The most common reason people give for not liking green tea is that it tastes too bitter. Here’s something that might surprise you: that’s not how green tea is supposed to taste. When it’s made correctly, green tea is delicate and complex—and making it the right way is surprisingly easy once you know how.
Any tea can taste bitter if it’s not steeped properly. There are bitter compounds in green tea, but these shouldn’t be the dominant feature in the flavor profile. Even for green teas where a bitter note is desirable, proper steeping will keep this flavor in balance with the rest.
The main compounds responsible for green tea’s bitterness are caffeine and catechins. Catechins are antioxidants and a part of the flavonoid family of chemicals. These compounds make up about 25% of green tea’s dry weight.
There are 10 types of catechins in green tea, but the dominant one is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). This is also what gives green tea its health benefits, as well as the grassiness green tea is praised for, so it’s a good thing in moderation. The trick is to brew in a way that keeps these compounds from overpowering the entire flavor profile.
These compounds exist in black tea, too, but in lower quantities. The color of black tea is a result of oxidation, which is halted in green tea leaves. This process also converts some of the catechins into other compounds that have a sweet taste rather than a bitter one. That’s the main reason green tea can taste more bitter than black tea, especially when it’s brewed incorrectly.
First of all, it’s important to know that, unlike coffee, all forms of true tea come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). A pale, delicate white tea starts the same way as a bold, dark English breakfast. The difference between types of tea comes down to when the leaves are picked and how they’re processed.
Since they all come from the same plant, all tea leaves contain the same compounds when they’re picked, but these compounds will exist in different ratios depending on the age of the leaf. Younger leaves from the top of the plant have more catechin than older leaves.
The amount of catechin in tea plants also increases over the course of the harvest season. Upper leaves from the first flush (first picking) have more catechin than lower leaves, but less than the upper leaves from the second flush.
All of this is to say not all green tea is created equal, and some types will be more susceptible to bitterness than others. Let’s look at some of the most common types of green tea and how they differ in flavor.
The best-known variety of green tea, Sencha leaves are steamed and rolled before drying. Its flavor tends to be light and refreshing, with some varieties having almost savory vegetal and seaweed notes.
Sencha is one of the “grassier” green tea varieties and is prone to bitterness when over-steeped. If you like a strong cup with a pungent flavor and aroma, Sencha is a good choice.
“Fukamushi” roughly translates to “steamed for a long time”. These leaves are processed similarly to Sencha but are steamed for about twice as long. This gives them an even more concentrated flavor and darker green color.
Steaming the leaves also removes some of the grassiness associated with green tea and gives it a smoother mouthfeel that’s not as astringent as Sencha. That lowers the perception of bitterness and makes it easier to taste the more subtle notes.
Matcha is a green tea powder made by stone grinding leaves that have been steamed then dried flat, rather than rolled like Sencha. Since it’s a powder rather than a leaf, it’s prepared differently, dissolving completely into the hot water instead of being steeped and removed.
The reason most westerners add milk to their Matcha is that it can be very bitter on its own. This is because you’re consuming the whole leaf, including all those bitter catechins we talked about above.
Also called “Jade Dew” or “Pearl Dew”, Gyokuro leaves are shade-grown, often covered with a screen or cloth to protect the leaves from direct sunlight. This slows down the conversion of amino acids into catechins in the leaves.
Of all the green tea varieties, Gyokuro is among the smoothest and least bitter. Its flavor can lean more savory, with an aroma similar to nori, or have more sweet, floral notes, depending on how it was covered and processed.
Genmaicha translates to “brown rice tea”, and once you know that you basically know what it’s about. To prepare Genmaicha, Sencha leaves are mixed with unprocessed rice that has been soaked, steamed, and roasted.
Adding rice to the tea gives it a nutty, toasted flavor. It has a fuller body than other green teas, with a mouthfeel more similar to oolong or black teas. These other flavors also mellow out the tea’s natural bitterness.
While most green teas come from Japan, Longjing is a variety from China. Historically, it was the imperial tea of the Qing dynasty. It’s made from young, tender leaves that are roasted in a pan after picking. That roasting gives Longjing similar nutty notes to Genmaicha.
Longjing tea is highly sought after and can be difficult to find (and expensive) in the west. It’s prized for its sweet, mild flavor, and has almost none of the grassiness of other green teas.
