Global tea production continues to evolve and expand. Today, the majority of global tea production is
split between black tea, with an approximate 60 percent share, and green tea, with a share around 32
percent. The remaining 8 percent or so consists of the small tea families, namely oolong and pu’er teas.
In the early days of tea consumption in Western Europe, when China still held a trade monopoly on tea, exports were mainly black teas. This was due in part to the long sea journey–nearly six months–out of Kanton to the London port. Black teas were better suited as they are more robust.
Some green teas, however, also found their way to Europe, where it was believed for quite some time
that two different plant origins were involved. It was the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, sent to China in the 1840s to smuggle out tea seeds and tea plants, who formally established that both green and black tea came from the same plant, the camellia sinensis.
During his long travels in Fujian, disguised as a Mandarin, he was able to observe the farmers during tea processing and it became obvious that the difference between green and black tea was due to two distinct ways of processing the leaves of the tea bush. Green tea manufacturing requires the leaves’ enzymatic activity to be stopped quickly in order to maintain their green color. This is done by applying heat, either dry heat in a wok or a pan, for example, or hot steam. Once this is achieved, the leaves are shaped and dried.
Black tea manufacturing is based on the oxidation of the tea leaf juices, brought out through either gentle rolling or harsh CTC (cut, tear and curl). The leaves gradually change color from green to light brown and then to deep brown. The enzyme activity is stopped through firing, only after the color changes.
Generally the small tea leaf variety, also called China jat, is the best for making green tea, while the Assam jat, or big leaf variety, is best processed as black teas. This also explains why China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea have been mainly green tea consumers from the start. The big leaves from Assam started the British tea industry in India, Ceylon and later on in East Africa, quenching Britons’ thirst with black tea.
Almost exclusive to Asia for many centuries, green tea is still the preferred daily cup in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. Many of the finest green teas are early spring harvests, with fragrance abounding after the plants lie dormant during the cold winter months.
Consumers Embrace New Varieties
When China reconnected with its ancient tea traditions in the 1990s, the abundance of fine specialty
green teas rapidly attracted Western tea lovers. Spearheaded by the deliciously fragrant, pale green,
flat-shaped Longjing tea from Zhejiang’s West Lake area, many more fine green teas arrived from
2005 or so onwards.
The varieties of green tea included the buds only, spring-picked fragile downy Pi Luo Chun from Jiangsu province, the dark green long-leafed Tai Ping Hou Kui and the pale green tiny buds of Mao Feng (from the Huangshan area in Anhui province are among the most famous Chinese green teas). Growing demand has led to the planting of additional areas with newly developed clonal teas such as the Longjin 43, much cheaper and younger than the traditional variety–these bushes are less than 10 years old–though still beautiful in the cup, they are low in flavor.
Following China’s example, Japan has also set out to conquer the West with its strongly umami-flavored green teas. Planted since the 8th century in the traditional areas of Shizuoka and Uji, tea fields have recently been expanded to the south of the archipelago, namely to the island of Kyushu, where Kagoshima and Yame prefecture now represent around 30 percent of the Japanese tea output. The milder southern climate allows for the harvesting of the new spring teas, such as Shin Cha, from early April onwards, almost four weeks ahead of Uji and Shizuoka.
While China has several dozen different botanical green tea varieties, Japan has one main cultivar, the Yabukita, from which the Japanese make 75 percent of their Sencha, their standard hot steam- processed green tea. The remaining 25 percent is made up of a selection of more recently developed high-quality cultivars, with additional fragrance and adjusted to be shade grown. These yield the famous “dew drop pearls” or Gyokuro, an intensely fragrant, deep green, soft umami-tasting green cup, with many tiny particles giving it an exceptional mouth feel.
The move to attract the West has also introduced matcha to Europe and North America. This unique cup comprises only about 1 percent of the Japanese output. Matcha is made from shade-grown, flat dried and stone-mill ground leaf. The fine powder is then whipped into a jade green, foamy cup by expert hands. Costly and delicious, this cup allows consumers to ingest the entire leaf substance, which is far more powerful than any leaf infusion.
For less adventurous and less affluent consumers, Japan also offers a light cup of grilled green tea, Hoji cha, traditionally consumed in the evening because of its low caffeine content.
Vietnam is the rising star amongst the green tea exporters, ranking fifth amid the world’s tea producers. Its finest green teas come from the traditional tea villages in the northern Thai Nguyen province. Quite expensive, the teas are mostly sold in the domestic market, where consumers believe that these spring picks must not be missed.
Amongst the most recently introduced green teas are those from Korea, often grown on Jeju Island, a volcanic territory situated halfway between Korea and Japan. Since about 2000, green tea imports into Europe and North America have increased immensely and continue to grow. Korea’s unusual range of delicate umami flavors, from sweet fresh grass to algae, spinach, fresh flowers and sun-dried hay, may surprise at first, but will then seduce and attract tea aficionados.Green teas, being more fragile, require brewing instructions that are more subtle and stringent than black teas. However, many tea lovers enjoy acquiring this new expertise.
There are also many mainstream green teas, marketed by China and Vietnam mainly, which offer good quality green tea. These teas offer not only convenience–they’re available in bags–they are also a good introduction to the green tea category.
Olivier Scala, CEO of Thés George Cannon and president of the French Tea Committee, Paris, said, “Today, green tea has become a significant trend in the West. Therefore, even traditional black tea producers join the market with some new green teas, be they from Darjeeling, Sri Lanka or even Rwanda in East Africa. In France, green tea consumption has added good growth to the market and stands currently just below half of the tea imports.”
While the West has started to discover green tea, the East has become keen on fine black teas.
The huge number of different varieties and the many ways to fine-tune the processing generates an
endless assortment of teas. This wide choice caters to all taste preferences and satisfies the desire to
discover more of the world’s many lesser-known teas.
This article was first published in the October 2013 edition of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal and was written by Barbara Dufrene.