What does green tea taste like?
While it’s impossible to really understand the flavor until you’ve tried it, there is a spectrum of flavor profiles you can use to identify the different flavors of Japanese green teas.
Recently, we set up a flavor chart to map out the different flavor profiles of our Japanese green teas. On one axis, you have the sweetness of the tea. At the higher end of this spectrum you have sweet and savory flavors and on the other extreme you have more bitter or astringent teas.
The second axis plots the tradeoff between these fresh vegetal flavors and these more roasted flavors. There is of course much more complexity to the flavor of tea, but this is a good starting point when it comes to organizing tea into different categories.
First, let’s start with the vertical axis. What makes a tea sweet and what makes a tea bitter? Theanine is the dominant amino acid in tea leaves and it’s the primary cause of these sweet and savory flavor profiles. This savory or “umami” flavor as it’s called in Japan is the so-called 5th flavor you may know from cooking. The tongue can pick up on the presence of these amino acids and that's why something like a hearty miso soup tastes so good.
Speaking of the miso soup, you may notice some similarities with an umami rich tea like Gyokuro. They both have a little bit of a rich, salty even seaweed flavor. True fans of Gyokuro tea look for this dense flavor profile. Gyokuro brews up a thick, brothy infusion that weighs heavy on the palate, but it’s balanced out with this nice sweetness. Gyokuro tea sits right on top of the vertical axis, because it has the highest concentration of theanine.
When a tea is exposed to the sunlight, it begins to convert this sweet and savory theanine into more bitter catechins. Because Gyokuro is a shade grown tea, it is able to retain much more of this theanine, but unshaded teas like this sencha from Shizuoka (above) take on a much more bitter flavor. A bitter green tea can begin to take on a citrusy flavor profile, almost like a bitter grapefruit. It also has an astringency, which can create a drying sensation in the mouth. One theory states that as the astringent components of the tea bind with the protein in your saliva, you notice a “puckering” effect similar to when you drink a dry red wine or eat a citrus fruit.
A lot of tea drinkers prefer drier teas to sweeter teas because of this intense “physicality” or how the tea actually interacts with your mouth. Because this unshaded sencha tea is so low in theanine and so high in catechins, it sits on the lower end of the spectrum. The theanine content can come down to two major factors and that’s what cultivar is used and how much exposure to the sun the tea gets. Different tea cultivars have different levels of theanine. The sweeter and milder Saemidori cultivar is going to have more theanine and therefore teas made from this cultivar will be positioned higher in the sweetness spectrum. This is why the Cha Meijin (above), a Saemidori Gyokuro, is positioned slightly higher than the other Gyokuro teas. The Cha Meijin has these warm, sugary notes of caramel and cane sugar. We’ll discuss tea cultivars in a later chapter.
How a tea is shaded will most likely determine where it is positioned on the sweetness spectrum. Teas shaded for the longest time like Gyokuro and Kabusecha will be on the higher end, followed by senchas shaded for 7-10 days and finally senchas that are unshaded will be at the bottom.
Next we come to the horizontal axis, where we talk about the fresh vegetal flavors of teas. The reason why green teas are unique is that they are steamed after harvesting in order to lock in these natural grassy or vegetable flavors. If the teas are not steamed after harvesting, they will begin to oxidize and turn into a black tea. During the oxidation process, the polyphenols in the tea are converted into theaflavins, so the tea exchanges these fresh green notes for warmer notes of honey and chocolate. The teas that retain the high amounts of polyphenols will have a strong vegetable flavor to them.
Tea is made from a leaf, which technically makes it a vegetable. When we talk about the flavors from these intense green Fukamushi style senchas, we are taking about these steamed vegetable notes like sweet corn, edamame and spinach. The Fukamushi teas are easy to spot because of their vibrant, cloudy green color. They are steamed for an even longer time, which breaks down the cell membranes of the plant and allows more of it to flow into the cup. This allows them to be positioned on the right side of the horizontal axis.
An even more extreme version of this grassy or vegetal flavor is matcha. Because you are drinking the entire leaf, you get an even stronger hit of this steamed vegetable flavor. A lot of people describe matcha as having this intense spinachy or even seaweed flavor. At the same time, it is also positioned on the high end of the sweet and savory spectrum, because it does have a strong umami flavor from all of the shading. You may also notice some matchas take on this floral note and even a little bit of dark chocolate in the finish. Matcha is definitely a tea like no other, and it is well deserving of this spot on the far right of the spectrum.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have roasted tea like Hojicha. After the tea leaves have been processed, some teas are later roasted at a higher heat to create teas like Kamairicha (partially roasted) and Hojicha (fully roasted). These teas tend to swap out these fresh grassy flavors for warmer notes of coffee, chocolate and caramel. Kamairicha retains some of its vegetal flavors, whereas many hojichas lose them completely in favor of these more roasted flavor profiles. These teas are positioned on the far left of the spectrum. It is rare to have a tea that is very sweet and savory and also roasted, but there are a few farmers that produce a roasted Gyokuro, which would be an example of that.