While the question of what does green tea taste like is really difficult to understand until you’ve tried it, we’re going to attempt to shed some light on the matter in this article. We are going to be talking a little bit about the different types of green tea and which flavor profiles each of them exhibit. We will be walking you through a helpful chart to understand the spectrum of flavors a green tea can have and we’ll do our best to compare tea to flavors most people are familiar with. Without further ado, let’s dive in and learn what does green tea taste like.
What Does Green Tea Taste Like?
Recently, we set up a flavor chart to map out the different flavor profiles of our Japanese green teas as an attempt to answer what does green tea taste like. 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.
The 6 distinct tastes of green tea
This illustration perfectly classify the 6 distinct tastes of green tea. Bellow this mages, we'll be covering each flavors with each teas.
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.
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.
Believe it or not, some Japanese green teas can even take on a salty flavor. This is not uncommon with Gyokuro, as the tea is often described as having a marine or seaweedy taste profile. This is not to say that the tea has any sodium in it, but it rather shares taste characteristics with foods that are typically salty like soup or dried seaweed snacks. When you ask what does green tea taste like, some consideration has to be made for the minerality of the tea, and sometimes this manifests as a saltiness in the flavor.
What does green tea taste like of course depends on the type of tea we are referring to. Sourness exists in some teas but not others. A lot of times a shincha will have this tart, berry flavor that can be quite enjoyable. Shincha is the first tea to be harvested in the early spring of each year, and its made from the youngest sprouts of the tea plant. This tea has a higher concentration of nutrients, and it does tend to be sweeter, but the tart or sour flavor is still there.
Another tea that has a little bit of this sourness is the Tamaryokucha. This is a curled tea, made by mixing shaded leaves of the tea plant along with some stems. There is some sweetness to it, but it does have an underlying minerality and sourness which is quite enjoyable.
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 the sencha isagawa from Shizuoka 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.
Dryness or Astringency
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.
The savory or umami flavor is something that may come up a lot if you ask someone what does green tea taste like. We normally associate this savory flavor as only coming from foods and not from drinks. In the case of Japanese cuisine, this savory flavor is not only celebrated in the food, but also in the tea as well.
This savory flavor comes from the amino acids in the tea leaf like l-theanine. We associate this umami flavor with protein rich foods, but proteins are just a collection of amino acids. Shaded teas like gyokuro and matcha can be rich in these amino acids and it can really contribute to the taste. This makes the taste of these teas more satisfying, even when prepared in a smaller quantity.
Vegetable flavors in Japanese green tea
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.
Building your palate by comparing teas and testing
If you really want to answer the question what does green tea taste like, there is no substitute for experience. The best solution is to try a bunch of different green teas and see which ones you like most. You can also compare the flavors of unshaded vs. shaded teas for example, and see if you can notice the difference in sweetness.
If you want to really get an idea for the vast array of different flavors green teas have to offer, you can try out our mega green tea sampler. This sampler includes 30 different kinds of matcha, gyokuro, hojicha, sencha, kukicha, bancha, genmaicha and kamairicha so you can really get a sense of how subtle differences in the production of the tea can really lead to different flavors. Hopefully this will be able to help you answer the question what does green tea taste like.
Is Green Tea Supposed to Taste Like Nothing?
In addition to asking what does green tea taste like, some people ask us if tea is supposed to taste like nothing or they say that tea just tastes like water to them. This is really unfortunate because high quality green tea is so flavorful! As long as you prepare the tea the proper way, using the right temperature water and a high leaf to water ratio, you should be able to enjoy rich, flavorful cups of green tea at home. If you need help brewing your tea, you can find many different brewing guides on our blog.
What are the different types of Green Teas?
Matcha is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves, traditionally consumed in East Asia.
The green tea plants used for matcha are shade-grown for three to four weeks before harvest; the stems and veins are removed during processing. During shaded growth, the plant Camellia sinensis produces more theanine and caffeine.
What does Matcha Taste like?
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.
The hojicha leaves are roasted in either a large pan or in a roasting machine. While it is common for japanese green teas to be heated at many different stages in the production, this is usually done at very low temperatures and is used primarily for drying.
With hojicha, the heat applied is far more intense and it is done for a longer time. This completely transforms the tea leaf, and it turns the color from green to brown.
What does Hojicha Taste like?
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.
Sencha is a type of Japanese Green Tea which is prepared by infusing the processed whole tea leaves in hot water.
