A Very Special Green Tea Tasting in the Test Kitchen
After learning about different Japanese varieties, the food editors eat some leftover tea leaves.
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The food editors got their caffeine fix in the most fun way one recent morning in the test kitchen: with a green tea tasting. Zach Mangan, the founder of a Japanese tea-importing company Kettl and the owner of a tea shop in Brooklyn with the same name, stopped by to give the 42 Burners team a primer on Japan's most consumed beverage. Mangan's goal is to give consumers the chance to try green tea that tastes the way it does in Japan. "The quality there is so different because the supply chain so short," he says. "The tea is bought from a farm 20 miles away right after it's processed rather than being shipped to the U.S. and stored in a warehouse with poor conditions." His obsession with that level of freshness is how Kettl was born.
One of the key things to know about green tea is that each style comes from the exact same plant. What varies is how the plants are grown and how the leaves are processed. Mangan took the editors through five different green teas: sencha, hojicha, genmaimatcha, matcha, and gyokuro. While tea hasn't inspired the same amount of geeking out as coffee, wine, or whiskey in the U.S., he emphasizes that it's just as complex: "All the things you can imagine about wine you can apply to tea: terroir, production style, seasonality, blends, single cultivars." When the test kitchen editors' asked about the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea, Mangan explained that it comes down to the heating process, which is required for all green teas in order to prevent oxidation. The Japanese typically use steam, while the Chinese wok-fire the leaves.
The tasting started with the most popular tea in Japan: sencha, a steamed green tea with a rich, vegetal aroma and a mellow, grassy flavor reminiscent of nori or kombu. "Aroma is the most important thing you're looking for in tea," says Mangan. "If the dry leaf and the wet leaf have a lot of aroma, that means it's fresh." He recommends bringing the water for your tea up to a boil first, regardless of what the target temperature is, then letting the temperature come down. The actual boiling process matters because it gets oxygen in the water, which affects the flavor of the tea. Brewing times for green teas are typically short because there's so much surface area on the leaves that they start opening up quickly.
When editor at large Shira Bocar raved about the texture of the sencha, Mangan broke down the technical reasons behind it: the mouthfeel is a product of both the cultivar of the plant and the fertilizer used to grow it. The nitrogen fertilizer employed by Japanese tea farmers, which is generally a mix of fishbones and leftover soybeans, boosts the plants' ability to produce theanine, an umami-creating amino acid. "Theanine is what coats your mouth," says Mangan. "It binds the receptors on your tongue so you feel that sense of weight when you're drinking the tea."
Next up in the tasting was hojicha, a roasted green tea. Roasting gives the leaves a completely different profile: caramelized and nutty, with a more layered texture. "It still has a little bit of that viscosity and oiliness you get in a good scotch," says Mangan, "but it sends you in a different direction. It's more like a comfy winter tea." Senior editor Lauryn Tyrell is partial to hojicha because "it smells like her childhood." Her mom used to drink something called kukicha which, when sold in the U.S., usually consists of hojicha with stems in it.
The third tea was genmaimatcha, a contemporary take on the blend of green tea and roasted brown rice known as genmaicha. Genmaimatcha calls for rolling the tea and rice in matcha powder, which adds texture and color. It was the perfect segue into matcha itself, which has become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the past five years. Matcha is unique in how it's grown and processed. The plants for sencha, hojicha, and genmaicha are all grown in fields exposed to sunlight, while matcha plants are raised in much smaller plots covered from the sun. This shade disrupts photosynthesis and causes the plants to produce more chlorophyll and retain a high level of theanine, yielding a tea with rich flavor and a striking neon green color. Milled into a powder, matcha is prepared very differently from other teas and calls for three essential tools: a bamboo tea scoop (chashaku), bamboo whisk (chassen), and tea bowl (chawan). "It's basically combining tea, water, and air," says Mangan. While he's not against matcha lattes, he points out that milk creates texture that isn't present in the tea, and if made properly, matcha is naturally creamy on its own.
The last tea in the lineup was gyokuro, a shaded tea variety that's lightly steamed instead of being processed into matcha. A pricey, special-occasion tea, it's often given as a gift in Japan. "The highest-quality gyokuro almost looks like water, so you might expect it to taste light, but the flavor is super surprising," says Mangan. The editors were blown away: Lauryn likened the aroma to buttered asparagus, while Shira thought it tasted like a rich soup; deputy editor Greg Lofts picked up on tropical fruit notes like mango and durian. After brewing the gyokuro once more, Mangan left the team with a final treat: the leftover tea leaves dressed with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Gyokuro is such a prized tea that you don't want to waste anything; instead, you literally make a meal out of it. It was definitely the most unique test-kitchen breakfast.