Moderator edit: poll added
Do not take anything I say seriously.
What is the great lesson which history imparts us when we glimpse back through time at prevailing ideas of value and benefit relating to food and drink? Prior to the mid-1900's european culture and to this very day asian culture, considered refined grains to be a superior product to the more bitter and chewy textured whole grain variant. Modern science tells us that the wealthy, paying for the 'higher quality' product were doing themselves more harm than the lowly peasant and his unrefined grain. The wealthy indulged in high fat meats - the peasant organ meats and leaner cuts, the wealthy fruits (more perishable/seasonal variance = higher price) - the poor vegetables (better storage, less perishable = lower price). Examples abound that continually hammer home the message that what is abundant, hardy, harsher flavoured, is in many if not most cases superior for health reasons than their more 'refined' cousins.
Green tea, like wine, beer, tobacco, marijuana, or any other consumable drug, has undergone fetishization. This is an occurrence which is both natural and further promoted by those who will most benefit by it - namely the producers and sellers. The process is a simple one, value-added is not to imply real value added but simply the added value of perceived greater benefit. A poetic name, a romanticized back-story, production levels kept low (intentionally), a large enough consumer base with excess wealth and the human tendency and desire to feel like a 'have' as opposed to a 'have-not'.
You tell me that my green tea should be made of young leaves, grown in certain areas of certain nations from certain cultivars, exhibiting certain chemical profiles and certain taste attributes. I am told that $50 for 100g is a poor product and that I must spend more to ensure I have purchased an item 'worth drinking'.
Taste is an interesting thing. Taste can mean taste as in, I have 'good taste', as in 'I prefer this over that'. Taste can also mean the experience of tasting something. The distinction is an important one and should not be confused. There is not a direct correlation between my taste of something with my taste For something. My taste For something is conditioned; it's prejudicial, like my racist step-brother. Like any prejudice it is injected into me from the outside, but like any foreign invader it can be expelled/converted/or embraced. My taste Of something is much less complex and involves 5 senses and various scents. My first taste of green tea gave me the same taste sensation that I have to this day, but my taste in the tea I drank then has altered to what it is today. My taste for green tea was not a pleasant one, I thought it a bitter grassy beverage, my palate was conditioned towards things which did not share characteristics of green tea. I chose to continue drinking, my taste for green tea grew more pleasant, while my taste of green tea remained constant. When we are purchasing green tea for the taste we are not choosing by any other standard than one imposed from without, by the so-called 'authorities', those who want us to believe that this particular combination of taste/scent is super to that taste/scent combination.
What is real value then? What brought most of us originally to green tea, if not for cultural and traditional reasons, was likely the health hype surrounding it. This grabbed our attention, we've been programmed that as conscious willing creatures we have a responsibility to ourselves in this regard to choose items of ingestion that prove most beneficial to our organism. In this regard is expensive young leaved green tea the highest value? I have been questioning this for some time now. If we take anecdotal evidence for anything, we have the historical example providing us with some suspicion for any of the 'refined' or 'noble' things of this world as being those which are of higher value in regards to health. There is also a pleasant image in our head of vigorous peasants, tolstoyan in their virtue and hardiness, venturing into the fields for hours of hard labour in all weather conditions, subsisting on the lowly bancha or other 'cheaper' old-leaf variety of tea. This isn't exactly compelling evidence tho, not for our modern scientifico-rational generation. Not for me, certainly!
What is healthiest in green tea? Science doesn't agree on this, it's a contentious issue, with some even questioning a health benefit at all! Few however would disagree that catechin is responsible for most, perhaps in the 60 - 80% range of green tea's healthy profile. Caffeine is especially problematic and controversial with some demonizing and others glorifying. We won't go too close to that one. Finally theanine. This seems like a nice, mildly psychoactive component of tea, with some possible health benefit. These are perhaps the top three chemical constituents from which green tea's presumed health benefit is generally thought to derive. I'm going to paste something here, I won't cite it, I don't like to do that:
"In fact, through the natural production of polyphenols, the tea plant converts theanine into catechins. This means that tea leaves harvested during one part of the growing season may be high in catechins (good for antioxidant benefits), while leaves harvested during another time of year may be higher in theanine"
..Meaning of course, the older "cheap" or as some elitist snob types enjoy to deride it "trash" leaves are those which (generally) contain the higher quantities of catechin (bitter, astringent, yuck poor people tea). The theanine (mm sweet, psyhoactive, allows me to relax as the landowner watching as the peasants sweat it out outside) on the other hand, is higher in the younger leaves. If value = health and health = older leaves, perhaps it's time we threw off the shackles of consumerist hype, playing upon our insecurities and fattening us upon the gluttonies of frivolous expenditure, embrace the noble old leaf, it's lived a long life, seen the world, survived through the year. Like the old crone, it may not be pretty to look upon, but it has a lot of goodness to impart to you.