The type of tea you’re using is the first factor in how bitter it will be. Just as important in controlling that, though, is how you steep it. Let’s take a look at the most common causes of bitterness in green tea (and how you can avoid them).
#1: Use cooler water.
The most common cause of bitterness in green tea is steeping it with water that’s too hot. Black teas can stand up to boiling water (although that high of a temperature isn’t ideal for them, either). More delicate green and white teas are damaged by boiling water, resulting in a burnt, overcooked flavor.
Green tea steeps best at around 150-160°F. An electric kettle with temperature control is the easiest way to achieve this, but you can also get a cheap steaming thermometer and use that to track the water’s temperature as it heats.
If you don’t have a thermometer handy, a good rule of thumb is to bring your water to a boil then remove it from the heat, remove the lid, and allow it to sit for 2-3 minutes before beginning to steep.
#2: Don’t steep for too long.
As long as the leaves are in contact with water they will continue to release flavor compounds—and that’s not a good thing. The desirable flavor compounds are mostly extracted during the first minute. After that, you’re extracting undesirable back-end flavors that add bitterness and overwhelm the tea’s complex, delicate notes.
The ideal steep length depends on the type of tea you’re making and your personal tastes. A 3-minute steep time is a good place to start. From there, you can adjust the steep length by up to 1 minute in either direction until you get the strength and flavor you want.
#3: Use high-quality loose leaf tea.
Pre-bagged teas are the manufacturer’s way to get rid of the small particles and dust left over from processing more expensive whole-leaf teas. Smaller particles mean more surface area and faster flavor extraction, so you’re more likely to get those bitter late-steep flavors in your cup.
The leaves in loose leaf tea are more consistent in size, making it easier to control the speed of extraction. Whole leaves stay fresher longer than bagged tea, too, and are usually a higher grade of tea leaf, making it easier for you to produce a good tasting cup.
#4: Use the right leaf-to-water ratio.
This is a less important factor than temperature and steep time, to be honest, but it still has an impact on the flavor. The more leaves you use, the stronger the flavor will be.
Using too little tea is just as bad as using too much. Often it results in a weak cup, which leads to the temptation to steep the tea longer—not the best idea, as you’ve already learned.
A good ratio to start with is 2 grams of leaves for every 6 ounces of water. Weight is better than volume for measuring tea since the leaves are different sizes. If you don’t have a scale, though, 1 teaspoon of leaves for every 6 ounces of water is a good rough estimate.
#5: Filter your water.
If you’ve tried the 4 tips above and your green tea is still too bitter, the problem might be your water. Any cup of tea is mostly water when you break it down. In fact, water makes up 98-99% of the tea you drink, with only 1-2% comprised of extracted flavor particles.
In black tea, these flavors are strong enough to mask off flavors in unfiltered water. Green tea is more delicate, allowing the imperfections of the water to show through. Trace minerals in some water can also interact with the flavor compounds in tea, enhancing its bitterness.
If your water has an odor or leaves a stain behind after droplets dry, that’s a sign you should be using a filter. You can also get test strips at home improvement stores that can give you a clear answer about the pH level and hardness of your water.
We’ve mentioned a few times that green tea shouldn’t taste bitter if it’s steeped correctly. So what is that correct steeping process that will yield a delicious, smooth cup of green tea?
The first place you should check is the tea’s packaging. Usually, you’ll find recommended steeping instructions that are specific to the type of tea you’re using.
To some extent, the ideal steeping method depends on your personal flavor preferences, too. Having said that, though, here’s a good step-by-step to follow when you’re trying to get the best flavor out of loose leaf green tea:
The part of this process that many people neglect is also one of the most important: removing the leaves after 2-4 minutes. If you leave the bag or infuser in your cup the tea will only get more bitter over time.
Green tea is one of the more delicate versions of the leaf. While some bitterness is an expected part of the flavor profile, if this is the main thing you taste that’s a sure sign of a steeping error.
The most common mistake people make with green tea is steeping it too hot. The good news is, this is an easy error to correct, especially since you can find steeping thermometers for about $5 at most kitchen supply stores (or from your favorite online retailer).
Once you know the right way to steep green tea, it’s easy to make a delicious cup. We hope the tips in this article will help you eliminate the bitterness once and for all!
Bitter Be Gone! 4 Ways to Fix Bitter Green Tea
Bitterness in Green Tea
Varieties of Green Tea
Differences Between Black Tea vs. Green Tea