Contemporarily, Japan is renown for its green tea. Matcha is overtaking the world as a ‘power food’, and is rapidly gaining preference with the more health conscious among us. Gyokuro is favored for its deep and varied taste and abundance of umami flavor, and Sencha is known as the most eminent of Japanese teas in terms of green tea of the whole-leaf kind. What these teas have in common, is that they all are non-oxidized green tea variations of tea.
In contrast to black tea, which is more common in the West, green tea has not been oxidized or left to wither after harvest, but has instead been processed to stop the oxidization and maintain its green color immediately after being picked. Through oxidization, several of the active components such as anti-oxidants, polyphenols, and amino acids change structure and generate a variety of flavors and aromas, but recent research has pointed out that maintaining them in their original state has greater benefit to our health and bodies.
One of the reasons that green tea is gaining popularity in the West, is exactly this discovery. I won’t go in detail here, but green tea has ‘proven’ benefits in regard to cancer prevention, blood pressure lowering functions, propels digestion, and is favorable for weight-loss and dieting. These are just a few of the demonstrated effects of this beverage. So, when keeping the leaves green and fresh can have this many different benefits to our health, then why would we even consider withering these leaves? Well, this certainly is a valid question, if you look to this plant only for its – maybe possible – beneficial functions. (Imagine even how many cups you would have to drink daily to get just the slightest benefit)
Everything comes at a cost. And for something new, something old will always have to make room, as is the case here. The freshness of tea that we consume today has only become possible since recently. From the 1960’s onward machines as an aid to harvesting have been employed, cars aided with transitioning crop from field to factory, and a wide array of manufacturing machines have replaced the arduous traditional ways of hand-rolling tea. We have become able to harvest more leaf at once, transfer it to the factory faster, and immediately process tea in large quantities at a much higher pace. The mechanization of harvesting and manufacturing processes has eliminated the necessity for freshly picked leaves to sit idly during transport after picking, and in waiting to be processed.
In the past, tea had to be transported on foot, and since the distance between farm and factory could be rather far, it wasn’t uncommon that the leaves had already begun to oxidize slightly during this journey. Moreover, since only a few trained professionals could conduct the steaming and rolling, harvested batches sometimes had to wait for several hours before they could be processed. It is obvious that during these periods of idleness, the leaves would gradually continue to wither, but rather than to throw them on a pile, or let them sit in the baskets in which they were carried, it was customary to spread them out on large ‘withering’ and drying beds. This would allow all leaves to dry evenly, and enable manufacturers to process each batch of tea individually without having to rush.
What such a process results in, is not the Japanese green tea we know today, but on the contrary a lightly oxidized variant with a much more outspoken aroma, often referred to as floral or sweet. This tea would be somewhat equivalent to what we know as Oolong, although some of the manufacturing processes are different compared to traditional Taiwanese methods. Nevertheless, should a green tea today even offer a hint of this aromatic character; then it is immediately written off as a failed batch. Why? Because since the advent of machinery and the possibility to maintain absolute ‘freshness’, the new standard has eliminated any room for floral scents and other tastes that even slightly give notion of oxidization in the tea. Contemporary green tea is strictly non-oxidized, and in effect is also un-aromatic.
The advent of machinery has once again changed our priorities, and created opportunity for a ‘new’ kind of tea to emerge. ‘Proven’ health benefits have guided us to choose not only tea, but also foods in relation to what it may or may not be able to do for our wellbeing, and such choice even takes precedence over whether or not what we consume is in fact delicious – to give one example, the Japanese eat fermented beans because it is said to be healthy. In doing so, we have chosen for a far more generic taste, because the fragrance and aroma of a green tea in comparison to even a slightly oxidized tea is close to none. An oxidized tea on the other hand, has a much more outspoken and varied aroma, and although it is definitely not my intention to write green tea off in this article, it is my belief that a slightly withered tea appeals to a much wider palette.
I am in favor of re-discovering the true tradition of Japanese tea through fragrance and scent. Do you choose the illusion of health, or are you in favor of sharing in the joy of a truly delicious tea? It is my feeling that the true future of Japanese green tea lies in the possibilities of withering.