How green was my teabag...

More and more people are turning their backs on the traditional Indian tea in favour of China green. Why? Because it's healthier.
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It's not so much whether you have encountered green tea as whether you have been able to avoid it. It is everywhere and unavoidably in everything from ice-cream to the latest health aid. I began dabbling with green tea some five years ago; it was a journey of exploration into a pot full of straw-yellow tea that smelled of oil paints. I finished the packet and forgot all about it. The only green tea advocates at that time, other than Orientals, were macrobiotic Buddhists, which ensured it remained firmly in a niche.

Lately all that has changed, with household names such as Twinings, Jacksons of Piccadilly and Taylors of Harrogate launching green tea ranges over the next two months. Even that great stickler Ty-phoo has joined the race with a "Green Tea Blend". It can only be a matter of time before those chirpy Tetley chappies on the TV are stretching and yawning to a cup of China green. What's more, Ty-phoo sees green tea becoming mainstream and on a par with decaffeinated tea. What on earth is going on?

Ironically, Chinese green tea was the first cuppa ever drunk here. It was only in 1838, when Indian tea arrived (devoid of taxes as it was grown within the Empire), that our taste changed to the brown brew taken with milk and sugar which we accept today as being the norm. Unfortunately though, it's not as good for us. While black tea is fermented, green tea is simply picked and dried, which maintains a high level of precious antioxidants. We know we ought to consume more antioxidants to help wage war against the evil free radicals that can contribute to heart disease and a variety of cancers. There are some very impressive statistics being bandied around and a great deal of research is being carried out into the beneficial effects of catechins (the flavenoid antioxidants contained in green tea), in particular by the American Food and Drink Agency.

Fine. The problem is that few Brits, at the moment, actively like green tea - unlike the Japanese, who are widely regarded as being masters in the art. Their most common green tea is sencha, which has large leaves that unfurl to reveal their shape. I hesitate to compare it with spinach water for fear of putting you off, but there's no denying its similarity. And even more alien than this is the highly revered matcho, a pale green powder, as fine as icing sugar, that is central to the tea ceremony. Whisked with boiling water in a small drinking bowl until it is almost frothy, it is viciously bitter. To the Western palate, it's as unacceptable as raw jellyfish and all the other slippery treats the Japanese go in for. But Giles Hilton, the tea buyer at Whittard of Chelsea assures me it is not masochism and that the Japanese do genuinely enjoy it.

My own preference is for Whittard Chinese gunpowder tea, the least astringent of the Oriental green teas. I will happily settle for a cup of this after dinner in preference to a herbal infusion, going to bed happy in the knowledge that all those antioxidants are racing round my body zapping the free radicals I have inadvertently created during the day. But, we are talking here of a pukka cuppa produced with a loose-leaf tea, and as we know to our detriment, the great British brew is made with a bag. And why should green tea be any different? To hell with tradition, the new green teas have been ground, apportioned and stuffed inside a porous sack to suit our expectations.

Green tea is traditionally drunk without milk or sugar. Putting the household names to a taste test, I started with Jacksons, whose range includes green tea with mint or lemon. This flavouring suits it quite well. However, after the recommended three- to four-minute brewing time, the tea was a chewy dark brown. Clear at first, after a few minutes of standing it turned the colour of murky pond-water, leaving a scum around the side of the mug that was very unappealing. I made it again, this time literally wiping the teabag through the water and it was perfectly acceptable. Twinings' green tea (Pure, Lotus or Jasmine) likewise produced a decent brew if you made it weak, although again it clouded over and left an unpleasant scum.

I put these findings to Stephen Twining, 10th generation of the family firm. The tea's cloudiness which develops into a scum, he explained, is due to oils that are released when the tea is ground to go into the bag. Whether or not this is the full story, it's still off-putting. As to the tea's strength, Twining explains that this is hampered by British Trading Standards which stipulate the required weight of a box, in turn this affects the amount of tea in the bag.

So why not say one bag for a pot for four people? "Well, hopefully people will make it once and realise that it's too strong and next time make it weaker according to their preference." I can't help but feel that many consumers are simply going to be put off.

As for Ty-phoo, it has managed to turn Oriental wisdom into a thoroughly British cuppa by mixing 60 per cent green tea from India and Sri Lanka with 40 per cent black Assam tea, to which you can add milk and sugar. And while this aberration may have purists twitching, for a mass-market brew it isn't bad. The green tea gives it some of the sharpness you find in Darjeeling. The reason behind the blend, according to Ty-phoo's marketing manager, Yolanda Jaques, is "because we did a lot of research and what came back is that while people want to do more about their health, they don't want to compromise their existing habits." Of course they don't, it's called having your cake and eating it.

Stockists: Jacksons 01264 334498; Taylors of Harrogate 0800 515 988; Twinings 01264 334477; Ty-phoo 0800 783 2194; Whittard 0800 525 092