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The Challenge of Green Teas

by Lydia Kung

Each year around mid-March, I start receiving little packets of spring tea samples, and I never fail to marvel at all the shapes and styles. On the one hand, we all take for granted and know that green teas are the simplest tea category; the minimalist processing method and close-to-nature quality are what appeal to so many consumers. On the other hand, many of these consumers, often drawn by health claims, find that green teas tend to taste very light, grassy even.

How then do we meet this challenge of presenting the pleasures that green teas can offer? In what sense may we suggest that some green teas are brimming with flavor? How do we convey the story of such a simple, pure category yet one that displays more leaf shapes than any other tea category? In short, the task I set out for myself was to research the relationship between leaf shape and flavor; does the varietal determine the final shape? Why are certain varietals made in the shapes we have become accustomed to seeing?

An earnest effort slogging through a few Chinese tea books proved frustrating. I learned more than I cared to know about firing temperatures and duration, moisture reduction, and cell breakage. I read about the desired pressure used in various stages of rolling and drying temperatures. These are what I consider to be the more technical steps in processing. I wanted answers to why certain varietals come to be finished in one shape rather than another, the true crafting or artisanal aspect.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a wide gap between tea business people and tea academicians. Many of the answers I received explained green tea leaf shapes by referring to tradition, which did not enlighten me much. I later realized I was too quick to dismiss the role of local tradition; this, after all, is a piece of the “expression of place” we consider so important for some teas. But I still want to know: how did Pi Lo Chun get made into that spirally shape? What was it in the varietal that prompted some early tea craftsman to hit upon this shape as the optimum one for bringing out the varietal’s inherent qualities?

For now at least, I am content (probably short-lived) to know why an open style green tea such as Snow Buds will delight the eye but will not offer a powerful burst of flavor for the palate, and to understand a little about the intent of the tea maker who perhaps had Tie Guan Yin in mind when making rolled green teas such as Rising Phoenix and Emerald Pearls.