This is as opposed to matcha, powdered Japanese green tea, where the green tea powder is mixed with hot water and therefore the leaf itself is included in the beverage. Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan.
What does Sencha Taste like?
Sencha can be the most diverse in terms of taste profile. If you are going for an unshaded sencha, you will get much drier notes of summer grass, wood, cereal and some floral characteristics as well. With a shaded sencha, you can get more juicy taste characteristics like melon, steamed spinach, edamame and sweet corn. If you’ve tried one sencha, its still not enough to definitively say what sencha tastes like, you have to try a variety of different types.
Gyokuro is a type of shaded green tea from Japan. It differs from the standard sencha (a classic unshaded green tea) in being grown under the shade rather than the full sun.
Gyokuro is shaded longer than kabuse tea (lit., "covered tea"). While gyokuro is shaded for approximately three to four weeks, kabuse-cha is shaded for approximately one week.
What does Gyokuro Taste like?
You may notice some similarities with an umami rich tea like Gyokuro and a brothy miso soup. 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.
Stem teas are a little known secret in the world of tea. These unique teas provide an entirely different flavor profile and they are much lower in caffeine than a regular green tea.
These teas are also an innovative way for farmers to prevent wasting resources in the tea production process.
What do Stem Teas Taste like?
Stem teas tend to have a lot more of this minerality to them. If you have ever drunk out of a clay bowl or clay mug, you will have some idea of the taste sensation that minerality can bring. It brings a certain tingling to the palate, and this minerality is very prevalent in stem teas. Stem teas are a bit on the drier side and instead of having this sweet taste profile, you get more of these hay and floral notes in the taste.
How Do I Pick the Best Green Tea Type?
The best green tea type all comes down to personal opinion. As we mentioned before the best way to answer the question of what does green tea taste like is to try a bunch of different teas and see which one you like best. Once you have found your favorite type of green tea, it's easy to decide which one to pick.
How Do I Make Green Tea?
Every type of tea is different, so the question of how to make green tea has the same answer as the question of what does green tea taste like. It ultimately depends on the type of tea you are using. Gyokuro for example will require a lower temperature and a longer brewing time, while certain types of fukamushi sencha will require a shorter brewing time. If you would like to learn more, you can find all about this on our blog with some of our brewing guides.
Can I Add Milk & Sugar to Green Tea?
While you can add milk and sugar to green tea, it is strongly recommended that you don’t. The question what does green tea taste like depends a lot on what you add to the green tea. When you add milk and sugar, you will really miss out on the subtleties of the tea. The point of trying different types of teas is experiencing the different flavors. If you are adding milk and sugar to the teas, they will all taste the same and you will miss out on the whole experience.
Health and Nutritional Benefits of Green Tea
There are many health benefits to green tea. When we look at the chemical composition of the leaf, what we will find is caffeine, theanine, polyphenols, catechins as well as vitamins and minerals. Of course the caffeine is what gets all the attention, but the other components are important as well.
Theanine is the amino acid inside tea that is responsible for the sweet flavor and the calm alert feeling you get when you drink it.
Polyphenols and catechins are the antioxidants in tea that can protect the body against free radical damage. These can also be helpful when cold and flu season comes around.
When to Drink Green Tea
The question of when to drink green tea comes down to your sensitivity to caffeine. If you are not sensitive to caffeine whatsoever, you can likely get away with drinking all kinds of teas at all hours throughout the day.
If you are the type of person that gets kept up at night from caffeinated drinks, there are a few guidelines you should follow. First, you should only drink high caffeine teas like matcha and gyokuro in the morning.These can have almost as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, and it can really be a lot even in the afternoon. For the rest of the day, you can drink low caffeine teas like bancha, genmaicha and hojicha or the later steepings of sencha and gyokuro. Some people like to enjoy the first brewing of gyokuro or sencha early in the morning and then reinfuse the leaves to prepare a second or third steeping later on in the day. This will provide an entirely different tasting experience and less caffeine.
How to Store Green Tea
Learning how to store green tea can be very important, particularly if you are planning on preparing it a lot. Although tea can last for many months and even years, the flavor does tend to slowly deteriorate over time. The best way to avoid this conundrum is to purchase tea in small quantities and drink it quickly, without having a bunch of different packs open at a time. If this is difficult to avoid, you might want to check out the tea storage guide on our blog!