Green tea has such a rich, ancient history stretching back so far that the origins are a bit of a mystery, steeped in legends. Of course, the result of that long history and centuries of cultivation, there are now hundreds of green tea varieties, blends, and brands for you to choose from. Let’s take a closer look at what they actually are before you find out how to pick the best.
What is Green Tea?
Green tea is produced mostly in China and Japan from the same tea leaves as the black tea you may be used to. Once the leaves and buds are picked, by machine or hand, they’re fired or steamed immediately to stop them oxidizing. By firing or steaming them at a high temperature, this “fixes” the leaves and stops the enzymes that would otherwise turn the leaves the brown/black color.
In terms of flavor, this keeps that fresh flavor of the leaves. Unlike the rich, full-bodied flavor of black tea, green tea is typically brighter, lighter and slightly bitter.
Firing the leaves is the typical Chinese method of processing green tea. It gives the tea a warmer flavor profile, sometimes with a woody or smoky notes. In Japan, they are steamed instead of being pan-fired. This enhances the grassy and fresh flavor, but it does tend to enhance the bright bitterness too.
If you follow back the legends, you’ll find that green tea was discovered quite by accident by a Chinese Emperor when tea leaves blew into his cup. The process of picking, drying, firing and then boiling the leaves into tea came later, but still, centuries before tea was consumed elsewhere in the world. Buddhist monks eventually brought tea to Japan somewhere between 589 and 618 AD, starting Japan’s love with the drink too.
After centuries of cultivation, these 2 countries now produce some, if not all, of the best green teas in the world. Despite all those coming from one type of plant, they vary drastically in flavor, aroma, and texture, depending on how/where they’re grown and processed.
So, what does it mean for you? Put simply, it means that the world of green tea is vaster than you imagined and contains so much for you to explore.
Different Tea Shapes and What They Mean
Tea bags – square, round or pyramid bags, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the tea within. Green tea in bags is crushed or chopped, or simply tea dust. This allows a quick infusion, but it’s not good. Even if a tea bag contains a delicious Sencha (one of the best Japanese green teas listed below) it will never be as high quality as a loose-leaf!
Gunpowder, pellets, and pearls – rolling and shaping green tea leaves into curls is a common practice for several varieties, particularly Chinese green teas. Some are rolled by hand, others by machine. Usually, the larger leaves are rolled and curled into pellets. This slightly crushes the structure of the leaves, so when they’re infused the slowly unfurl and allow the water to really infuse deep into the leaves, releasing the flavourful tea oils.
Needle shapes – leaves and buds can also be rolled into tight needle shapes. This protects the delicate buds within the leaves and is used for a variety of Chinese and Japanese tea types, like Maofeng. Just like the rolled pellet type leaves, they need space to unfurl so that the water can really infuse to the center.
There are many other shapes, from the super flat and thin to the large pearl shapes. What makes these whole leaf green teas better than the cut or crushed is the size and consistency. The less surface area that’s exposed to oxygen, the more the leaves will be able to retain their flavor, including the delicate and subtle flavor notes that would be lost if the tea was chopped and sold in bags.
Types of Best Green Tea
These types and varieties are a great place to start. They’re widely considered the best because they’re most well-known. That doesn’t mean an unknown green tea variety will be of poor quality, but by starting out with these specific best green teas, you’ll know you’re receiving something special.
Chinese Green Teas
They are loved around the world. Green tea is actually the most produced type in China. Traditionally the leaves and buds are pan-fired or roasted to fix them. This gives the tea liquor a lovely golden color and warm aroma.
- Biluochun (Green Snail Spring) – the delicate fruity and floral green leaves harvested from the Jiangsu province are rolled into snail-shell shapes, similar to gunpowder.
- Chun Mee (Precious Eyebrow) – a bright and slightly acidic green tea with distinct toasted notes. Chun Mee tea leaves are slightly dusty and darker than most others. They produce a warmer, more golden than green liquor.
- Gunpowder – grown around China, it’s leaves are rolled into little pellets that resemble gunpowder. Many different teas grown in a variety of places around China can be rolled into Gunpowder.
- Longjing (Dragon Well) – grown in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, this tea is pan-fired for a gentle, mellow, sweet flavor with notes of nuttiness and fresh vegetables with a lasting aftertaste.
- Lu’an Gua Pian (Melon Seed) – the flat oval-shaped leaves (like melon seeds) brew with a full, sweet and fresh flavor.
- Mao Feng (Fur Peak) – produced in the Anhui Province, Mao Feng is typically light and summery with fruit notes. Once brewed, it’s very pale green.
- Taiping Hou Kui (Peaceful Monkey Leader) – this is a very famous type grown at the base of Huangshan in the Anhui Province. The leaves are long, thin, vibrant green and very flat. They’re oven-baked for a smooth, creamy and sweet flavor.
- Xinyang Maojian (Fuzzy Tip) – produced in Xinyang, these furry young tips give a brisk cup of green liquor with grassy and nutty notes. It’s one of the best and most famous Chinese green teas.
Japanese Green Teas
Green tea is widely consumed in Japan, it’s traditional even if it hasn’t been around for as long as it in China. Here, the leaves are steamed after they’re picked. Typically, they are fresh, grassy and vegetal as the steam preserves those refreshing flavors.
- Bancha – the second flush of the iconic Sencha Japanese green tea (read more about that a little below) is called Bancha. It’s harvested at the end of the summer months, towards autumn and has a distinctive nutty, robust hay-like flavor with astringent notes.
