Green Tea Grudge Match

The recent popularity of green tea has companies branding the word on consumables left and right. Investigating the ballyhoo, herbalist Nick Martens reviews just about every green tea product available.

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed a trend in recent years: “green tea” is exploding. I’m not talking about kids ordering flavorless cups of hot, tinted water at Starbucks; I’m talking about products in light-green boxes, plastered with the words “green tea” and “antioxidants,” popping up on any store-shelf within 10 miles of a yuppie population. As this trend progressed from green tea lattes to green tea ice cream to green tea gum, the “green tea” label began to feel less like a novel quirk and more like a cash-in, the blue M&M of the health food world. While the rest of the country is at war with terror and drugs, Whole Foods seems to be waging the war on oxidants, one light-green box at a time.

So, I embedded myself in the front-lines of this new conflict, committed to chronicling the successes and failures of the great green tea pandemic. These are the fruits of my labor.


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My first step was to establish a standard by which I could evaluate the products I would be testing. I paid a visit to one of the two primary green tea headquarters in Tacoma: The Metropolitan Market, arguably the area’s finest grocer. There, I acquired a small bag of Sencha Fukujyu loose green tea, produced by Barnes & Watson, a Seattle-based tea company.

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At $35 per pound, this was among the most expensive teas available at the Met. While it smelled nice, I certainly wouldn’t want it on my coffee table if the police were around. As a former loose tea advocate, I felt somewhat confident in my ability to evaluate the subtle flavors of a prized Sencha tea. I threw 4 oz of the tea in a mesh tea-ball, and dropped it into a pot with 16 oz of hot-but-not-boiling water. Having recently moved into a house for college, my tea rig was… well, it was pragmatic.

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I let that steep for about two-and-a-half minutes and poured myself a cup. The aroma was faint but an unmistakable bitter, grassy scent. In fact, the smell is the most distinctive part of the entire green tea experience. This, of course, makes sense because tea has no actual “flavor” to speak of; even when you’re “tasting” it, you’re really only smelling it as the aroma rises through the back of your mouth and up to your olfactory (smell) sensors. I remember a program on Tech TV (the name escapes me) where scientists took one of England’s top rare tea-tasters and neutralized his sense of smell. He couldn’t tell the difference between an expensive tea and coffee.

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After actually drinking this tea, I ran into a problem that swiftly derailed all of my plans for this test. Initially, I wanted to rate each subject on two scores: how much it tasted like tea and how good it actually was.

Unfortunately, this glorious scheme was ruined by the simple fact that I couldn’t taste the tea. I mean, maybe I could tell it from hot water in a blind test, but that’s as far as I could trust my tasting ability. I had formerly been a fan of the richer Irish Breakfast and Yunaan Gold teas from Adagio, and had forgotten how much subtler green tea was than black.

All was not lost, however. Not only had I accrued a ton of green tea crap, forcing me to somehow crank out a tea article, but I also began to notice an unfamiliar word on many of the packages: matcha. My greatest ally, Wikipedia, soon informed me that I was dealing with a whole new beast. Matcha is not ordinary green tea. In fact, it’s a powdered tea, ground from the finest leaves in slow process involving ancient stones. Or, so I’m told by muzi, a Canadian tea company hell-bent on using slick marketing to pimp their matcha. Feeling journalistic, I drove back to the Met to grab some fine, powdered tea.

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This can contains 1.06 oz of matcha tea. Quickly, guess how much I paid for it. Think more in terms of “premium narcotics” than “mashed-up leaves.” Okay, got a guess? The price: twenty bucks. Yeah, for a tiny tin of tea. The things I do for this stupid site.

The tin itself instructed me to whisk “two bamboo tea scoops” of matcha into 2 oz of hot water with “a bamboo whisk.” I guess if you’re springing for this $20 vial of tea you’ve probably got some pretty fancy bamboo crap around. I’m just an idiot with a website, though, so I whisked “1/2 teaspoon” of matcha with a “fork.” Also, I don’t really have any teacups dainty enough to hold 2 oz of liquid, so I used a shot glass from Ikea, which felt like a nice presentation.

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No, that’s not bile. It’s $20 tea. And I’ll spare you the suspense: it’s fucking terrible. If my sencha had no flavor, the matcha was its opposite. The bitterness was overwhelming. I sipped it to establish a baseline of “matchaness,” and the taste was excruciating. Eventually I just downed it, my despair only alleviated by muzi’s promise that matcha has, like, a million times more antioxidants than regular tea.

Now, I know that there are other ways to make matcha, such as the “matcha latte” on muzi’s site which is marginally palatable. I am also aware that, without the special fucking bamboo whisk, I was making the matcha incorrectly. I’m not actually trying to dismiss the culinary validity or matcha or of loose green tea here.

