For many black tea devotees in the western world, it can be easy to forget that all tea begins as a leafy green plant. Though processing steps can make those leaves unrecognizable, the original form is recognizable in whole leaf teas, and especially in the vegetable-like, or “vegetal” flavor palate of lightly oxidized teas like greens, whites, and some oolongs. Just like fresh vegetables, the flavor notes found within these teas can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the terroir, harvest date, crafting style, and ultimately, how the tea is brewed, or “cooked” in hot water.
Green teas are most commonly associated with vegetal flavors, since they are the least processed, and therefore remain closest to the original form of the fresh leaf. The style of crafting used to dry and preserve the leaf is a primary factor in determining what vegetal flavor notes appear in the finished tea. Green teas from Japan, for instance, are usually described as having notes of seaweed or kelp, a rich and savory flavor developed when the leaves are steamed to halt oxidation. In contrast, high quality green teas from China are often pan-fired in a wok to preserve natural flavor notes of sweet young grass.
Leaves harvested late in the season are typically used for everyday green teas, because, like maturing spinach, larger, tougher leaves begin to grow as the harvest season continues. These leaves typically contain more bitter flavor compounds that evoke notes of large leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, or arugula. Though these can still taste good if “cooked” correctly in the brewing process, they are often used as the base for flower or fruit blends, since the robust flavor of late-harvest leaves won’t be lost beneath the added fragrances or flavorings.
Sometimes, vegetal flavor notes are discussed as a sign of low quality tea, or dismissed as a negative aspect of the flavor profile. In truth, most tea crafting techniques are concerned with transforming the vegetable-like qualities of a tea's flavor into something else, so when we find vegetal teas in the white or oolong categories, it is usually something to avoid.
Traditional white tea crafting uses a slow air-drying process called “fading” to introduce very gentle oxidation while finishing the leaves. Well crafted white teas from traditional regions are better known for notes of stone fruit or even marzipan, but vegetal notes can appear in examples that were grown quickly in hot weather or were dried too quickly to allow for proper oxidation during processing.
Similarly, qing xiang or green-style oolongs, typically better known for floral aromas, might become vegetal if not properly oxidized during processing, or if brewed with water that is too hot. In fact, very hot water or long steeping times can make almost any lightly oxidized tea taste like overcooked vegetables, since that is exactly what they become. To illustrate this point, imagine the difference between blanched and boiled spinach - a short cooking time preserves natural flavors, while a longer boiling period extracts more hydrogen sulfides and is likely to create a mushy green mess.
While green teas and their distinctive vegetal notes may not be perfect for every palate, it’s important to distinguish between the delicate grassy flavor profile of an early spring harvest and the bitter bite of a stewed summer harvest. In high quality teas that lack astringency or bitterness, the vegetal aspect of flavor is a rare treat, something to be preserved in the leaf rather than masked.
What vegetal notes do you recognize in your favorite teas? Let us know in the comments below!
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