Superstition holds that if you drop tea leaves in your house, it will bring good fortune. Apparently, a tea merchant somewhere dropped a whole lot of leaves—and they were all green.
Lauded as a cure for everything from cancer and arthritis to wrinkles and love handles, rocketing green tea sales are helping retailers rake in a different kind of green.
"In 2004, over 300 different studies were done on health benefits associated with green tea," says Joe Beauprez, director of marketing at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colo. "We've seen a dramatic uptick in consumer interest in green tea over the last few years. It's growing about three times as much as the total category. Green tea is now almost one-third of the specialty tea category. Eight years ago it was only 4 or 5 percent."
According to the Tea Association of the USA, annual sales growth of 15 percent and higher has been common for many specialty (including green) tea lines between 2000 and 2004.
In addition to the boost from the buzz about health benefits, American tastes are becoming more green-tea-friendly, says Reem Rahim, who, with her brother Ahmed, owns Oakland, Calif.-based Numi Tea. "People are developing a more sophisticated palate," she says. "It's like coffee and wine. First, it was Folger's granules, now people are grinding their own beans. Before, it was just "red or white?" Now, people are much more sophisticated."
Though Chinese philosophers have described tea as "the sweetest dew from heaven," until relatively recently, many Americans described green tea in far less flattering terms. "What most Americans have experienced is a very low-quality green tea, made from the dust or fannings of tea leaves, that's either pretty bitter or tasteless," says Austin Hodge, owner of Phoenix-based Seven Cups, an importer, wholesaler and retailer of specialty Chinese green teas. "When people finally taste a good-quality green tea, they're really surprised."
Subtle-teas in flavors
All tea—white, green, oolong or black—comes from the same Camellia sinensis plant. But while other teas are allowed to ferment and darken in color, leaves bound for green tea are heated, which stops the oxidation process.
In general, green tea has a more "vegetable-y" flavor than black tea, Hodge says. The process used to heat the tea leaves affects the flavor of the tea. Leaves can be pan-fried in a wok, steamed or heated with dry air. The processing can also include scenting, flavoring and blending the leaves with other flowers, leaves and herbs. "For example, the scenting process for our green tea involves layering the leaves with jasmine flowers and letting them sit overnight, when the flowers blossom," Rahim says. Other manufacturers flavor the tea by spraying an essence or oil on the leaves.
There are thousands of different varieties of green tea. One way to begin to understand differences in flavors is to divide them by country of origin. Most green teas come from China and Japan, explains Diana Rosen, author of The Book of Green Tea (Storey Publishing, 1998). Japanese teas, including popular sencha, are more grassy and sweet. "And when I say 'sweet' it's like butter lettuce-y sweet versus romaine," she says.
Chinese teas, like American favorite Dragon Well, tend to be lighter and more delicate. "They have an almost ephemeral taste," Rosen says. "The more you drink tea, the more interesting it becomes, because the choices are infinite."
"You can never have the same cup of tea twice if you're making tea with loose leaves," Hodge says. "As you go through the infusion cycle, each cup tastes and smells different. It's a very nuanced experience."
Like wine grapes, crops of tea leaves are affected by changes in weather, so even teas from the same single-estate plantation may taste different from year to year.
Tea delivery systems
Tea is available in a variety of forms. Some purists will use only loose-leaf tea. "Breaking the leaves causes bitterness," Hodge says. The smaller the pieces of leaf, the faster the tannins are released, causing an astringent taste. Conversely, the unrestricted flow of water around loose leaves enhances the flavor.
Green tea is also sold in bags, a more convenient option for some. Revolution Teas uses bags that are 100 percent biodegradable and shaped in a pyramid, which allows the water to better flow through the leaves, says Jeff Irish, creative director of the Phoenix-based company. "The shape allows us to put full-leaf premium tea in the bags. Prior to this type of material and shape, if you wanted this quality you had to do it the old-fashioned way with loose leaves."
Certain types of green tea leaves—those from older trees with bigger leaves—can be pressed into cakes, called puer. Drinkers can use special puer knives to cut off a piece from the larger cake, or they can buy puer in smaller, single-pot serving sizes.
Green tea is also sold in liquid concentrate and in powders. Salt Lake City-based TeaTech sells foil packets of instant tea powder that provide the benefits of eight cups of green tea in one serving. Concentrated powders are different from matcha tea, which also comes in powder form. Matcha, made from high-grade gyokuro leaves, is used to make the thick, frothy beverage used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Numi Tea offers a relatively new tea delivery system: flowering teas. Leaves are sewn into bundles with flower blossoms. When steeped in hot water—for maximum effect, in a clear glass pot—the leaves expand and the flowers bloom into exotic shapes.
Brewing the perfect cup of tea
To create the perfect cup of tea, "Lower the temperature and lower the time—to about one or two minutes and, in some cases, only 30 to 40 seconds," Rosen says. "Overbrewing makes the tea bitter."
"Only bring the water to the brink of boiling," says Scott Graham, director of research and product development at Celestial Seasonings. "Green tea is pretty gentle and you want to allow the flavors to come through. It's also important to use fresh water from a good source. If the local water contains a lot of minerals or off-notes, I'd recommend filtered or reverse-osmosis water."
Stored in a dry, dark, cool place, green tea can keep anywhere from four to 18 months, depending on the type of tea and the packaging.
Some green tea lovers incorporate the leaves in their cooking. "Tea is perfect for use in cream sauces, soups, doughs and broths," Rosen says.
Tea as an ingredient
Today, tea is used as an ingredient in more non-beverage consumer products than it is in tea beverages. Green tea can be found in everything from ice cream and Luna energy bars to Natural Quick Foods Potato Curry Pocket Sandwiches and dog food.
Green Tea Leaves, a kitty litter offered by Next Gen Pet Products, uses green tea in its bacteria-killing, pleasant-smelling kitty litter. "It's been really popular in Japan for the past 15 years," says Scott Garner, chief operating officer of Laguna Nigel, Calif.-based Next Gen.
Several companies offer green tea anti-aging lotions, moisturizer and sunblock. (See "Skin drinks in green tea's benefits.") And Elizabeth Arden has introduced a new fragrance: Green Tea Summer. With a few spritzes you'll smell like your cup runneth over on you. Then again, if you really did spill green tea on yourself, relax; that too is supposed to bring good luck.
Shara Rutberg is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 18, 20, 27