My point is that a manufacturer wouldn’t want to release a mass-market product that tasted like loose green tea or like matcha. Both are clearly niche products that are either to subtle or too disgustingly bitter to appeal to most people, let alone most Americans. So, while I wanted to string up Pepsico because their SoBe doesn’t taste a damn bit like real green tea, I realized that regular green tea is nothing more than a neutral flavor platform and that matcha demands to be dampened. In this spirit, these reviews will be mostly focused on the actual quality of a product and how well it uses green tea. I’m no longer concerned with how closely its flavors match the purest forms of green tea.


Testing

Organic Green Tea (Bagged)

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Having said that, here’s a product that tastes exactly like loose green tea. Which is good in this case. I picked these up at Trader Joe’s, the other green tea haven in my neck of the woods, and they are easily superior to the loose green tea. Since green tea is so subtle, the difference between a premium loose tea and a nice bagged tea is minimal. If you’re an experienced green tea-drinker, I’m sure there are fine distinctions, but for joe-cuppa-tea, these bags are ideal. Not only are they considerably cheaper than loose tea, they’re also more convenient. Not that putting loose tea into a ball is particularly difficult, but it’s tough to match the simplicity of dropping a bag into a cup of hot water. If you’re interested in the more powerful black teas, I would recommend looking into loose tea, but with green tea I wouldn’t bother. Just steer clear of any Lipton shit.


Unsweetened Cold Green Tea

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If you really want to know what green tea tastes like, buy some of this. Also from Trader Joe’s, this is the most hardcore iced tea I’ve ever tasted. It hits the bitter note hard, and doesn’t cut you any slack with all that sugar bullshit. It tastes like it’s purging the evil, fast-food chemicals from your body. It’s also a great reminder why the green tea you can buy next to the sodas at 7-11 doesn’t taste like real green tea. This stuff gets a little better with some honey, but it doesn’t give up its bite until it’s too damn sweet. I kind of dig it because it doesn’t fuck around with the “green tea” label, but there’s a reason I buy SoBe instead of this pure tea. Highly recommended if you’re into health foods or if you dislike sweetness.


AriZona Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey

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This is more like it. If not for the next company-with-capitalization-issues on this list, AriZona green tea would be the antithesis of Trader Joe’s badass green tea. The bottle itself is basically 100% bullshit, which I respect from a capitalistic perspective. The plant on the label is not a tea plant, the company is based out of New York, “Green Tea” is immediately mitigated by “Ginseng and Honey,” and the plastic is tinted brown. This is what the liquid actually looks like:

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Why wouldn’t they want to prominently advertise that?

Anyways, this stuff tastes pretty damn good because it’s basically soda without bubbles and with tea. The second and third ingredients are “high fructose corn syrup” and “honey.” I’m not exactly a health nut, so I don’t have anything against sugary beverages, but people should know what they’re getting into. It may not be quite as artificial as Mountain Dew, and it does genuinely have green tea and ginseng, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s not packed with sugar. Better for you than soda? Sure. Good for you? Probably not.


SoBe Green Tea

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I love this stuff. There, I said it. Yeah, it doesn’t taste or even really look like green tea, and it’s sugary as hell, but it’s unique, refreshing, and delicious. Honestly, though, after tasting some legit green tea right before drinking this, I’m baffled. I can’t taste the tea even a little bit. It tastes like water with a little honey, a touch of mint, and something you can’t put your finger on because it’s probably a chemical. I’m still going to drink SoBe, but the green tea connection is basically moot to me at this point. If I’m generous, I’d be willing to call the tea a canvas for subtle, brisk flavors, but that sure sounds like bullshit to me. I’m normally nicer to SoBe, but I just learned today that they’re owned by Pepsico, although I couldn’t find it anywhere on the bottle, so I’m a little disheartened with the whole product. It’s one thing to be quirky and unique as a plucky upstart, but it’s another to keep at it while leaving no trace of your brutal corporate overlords, dammit.


Matcha Latte

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Okay, now we’re into the matcha drink category. This, yet another from Trader Joe’s, is what I think people most associate with the new proliferation of green tea. It’s sweet rather than subtle or bitter, and it’s got that nice light green that everyone seems to like some much. Compared to the actual matcha powder, you can tell this is pretty weak stuff, which, if we’re talking about matcha, is probably a good thing.

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The latte mix, on the left, is basically green-tinted cocoa mix, while the matcha is like forest green cocaine. If you can see the little dark flecks in the latte mix, that’s the actual matcha. What else is in there? Well, the number one ingredient is sugar, so that probably tells you something about it. I made a cup of latte by mixing two tablespoons with 6oz of hot water. That sounds like a lot of fucking sugar, but the can recommends three tablespoons.

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I enjoyed this drink. It tastes basically like green tea ice cream if it was a hot liquid, which I think is what most people are looking for in this whole green tea phenomenon. It’s sweet, but not so sweet as to feel unhealthy, and its got that nice, grassy kick that seems to be the one element that ties all of this junk together. If I had to guess, I would say that the pervasive green tea smell, along with the attractive “Zen” green, is what makes this whole movement tick. If something says green tea, not only does it feel cosmopolitan, but it also indicates that a company is aware of the customer’s health. Never mind if the product isn’t actually healthy. These products are all perfectly designed to indicate vitality without the threatening intensity of Trader Joe’s hardcore tea. Now, I enjoy most of these products, but I don’t think I’m getting any healthier by dumping green sugar into everything I eat. And don’t get me started on the fucking antioxidants. I’ve got so much of that shit in me that I’m surprised I can still breathe.


