In March 2020, we drank some old green teas and learned some things from more than 120 tea sessions. Here’s what happened.
In late February, I noticed that a lot of green teas were popping up on the Tea Curious Discord.
Two of our tea friends in particular, Tyler (HakunaMaatallah) and Henrique (HenriquePaschoal), gave me the heads up. They pointed out that last year's green teas would be coming up on a year soon, so it was high time to drink the, with the new spring harvest greens coming and all. I'd been away from home the last few springs, so I'd totally forgotten about all that.
And that got me wondering: How many green teas did I have left in my tea stash?
I had Steven check. Crrrrringe. I knew it was gonna be a lot. A few years back, I'd gone on a massive green tea buying spree in an attempt to learn more about Chinese greens, only to suddenly be away from home a lot and not really drinking down any of them. So my guess was around 70, maybe 80 green teas.
Reality was even worse. As it turns out, I had over a hundred green teas in my stash. Most I hadn't even brewed in years, and even counting what I needed for work - like for tea workshops and experiments - I really didn't need that many green teas.
Green tea is just one of those teas that loses flavor and eventually goes stale over time, as many of you aficionados already know. And while some green teas can certainly age well, it takes actual planning and intent and not just "ok, let's leave it behind in a closet for 5 years and forget it ever existed!"
A super fancy, early spring harvest Mao Feng from 2016 stared at me from the mound, package still unopened. Damn. I had to do something to fix this.
And so with the Ghost of Green Teas Past hanging behind me and the promise of spring teas on the horizon, I decided to host a challenge. Because surely I wasn’t the only one sitting on some green tea and regret, right?
We hosted the Green Tea Drink Down from February 23 to March 8: a total of 15 days. The challenge was to drink down 7 old green teas during that time (although just a session or two was OK, too!) and to share the results on either Discord or Instagram.
But why do a challenge? There were two reasons.
First, I wanted to get the kind of group tea practice going that I absolutely love. Books? Awesome. Blogs? I dig them, obviously. But at the end of the day, I’ve found that my biggest breakthroughs in tea have come just from sharing tea with other people. When you talk, listen, and taste tea with others, you get to dive into the nuances in a way that no textbook or article can -- and well, it's just plain fun to see what everyone else is drinking. Not just talking about tea to them, but listening, too.
Second, I was hoping to rescue as many old green teas from the void as possible, which I felt would be easier with the motivation of a group. And since this was happening in late winter, most green teas would be nearing almost a year old anyway (past the point that they’re traditionally considered at their prime), making it the perfect time for drink downs and setting up for spring shopping.
And so we set off.
124 green tea sessions later, here’s what we learned.
Over the course of two weeks, we had a total of 25 participants across both Instagram and Discord, including tea friends from 5 different countries.
That’s a lot of different minds, palates, and opinions in one place, which made for some awesome discussions.
Tea is just so freaking wide-ranging and subjective that it really helps to get some more perspectives in the room, and the more diverse of a group you can surround yourself with, the better.
I've developed some strong opinions about what I like over the years, which is good and all - but I also know I need to surround myself with other opinions so I don’t end up stuck in a personal echo chamber of my own ideas.
There just aren’t enough days in a lifetime for you to drink all the teas in the world or know all the things, so a little help from some friends goes a long way.
A couple things that we were able to share: how our local waters changed the taste of the same tea and how certain teas were more available or "trendy" than others depending on your region, like we saw with our Australian friend Nick (NickS/slicknebel) and the Australian green tea he shared, made from Japanese cultivars with Taiwanese processing.
We’re often only aware of what we see, and when you have folks from other places to share perspectives with, you can broaden your horizons a lot more and learn more, too.
In total, 124 tea sessions were shared as part of the Green Tea Drink Down. That’s a lot of tea!
Of the 124 tea sessions, 110 were unique teas. Just 14 teas were revisited again by the same person for another session, which meant that most of us preferred diversity over going deep into the same teas.
A total of 9 countries and 17 major tea regions were covered by our teas, including some interesting ones from Australia, Bhutan, Kenya, and Hubei Province in China, which known more for heicha.
One country seemed to take over though: Japan. A whopping 56% of the total teas were Japanese greens, of which a majority was sencha, which on its own made up 29% of everything we brewed in the challenge.
Why so much Japan? I'm not sure. Maybe it’s because Japanese green teas are perceived to be particularly sensitive to age, making us want to drink them down faster. Or maybe it's that Japan has a pretty diverse range of green teas compared to other origins, and with everything from brothy gyokuro and shaded senchas to toasty genmaicha and houjicha, there's more reason for us to collect and drink more of them.
Other than that, Chinese green teas took up 32%, while just 12% of the teas came from other countries.
