Jiangsu lies east of Anhui and its wonderful spring greens are generally regarded as the 'queen' of Chinese teas. Most famous is its Bi Luo Chun (aka 'Green Snail' or 'Spring Snail'), a sweet, fruity and floral tea with intriguing vegetable notes. This tea is produced in the foothills of Dong Ting Mountain near Lake Taihu. The finest examples are harvested in early April, the tiny delicate leaves and tips covered in a youthful down-like fuzz, which after carefully pan-firing and rolling resemble tiny snails.
Zhejiang province, south of Beijing, offers many fine spring green teas, including China's most famous – Longjing, aka Dragon's Well. The best examples are produced in the Xihu region of Hangzhou, their leaves harvested in mid-March. Longjing is the quintessential wok-roasted green tea, the leaves skilfully moved around in large iron pan over open fires by tea artisans. This gently flattens the leaves while bringing out a distinctive 'roast vegetable' bouquet and sweet chestnut-like flavours. A full-bodied tea with a warm, slightly savoury aftertaste, Longjing is one of China's most satisfying styles of green tea.
Other Zhejiang green teas Queshe Longjing (aka Sparrow's Tongue), made as above but from a bud-and-two-new-leaves pluch, which open during brewing to resemble a bird's beak and tongue. Zhejiang is also famous for its Yun Wu (aka 'Cloud and Mist') teas, produced in the mist-shrouded mountain slopes. Tianmu Shan is one famous example, from the Tian Mu Mountains. Its long and wiry emerald-green leaves retain much of their chlorophyll as they grow mostly shaded from the sun, which gives the tea a deliciously herbaceous flavour with distinct honey and peach notes.
Zhejiang is also the place to find China's best Zu Cha or 'Gunpowder' teas. While this style of tightly-rolled leaf tea is much copied and can result in some very poor examples, the best Zhejiang gunpowders are exceptional and distinctive teas. Unlike most green teas from the Golden Triangle, which are Qing Ming (aka spring-harvested), gunpowder teas are made from the less tender summer leaves. The leaves are tumble-fried in special perforated pans, which helps form their tightly rolled shape (said to resemble rifle pellet, hence the 'gunpowder' name). The size of the finished 'shot' – from pinhead to pearl – will indicate the size of leaf used. Due to the riper summer leaf and the tumble-firing, gunpowder teas have a rounded, assertive flavour a lovely nutty quality.
The last of the Golden Triangle provinces is Jiangxi. While not as famous as the other three provinces, Jiangxi's lush, hilly terroir and humid, subtropical climate make it home to many exceptional teas, especially those grown at higher elevations. Known as 'the region of the five mountains' due to its many mountainous borders, Jiangxi has a hidden, undiscovered feel that offers tea lovers many treasure to explore.
Jiangxi's teas are characterised by their dark, emerald-green leaves, which are usually rolled straight and elegant, showing the proud artisan approach here. Examples are De Yu Huo from Wuyuan County in the northeast of the province. This needle-straight green tea with with its clean, unbroken leaves offers bold fragrances and a sweetly mellow flavours. Another rural gem can be found just to the west in Fuliang county. Secret Garden also has dark emerald green leaves that are skilfully shaped into uniform wiry curls that show silvery glints from the tips. Sourced from hillside gardens in the selenium-rich forested hills around Whangu village, this green tea offers exotic blossom aromas and rounded flavours of plum compote and roast chestnuts.
Jiangxi is also home to the revered speciality tea Ming Mei (aka 'Slender Eyebrow'), whose leaves are gathered from remote villages located on Da Zhang Mountain. These types of wild gathered teas are key to unlocking the secret of Jiangxi. Another example, Folded Mountain, is produced with leaves picked by local tea foragers in the remote valleys near Jiangxi's border with Anhui. The tea bushes grow wild and are naturally shaded by the forests tey grow in. The leaves are picked in late March, then taken down to Fuliang where they are gently processed and lightly roasted. Folded Mountain tea has a floral bouquet suggesting orchid flowers, blanched nuts and fresh brioche bread, with complex, naturally sweet flavours and a soft, nutty richness.
Finding the best teas of the Golden TriangleAs you can see, even a relatively small geographical area such as China's 'Golden Triangle' offers a wealth of different green tea styles to choose from. While we have only highlighted some of the main types, it's clear that regional variation, terroir and cultural history are all important factors in the teas produced here. If we were to generalise, we'd say that Golden Triangle teas could be characterised as having a natural sweetness and an array of fruity, floral, herbaceous and roasted nut/bean notes that are as evocative as they are varied. There are vegetal notes too in Golden Triangle teas, but these aren't as assertive as in Japanese green teas, and tend to be balanced with other notes.
Generally, green teas from the four provinces within the Golden Triangle offer softness, freshness and little bitterness (although there are some green teas from here that are supposed to be bitter) and are mostly very clean and refreshing. Many of the artisanal green teas from these provinces have unique touches, such as charcoal notes from their basket firing or an orchid flower-like delicacy from their mountain terroir. The unique properties brought about by the tea leaves growing out of direct sunlight under the shade of mountain mists is also a special character of Golden Triangle teas.