Matcha Green Tea Blast

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Ahem. Err, back on track. This is from Jamba Juice, and, if you think this photo looks suspiciously like the cup from the topmost picture, well, you’re right but also suspiciously obsessive. I drank the whole thing before snapping an individual picture. So, yeah, it’s pretty delicious but it also costs five bucks. I’m sure I could make the same thing with some vanilla ice cream and my latte mix if I owned a working blender. The green tea ice cream taste is nearly identical in both products. Also, word to the wise: the new “caffeine boost” at Jamba Juice is noticeably bitter. I’m willing to sacrifice nearly any amount of flavor for more caffeine, so I get it every time, but if you want a really nice smoothie I’d stick with the “Fem Boost” or whatever the hell they have over there.


Miscellaneous Crap: Gum, Mints, Yogurt.

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Now we’re out of drinks altogether and into the world of “green tea-flavored” stuff. These first three are all junk. The gum is just slightly bitter mint gum with a green box and “antioxidants” written on it, the mints are fine if you want leaf-shaped mints that taste nothing like tea and don’t freshen your breath, and the yogurt is light green vanilla yogurt. Moving on…


Green Tea Muffins

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Hell yes. This is why I wanted to write this article in the first place, to find weird crap like this. Courtesy, of course, of Trader Joe’s comes this glorious, height-of-insanity, green tea baked good. As far as I can recall, this was the first time I’ve ever baked something by myself, so it was a pretty exciting moment for me. The recipe called for such exotic ingredients as “eggs,” “butter,” and “water.” That’s it, plus the mix. The hardest part was correctly distrubiting the batter into the lovely flower-print muffin cups I bought.

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Does that green goop look delicious or what? I took them out at the minimum recommended time, but they still came out a little burned. Still edible, though, which was more than enough for me.

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These are actually awesome. I almost didn’t believe it, but they completely won me over. The trick to their success is that they cleverly utilize the green tea flavor. Any jackass can throw some matcha powder into a muffin mix and have “green tea muffins,” but whoever made this mix seems to have actually thought about how to use the green tea most effectively. The taste is not obvious at first because, for that to work, the mix would have to be too bitter or too sweet. Instead, they taste like regular ol’ muffins to begin, and you gradually begin to get the matcha flavor as you chew. It’s not the real, bitter-ass matcha flavor, but it’s a noticeable twist on the tired green tea ice cream taste. Overall, I was quite satisfied.


Mochi Green Tea Ice Cream

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Speaking of tired green tea ice cream, we’ve got some right here. Now, this is the classic “green tea flavor” implementation. It’s interesting, unusual, tasty, and, best of all, it doesn’t have to pretend it’s healthy because it’s fucking ice cream. [I'm waiting on green tea frozen yogurt. Ed.] Spectacular. I love it, you love it, the fucking Pope probably loves it This Mochi green tea ice cream, though, is special. You couldn’t possibly guess where I bought it, and I picked it up because they didn’t have the standard carton o’ green tea ice cream. And thank God they didn’t. This might be the coolest food I’ve seen since deep-fried oranges in Georgia. The concept is so brilliantly simple, only the Japanese could have thought of it: make ice cream a finger food.

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We’re not talking, like, popsicles or some shit, here. You actually grab these little spheres out of the tray and pop them like strawberries. The trick is that the outside is made out of a slightly gummy rice candy. It’s sprinkled with some kind of starchy powder (maybe starch?) so that you can grab it without it sticking to your fingers. The rice candy is has a strange sweetness at first, but then you hit the rich green tea ice cream and it’s divine. The ice cream itself seems to be higher quality than most, and the candy quickly becomes desirable in and of itself. Plus, in a strange way, this may be the healthiest of all the gimmicky green tea crap because there’s less ice cream per container and because it encourages sharing.

I think the Mochi ice cream succeeds so memorably because it does something new with the green tea flavor. While nearly every other product I tested, besides the pure teas, seemed to be grafting green tea onto an existing product line, the Mochi actually uses green tea to introduce something unfamiliar. I’m sure there are other flavors in Japan, but green tea was wisely selected for the U.S. because people who buy green tea ice cream are likely to be more suggestible to odd-but-compelling Japanese innovations. I suppose this is still a company exploiting the newfound popularity of green tea flavor, but it feels more like an honest, entrepreneurial kind of exploitation, a nice break from the soul-crushing, money-grubbing exploitation we Americans have come to expect. Plus, after all of this green tea nonsense, it was so damn refreshing to see the words “artificial flavor added” on a box of food again.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.