If you’re like me, taking a break with a nice cup of healthy green tea is a necessary self-indulgence. However, what happens when you take a sip of fresh, piping hot green tea only to discover that you can taste an unpleasant fishy flavor? Many people find this flavor undesirable and want to avoid it at all costs. What causes green tea to taste like fish, and is there a way to prevent it?
The “fishy” taste is probably closer to a seaweed flavor. Green tea leaves share some chemical structures with seaweed and can produce similar flavors. The umami taste is prized in Japanese green teas. If the flavor is really strong, you may have poor quality ingredients, or have an issue in the way you’re storing or preparing your tea.
Some people notice a fishy taste in green tea more than others. The flavor may be caused by the tea itself, but it’s also possible that you’re simply more sensitive to it than others.
Individual sensitivity aside, there are some specific reasons your green tea might taste fishy. Let’s break down where that flavor actually comes from and what options you have to avoid it.
Why Does Green Tea Sometimes Taste Fishy?
A slight fishy or seaweed-like flavor in green tea may not be an accident. Japanese green tea leaves are highly sought after for their umami flavor. Umami is now considered to be a fifth human taste in addition to salty, sour, bitter, and sweet.
Umami is a Japanese word that generally means “a pleasant savory taste.”
While the fishy flavor can be unsettling for some, especially those first trying green tea—many more experienced green tea drinkers enjoy this flavor.
The reason green tea can taste fishy is because of a compound called Dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Both seaweed and some forms of marine life contain dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP). DMSP creates DMS when broken down by bacteria, creating the fishy smell. DMS is found in Japanese green tea as well.
People often think that that “fishy” flavor is coming from an external contaminate or a problem in the tea leaves such as age or quality, however, the compounds that cause that distinctive flavor are actually a natural part of the tea leaf. Tasting something in green tea that you identify as fishy, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with your tea. You likely just aren’t accustomed to the flavor of Japanese green tea.
That being said, there are other factors such as contaminates or preparation processes that can make the umami elements of green tea flavor more intense. In the next section, we’ll cover some of the ways that you can adjust your tea to reduce the intensity of the flavor.
What Can You Do About The Fishy Taste of Green Tea? 7 Tips
If the fishy, umami flavor of some green teas really isn’t your thing, you may still be wondering if there’s anything you can do about it. There are a number of things you can try to have a tea-drinking experience that will be enjoyable and relaxing for you.
Here are some tips for minimizing the fishy taste of green tea:
Tip #1: Remember That It’s an Acquired Taste
Many green tea aficionados claim that exposure is the key to overcoming the unpleasant aroma. As you continue to drink green tea, you may find that your taste buds adjust. Green tea drinkers often report that as they become more accustomed to Japanese green tea, they stop noticing the fishy flavor and instead enjoy notes that are grassy, vegetable-like, herbaceous, or melon-like.
If you simply allow yourself to adapt to the flavor, you may wind up finding it quite soothing and enjoyable.
However, some people are just more sensitive to the umami flavor in green tea than others. If you simply notice the flavor more keenly and it continues to bother you, forcing yourself to drink something you don’t enjoy may not be your best option. There are other teas to enjoy!
Tip #2: Add Lemon Juice
Lemon juice is commonly used when cooking fish. The lemon tends to cover up the less desirable “fishy” flavors and fragrance. The same works in tea. A splash of lemon juice will add a strong citrus flavor that will effectively mask the umami flavor.
Tip #3: Steep at a Lower Temperature
If you’ve got powerful fishy flavors in your tea, it’s possible that you’re steeping it in too hot of liquid. Hot liquid in the steaming or seeping process can draw out the fishy flavor by converting a precursor to DMS, S-Methylmethionine (SMM) into DMS.
Try steeping at a temperature between 150 -160° F and see if you find the flavor more enjoyable. Going low and slow as opposed to hot and fast absolutely affects the flavor of the tea.
Tip #4: Steep for a Shorter Time
It’s all too easy to let tea steep for too long. While this may be fine if you want a stronger black or herbal tea, a long steep time will cause green tea to become bitter and may exaggerate any fishy flavor as well.
It helps to know that green tea is not a highly processed tea variety. As a result, it is more likely to burn and otherwise be damaged.
Steep your green tea for only 2 minutes and see if it tastes better to you.
Tip #5: Store Securely
Tea leaves are almost always dried which makes them highly absorbent. If you place them in the refrigerator too close to foods with strong flavors, green tea leaves can absorb these flavors. This is especially true with strong flavors and odors such as fish. Be sure to place your green tea leaves in a secure container and away from other foods.
In addition, DMS reacts poorly to contaminates. So, if your tea leaves have absorbed other flavors, haven’t been well cleaned, or are just of poor quality—you may end up with an unpleasant aroma.
Tip #6: Use the Right Teapot
Japanese teas are intended to be brewed in unglazed, earthenware pots. The walls of these pots will leach small amounts of minerals, including iron, into the tea. This helps to regulate the flavor and balance out some of the stronger elements. Avoid using porcelain or other materials, if possible.
If you’re brewing Chinese green tea, then the opposite is true. Porcelain is the preferred material for your tea pot above anything else.
Making sure you’ve got the right tools can make a big difference in ensuring that the final product is something that you enjoy.
Tip #7: Drink a Different Tea
I realize that I’m stating the obvious, but if the tea you’re drinking doesn’t agree with you, the easiest solution is to just try a different tea.
Expensive green teas often have stronger notes of umami since this flavor is desirable to green tea drinkers. However, cheaper green teas are more likely to contain contaminates or be affected by other factors that negatively impact the flavor. Try switching it up. Get something either higher or lower in quality than what you have and see if it makes a difference for you.
Japanese green tea also presents much stronger umami or fishy flavors than Chinese green tea. This is due to the way they have been selectively bred and cultivated and the fact that Japanese green tea is often steamed, drawing out the umami flavor.
This is because steaming quickly kills the oxidizing enzymes and thus preserves the amino acids that make up DMS and its associated compounds. Chinese leaves are fixed using a dry heat which allows the oxidizing enzymes time to break down the chemicals that cause the distinctive umami flavor of Japanese tea.
If Japanese green tea doesn’t strike your fancy, try switching to Chinese green tea. You may find it more to your liking.
Also, there are many different teas out there. If green tea just isn’t…well… your cup of tea, then try something different.
You may want to stay away from Pu Erh as this tea also is sometimes found to have a fishy flavor. Interestingly the cause is different and is usually due to sanitary shortcuts taken in the manufacturing process.
Alishan Oolong is often recommended as an alternative to green tea with a less intense flavor.
Experiment with different teas and find the cup you truly enjoy.