- Genmaicha – together with toasted brown rice kernels, it creates a subtle, nutty green tea with a toasty edge and full-bodied feel. It has a unique savory edge that we love.
- Gyokuro – it is shade-grown, shielded from the sun, to create a smooth, light and complex flavor. It’s very high-grade and rich in healthy amino acids (read more about its health benefits below).
- Hojicha – unlike most Japanese green teas, this one is roasted. So, if you like Chinese green tea there’s a fair chance you’ll like this one too. It has a slightly smoky flavor and a mellow green body.
- Kukicha – this “twig tea” is made from the stalks of the plant, usually discarded after the leaves are harvested. It has a surprisingly sweet, creamy flavor with a refreshing mouthfeel.
- Matcha – made from green leaves that are powdered and then whisked into tea, rather than infused. It tastes rich, vegetal and a little bitter with a subtle sweetness.
- Sencha – grown and steamed in Japan for a sweet, grassy flavor and slightly thick texture. It’s one of the most popular!
While the best and most well-known teas are from China and Japan, there are also a handful of other green teas from around the world that you might be lucky enough to try, from Taiwan to Korea’s Ujeon. Check out the full list of their varieties and types in our Guide to Different Types of Tea.
These are classics that you can’t go wrong with (so long as you buy authentic products from a trustworthy brand) and a great place to start as a beginner.
More: Matcha vs Green Tea
Best Green Tea We Recommend
1.Chinese Jasmine – Best Green Tea for Beginners
The best green teas for beginners are subtle and gentle. From Japan, a light Sencha is a good choice. Our favorite, however, is Chinese jasmine green tea!
The comforting floral aroma works so well with the leaves and adds a gentle sweetness to the flavor. It’s a popular choice in Chinese restaurants but really you can drink it any time of day. It’s relatively inexpensive, but you can certainly find high-quality, specialty jasmine teas if you want.
Start here and you’ll be able to enjoy the delicate flavor without feeling overwhelmed. It’s a great stepping stone to enjoying fine green teas or different flavored blends.
2. Anji Baicha – Best Green Tea for a Sweet Tooth
If we had to pick just one sweet tea from China for you to try, we would recommend this.
Anji Baicha, which translates as Anji white tea (even though it really is green, trust us), is sweet, smooth and mellow with high levels of amino acids. It’s made from pale, new buds formed in early spring. They’re fairly small leaves rolled into pine needle-shaped leaves and dried. You won’t need to add any sugar, stevia or honey to enjoy it. Delicious!
3. Taiping Hou Kui – Best Green Tea for the Adventurous
Taiping Hou Kui, also known as Peaceful Monkey Leader, is a Chinese variety that’s high-quality and world-famous. It’s our top choice for the adventurous taster as it has quite noticeable creamy notes that you wouldn’t normally expect from a green tea. It also has a lovely orchid aroma that typically you’d find in Oolong. It’s rare and not something you can find in the supermarket!
How to Choose The Best Green Tea?
Taste is largely subjective – we love light, sweet and mellow green tea, but you might prefer the strong bitter and grassy notes of matcha. Regardless, there are still key things that will tell you if a tea is good or bad. Quality isn’t subjective and often the quality of the tea will determine how fresh and flavourful it is.
A poor-quality tea, even if the flavor notes are what you generally like, won’t taste as good as high-quality ones. Shopping online for tea can be a little tricky, but you should still take a little time to research whether the product and the company are reliable and high quality.
- The aroma is fresh, distinct and instantly detectable
- The leaves are all uniform in shape and size
- The leaves feel smooth and don’t easily crumble in your hand (a sign that they’re too dry or old)
- The leaves are mildly green (dark, almost brown, green tea leaves are a sign that they’re old or have not been poorly stored)
- The seller provides plenty of information and is happy to provide more when contacted
- It’s mixed with stalks, twigs and broken leaves
- Taste is overly astringent, chemical-like or just too bland
- It has a famous name but is sold far cheaper
Tips for Buying Online
Buying green tea online is the way forward – it gives you access to innumerable brands and types that can be delivered quickly to your home. Always buy from reputable websites, like official websites of the brand. Tea Famille, Lipton, Twinings etc. all have official websites for you to buy from.
Generally, you’ll only find the most popular ones on sites like Amazon and eBay. For premium, hard-to-get green teas, you’ll need to do a little searching online to find a supplier.
- Start by ordering small samples – compared to buying in a brick and mortar store, you can’t assess the aroma and flavor online as well. It’s best to order a small amount (20g is a usual sample size) before ordering a large amount for daily consumption.
- Don’t worry about flavor reviews – flavor and opinions on that flavor are very personal and subjective. What one person finds delicious, another may despise. So, don’t pay attention to poor reviews because of personal taste.
- Do worry about company reviews – when you see poor reviews because of the quality (arrived stale, packet split open, 3 months late, etc.) or the company policies, that’s a bad sign. It’s the same with buying anything online – these bad reviews are the signs that the company is not to be relied upon for a great experience. If they take such poor care of their customers and processes, will they be taking good care of their products? It seems unlikely.
- Be wary of large collections – we’ve found that in general, the more tea a supplier has to offer the less likely that they’ve assessed the quality of the product they’re selling. A small tea website with just a handful of premium teas available will probably feature teas that have been carefully selected, thus buying from a smaller website ensures higher quality and care. Of course, not all websites follow the rule but it’s something to keep in mind! Like the English saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”