I’m a little surprised by this breakdown. I thought we'd see more Chinese greens, and green teas from other origins overall. (And admittedly I have a soft spot in my heart for lesser-known regions and their experimental teas after hanging out in India and Nepal.) But do we dive deeper into the classics from China and Japan, knowing there's an infinite amount of things to master there, or go more wide-ranging, knowing there's a bunch of new terroirs to taste and learn from?
Either way we choose, I think it's a good reminder that there's always some new ground out there for us to explore eventually.
One of the biggest hopes I had for the challenge was to do some experimenting.
If my own stash was anything to go by, I’m sure people would be running into teas that would be too stale or uninspiring to drink straight, or that they just had plain too much of to drink in a timely manner. Turns out, there are indeed lots and lots of things we can do with our stand-by green teas.
In total, we tried 10 different techniques to prepare or otherwise re-purpose those teas.
While a solid 78% still went into straight up hot brew, 7% were cold or ice brews and 15% were used for purposes other than brewing.
But why? you might ask. Why do dumb things like press Dragonwell into cakes when you could just... you know, drink the tea?
(By the way, we did press old Dragonwell into cakes, and it was awesome and no one can tell me otherwise. More on that in a future blog post.)
Fair point. But getting to know tea is kind of like getting to know a person. You wouldn’t claim to really, really know your new BFF or significant other just by seeing them at work or school, now would you? It's when you get to see them in different situations: good times, bad times, weird times, and all sorts of times in between, that you begin to paint the full picture of that person.
Back to tea, it may be true that you know how your favorite green tea reacts in a gaiwan the way you like to brew it, but what does it to have to offer in a cold brew? What about in a dish, like they do anyway in lots of different traditional tea-making countries? Could you take those flavors you love so much and put them into a syrup or a cookie?
When you examine tea through a different lens, you get to challenge your mind to think about it in a new way -- and I think in a deeper, more confident way too.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m all about straight up good hot tea. Before this challenge, I’d probably cold brewed less than 10-20 times ever at home. But I also know that tea is just freaking limitless, so to jump off the deep end into things like Japanese ochazuke, tea rice (via Nazanin of Tea Thoughts), and green tea cakes is just another form of tea practice.
I mean, who knew that steamed Dragonwell leaves would smell oddly like sheng pu’erh?
And by “tea performance”, I mean: Are old green teas really as bad as we think they are?
It’s thrown around a lot that green teas must be drunk down within a year -- or two, if you really wanna be a heathen.
In general, that's a pretty solid warning. Most green teas do tend to taste best when they’re fresh: they're processed in a way that doesn't exactly hold up well over time.
But life happens, you know? We buy green teas, and sometimes we have time to drink them, and sometimes we don't. And personally, I’ve had some pretty OK experiences with older green teas. Most do fade over time but are still totally enjoyable to drink anyway, and some can be even better than their younger counterparts, like Thes Du Japon's gorgeous 2004 Kyo-tanabe Kyo-midori Gyokuro. Certain high end sencha and houjicha also seem to benefit from a bit of rest.
So, is anyone else not just drinking down their green teas, but actually enjoying them?
Happily, the answer is a big yes.
84% of our green tea sessions were positive experiences, at least in my assessment, in which I categorized something as a "positive" tea session as long as the person had mostly good things to say about the tea or if the results were better than expected.
Just 16% of the tea sessions seemed to be negative experiences, where the tea was worse than expected and the person had some decidedly unflattering and/or regret-filled things to share. (modernteaist’s “horse piss” Genmaicha comes to mind.)
And while this isn't the most scientific way to go about it, I just wanted to confirm that old green teas aren't always as world-ending as we make them out to be. Don't throw them out on theory: why not just taste them, and see what you can make of them? You'll always learn something from drinking a tea, good, bad, or otherwise.
Overall, I think the challenge helps solidify what I keep seeing over and over again in tea.
(A) Nothing is set in stone, so just go try things.
(B) Life happens, and you can't wait for the most perfect tea session. Take things as they are.
(C) We learn better together.
I’m really grateful I was able to turn this one-hundred-tea-sized mound of regret into something that was actually fun. It sure felt a lot better sharing my horrific 2012 matcha knowing that others were finding the same, often hilariously ancient teas in their own stashes too. We turned facepalm moments into good stories, and we were all able to go through it together.
Finally, here are the people (and teas!) who went above and beyond for the Green Tea Drink Down Challenge: the Hall of Fame.
Congratulations to all the winners and top performers!!
We’ll be assigning roles for completing the challenge on Discord, and we can’t wait to do this again for future challenges.
It’s awesome to see what boundaries we can push together: both in green tea, and just in tea in general, y’know?
Hey there, I'm Rie and I'm a professional tea nerd. I share the techniques and strategies we've used to seriously level up our tea game so you can get super confident with tea too!