A recent letter came from a distraught consumer who was concerned because she read a tea label that touted “subtle roasted grass flavors,” and she thought the tea inside the package resembled summer-scorched grass blades. Should she assume that the tea was blended with grass clippings?
Some green teas – especially Japanese teas – can resemble grass needles, and the aromas might evoke memories of walking across a freshly mown field or lawn. Rest assured! Modern teas contain no grass.
Our writer was not the first consumer to question the purity of her tea. Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen was distraught when she learned that spent tea leaves were being recolored in vats filled with tree leaves and sheep’s’ dung. She vowed to only purchase tea at Twinings on the Strand in London because Richard Twining had published an essay about the scandalous business of recycling tea leaves. His exposé reassured Austen of the quality of Twinings’ teas and she was, until her death in 1817, a loyal customer.
Modern tea drinkers need not worry about recycled tea leaves, but they can be puzzled by the abundance of vegetative notes found in green teas – especially if their palate is accustomed to the traditional notes found in black teas.
A recent customer noted in her review of my shade grown Gyokuro that it “tasted like boiled spinach”. I can only suppose that this was her first encounter with one of Japan’s most revered teas. I longed to invite her to my tasting bar to prepare it properly, as I have done with countless guests since I first visited Master Sakamoto’s small organic tea farm three years ago. It is one of the healthiest teas we offer, and, when cold-steeped, this velvety tea wraps around the tongue and leaves a hint of sweetness and asparagus on the finish.
Vegetative notes are to be expected in green teas. I grew up on a farm, so the aromas of spinach, asparagus, and freshly mown hay are comforting to me. Japanese teas are generally steamed so they abound with all those garden notes.
Sencha, which accounts for 80% of Japanese tea, is mostly mechanically harvested and finished. The polished leaves can resemble grass clipping as they finish their journey through the factory. Japanese growers have been masters at mechanizing tea production for over a century. Japanese tea would be too costly if not for these multi-million-dollar machines
Okakura Kakuzo says in The Book of Tea that “if anyone wants to enter the way of tea, he must become his own teacher.”
I suggest that you start your green tea exploration by steeping a Japanese green tea (such as Sencha or Gyokuro) alongside a Chinese green tea (such as Lung Ching or Bi Luo Chun). Use the smallest teapot you have. Heat the water to no more than 170° F. Steep for no more than two minutes. Taste. Add water for a second steep. Taste. Adjust the steeping time to your liking.
Better yet, drink the tea with a friend and compare notes. If you begin to discern the aroma of freshly mown grass, you are on the right track!
Begin your adventures into the world of green tea with this authoritative guide.