I wrote the following page to shed a little light on the long history of green tea and also to elaborate on the numerous different types of green tea that are available.  To the left of the article is a list of the types of green tea that can be found in Japan along with their various sub-types.

A Brief History of Tea

The first tea plants known were thought to be grown in Yunnan Province in southern China. From there they spread to other parts of Asia that had the right types of soil and weather conditions. The custom of drinking tea is said to have originated in China with the emperor Shen Nong. Regarded as an iconoclast of Chinese medicine, he introduced the tea plant to people around the year 2700 B.C. The classic on Chinese Tea, Cha jing (The Book of Tea), written by the scholar Lu Yu in A.D. 760, recounts Shen Nong’s efforts to discover the medicinal effectiveness of over three hundred varieties of roots, grass, and tree barks. Legend has it that he would try all of them on himself first and whenever he ingested something poisonous he would cleanse himself by eating tea leaves.

It seems certain that tea leaves were initially eaten as a medicine long before tea became a popular drink. In fact, there are still some hill tribes in southern China, Thailand, and northern Myanmar that still eat pickled tea leaves, and only until recent times were they aware that a drink could be brewed from the same leaves!

According to Kouga, the ancient dictionary written during the Later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220), people in Sichuan Province of western China, compressed steamed leaves into hard bricks to help maintain the quality of the tea over a greater period (very handy when transporting, too). When making a beverage they would season the mixture with ginger or onion. However, this early concoction would not qualify as a conventional beverage in the usual sense because its intended use was medicinal.

During the Three Kingdoms period (221-65), the popularity of tea saw a rapid increase. One cause for this was the widening increase in the practice of Buddhism, which was beginning to gain a wider following. Buddhism prohibits the drinking of alcohol and so that naturally boosted the demand for tea.

During the Sui dynasty (581-618), the custom of drinking tea, previously limited to the aristocracy and Buddhist monks, began to filter through to other classes. In the mid-eighth century, tea shops sprung up, and gradually tea became an indispensable beverage for ordinary city-dwellers.

It was around this time that Lu Yu, who came from the tea producing center of Hubei Province, wrote his treatise on tea. The range of Yu’s work is impressive. It covers the origins, methods of plant cultivation, the types of utensils used, the best ways to prepare and drink tea, and tales relating to tea and tea-growing. His expansive compendium of information spanned three volumes, opening with the propitious line: “There are good luck trees in the south that are beneficial to a person’s health.” When published the book met with great acclaim and is still looked upon today as a bible of sorts concerning tea.

Tea arrived in Japan from China. It was brought by Japanese Buddhist monks who accompanied the special representatives sent to China in the early Heian period (794-1185). It wasn’t until 1191 that tea really took hold in Japan with the return from China of the Zen priest Eisai (1141-1215). Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, introduced powdered tea and tea seeds that he brought back with him from China. The tea seeds were planted by his friend the priest Myoe (1173-1232) at the Kozanji temple in the hills northwest of Kyoto.  Among the monks who traveled to China were Saicho (767-822), Kukai (774-835), and Eichu (743-816). The first record of the custom of tea-drinking in Japan appeared in Nihon koki (Notes on Japan), compiled in the Heian period. Eichu, a priest at the temple of Bonshakuji in Omi, Aichi Prefecture, returned to China in 815. The Nihon koki records that when Emperor Saga (reign, 809-23) visited Omi, Eichu invited him to his temple and served him sencha, suggesting that drinking tea, a popular pastime in Tang times, had also become fashionable in Japan’s intellectual circles. Roun-shu, an anthology of Chinese poetry written in Japanese in 814, also mentions tea-tasting.

At that time, tea probably came in the form of hard bricks, as described by Lu Yu. Compressed into a brick shape into a brick shape, tea was not only easy to transport but also held up better during the long voyage from China. This was most likely the type of tea brought to Japan, even though leaf tea was also used in China at that time. The brick was first warmed over a flame and then a portion was broken off by hand or shaved off with a knife. The shavings were ground with a mortar into a powder, which was added to a pan of hot water and brewed and then was served in a bowl.

Emperor Saga tried to encourage the spread of tea by demanding provinces in the Kinki region around Kyoto to grow the plant. He established tea gardens in one district of Kyoto, and started growing and processing it for the use of physicians attached to the court. This imperial tea, however, found use mostly in rituals performed by the aristocracy; the beverage had yet to become an item for consumption by the common people.

Ordinary Japanese only began to drink tea much later, after Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought back a new type of seedling from Sung-dynasty China. With it he introduced a new way of drinking tea which was known as the “matcha style.” Eisai encouraged the cultivation of tea trees, and his Kissa yojoki (Health Benefits of Tea) tied tea-drinking to longevity and launched tea in Japan on a large scale.

-by Michael Ganzeveld

Methods of leaf preparation

The history of green tea began some 3000 years ago when the Chinese plucked fresh tea leaves from wild tea plants and dried them by sunlight for storage. This is understood to be the primordial processing of green tea. In the 8th century the evaporation processing method was developed. After that, the sauté processing method was developed in the 12th century. The current traditional processing methods still remain to this day and are carried on by tea technicians from generation to generation.

According to the different types of fixation and drying processes green tea can be classified into five categories:

Stir-fry green tea: Fresh tea leaves sautéed in pan for drying.  Examples of which being gunpowder tea, Young Hyson, Chunmee,  which are mainly grown for export.  The higher quality pan-fired green teas are made from tender fresh tea leaves. Many historically famous Chinese green teas are processed by the pan drying method.  Some of these are Jade fire, Dragon Well, Mountain Gorge, Pi Luo Chun, Lu’An Melon Slice, Xinyang Maojian.  The character associated with stir-fry green tea is “high fragrance and strong taste”.

Roast green tea: Fresh tea leaves dried in a roast basket or roast chest .The common finished products of roast green teas are usually used as material for flower-scented teas. The well-known famous roast green teas include: Huangshan Maofeng; Taiping Monkey King, etc. The character for roast green tea is “intact original shape and covered with white fluff”.

Semi-roast & Semi-fry green tea: Combine the stir-fry method and roast method for drying. Benefits of the special drying method are that the finished tea product not only achieves high fragrance and strong taste but it also keeps its original shape and its body is covered with pretty white fluff.  Examples of this method are Jianzhai Emerald Eyebrow, Anji Baicha and Wuzhi Xinhao.

Solar dried green tea: Fresh tea leaves that are dried by sunlight. Solar dried green teas are mostly used as materials for compressed teas.

Steamed green tea: Fresh tea leaves steamed by high temperature as a means of drying. The representative steamed green tea is the popular Sencha green tea is mainly grown for export to Japan.

Green tea is as varied and unique as wine. Their uniqueness depends upon the growing region, the season’s weather, time of harvesting and type of processing.  When this page fully develops we will be adding all of the regional types of tea to the left hand margin.  First we’ll work on the Japanese teas and then we’ll cover the Chinese green teas so keep checking back.