Whether it’s your morning or your afternoon cup, green tea is a great beverage choice.
In Japan, people love their tea – so much so that they’ve found hundreds of ways to process and serve it. Today, people all across Japan start their days and take breaks from work with a healthy brew.
It’s no wonder why Japanese tea is so loved: it’s healthy, it’s tasty, it’s hydrating, and it’s caffeinated.
With Japanese tea, there’s something to suit every taste – the drink comes with many aromas and forms. Some Japanese green tea varieties are sweeter, others more bitter, and some very nutty. With so many options out there, green can be anybody’s cup of tea.
What kind of tea do they drink in Japan?
Of course, not ALL tea in Japan is green tea – but the majority is.
People use all sorts of plants to make tea in Japan.
Kuromamecha, made of roasted soybeans, is a tea popular for its anti-aging properties. Mugicha is made of roasted barley, while sobacha requires roasted buckwheat kernels – the very same plant used to make soba noodles. Tree leaves, herbs, and even seaweeds are used to make tea.
But these are nowhere near as popular as green tea.
Camellia Sinensis – The Tea Plant
Did you know that green, black, white, and oolong tea all come from the same plant?
The name of this wonderfully versatile plant is Camellia Sinensis.
The aromas, colors, aftertastes, and caffeine contents of those teas differ dramatically.
All characteristics of your favorite teas are influenced by the way the plant was grown and processed.
Japan cultivates all kinds of teas, but green tea has become an integral part of Japanese culture over the centuries. Green tea is also known as ryokucha (緑茶).
Over its long history with green tea, Japan has explored the world of tea growing and processing. Today, you can find numerous kinds of Japanese green tea on the market. The world of Japanese tea has a lot to offer: classic sencha, world-famous matcha, creative genmaicha, delicate gyokuro, and much more.
While coffee is by no means uncommon, tea is the morning drink of choice for many Japanese people. Green tea provides an energizing kick without a caffeine crash.
Besides being a great warm drink to start the day with, green tea is also a widely popular cold refreshment in Japan. Unsweetened iced green tea is one of the most common cold drinks, and you can get it for a few yen almost anywhere you turn. You can find it in any store or vending machine, right next to Coca-Cola – which even sells its own brand of iced green tea.
What makes Japanese green tea different?
If you try Japanese and Chinese green teas side by side, you’ll feel a distinct difference.
While they grow green tea the same way in Japan and China, the processing methods are completely different. It all boils down to the one crucial method: kill-green.
Kill-green is a process that prevents oxidation in freshly-picked leaves. The very process that leaves unfinished apples brown and mushy can be stopped in tea leaves – you just need to break down the enzymes that would otherwise turn the leaves brown.
While China prefers to achieve kill-green by pan-frying, Japanese tea usually goes through a steaming process. The hot steam stops tea leaves from changing color, and it accentuates the natural umami and sweet flavors in the tea.
The Most Popular Varieties of Tea in Japan
Sencha is the tea in Japan.
Loose-leaf green tea grown in full sun, sencha accounts for almost 60% of all tea production in Japan.
The way it’s grown, with a lot of exposure to the sun, gives this tea a powerful, astringent flavor and a darker color. Some people compare the flavor of sencha with seaweed (in a good way), but most simply describe it as a fresh, sweet taste with a hint of umami and bitterness.
Tea leaves are harvested from the tree several times a year. Sencha is only produced during the first and the second harvest. The first-harvest sencha is also known as shincha (新茶 – new tea), it’s only available for a limited time, and it’s the highest grade sencha tea on the market.
You can find sencha in a few versions, differing only in the length of steaming done to achieve kill-green. Sencha can be lightly steamed, leaving the so-called sencha asamushi with a natural, herbal taste. Deep steaming (sencha fukamushi) used to be a popular way of preventing bitterness in tea, giving it a smooth flavor.
Brew your sencha at temperatures between 70° and 80°C (158°-176°F).
Desire a cup of tea worthy of an emperor? Try gyokuro.
Cultivated in the shade involving a strenuous covering process, gyokuro is among the most expensive kinds of tea in Japan. Five times as expensive as sencha, a cup of gyokuro is worth its weight in gold.
Rich in caffeine and low in catechin, this tea gives you the wake-up kick you need without any bitterness. This is achieved by sun-shielding the plant for 20 days before harvest. Its distinctly dark leaves spread the aroma as soon as you open the bag.
Gyokuro is exceptional as the bright green beverage can be brewed in water temperatures as low as 40°C (104°F)for a brothy, umami flavor. Use higher temperatures, between 60° and 80°C (140°-176°) for a distinct, clean taste.
A somewhat less expensive form of covered tea – kabusecha (かぶせ茶), is also available. This tea is, in a way, a mid-way point between sencha and gyokuro. Shielded from the sun for just 1 week, kabusecha contains a good amount of caffeine with a hint of astringency.
Bancha is cultivated a similar way as sencha – but it’s harvested later, at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn. Bancha is considered lower grade tea, so it’s often served for free in restaurants or processed further to make other types of tea like hojicha.
Leaves harvested from the second and later flushes are all bancha, more specifically called nibancha (second tea), sanbancha (third tea) and so on.
Konacha, also known as agari, is green tea in powdered form.
You can find bits of buds, small leaves, and dust in your bag of konacha. Those are typically left behind after gyokuro and sencha, so konacha can be truly high quality tea.
Compared to sencha, konacha is said to have a thicker, fuller, and bitterer taste, but it’s quite inexpensive because it’s technically a byproduct.
It pairs great with fish. In fact, whenever you walk into a sushi restaurant, chances are you’ll be offered a cup and refills of konacha for free. This tea is readily served in restaurants, and it’s a great choice to refresh your taste buds between courses.
In recent years, matcha has taken the world by storm. It’s called a superfood by many – and besides its numerous health benefits, matcha is also fluffy and absolutely delicious.
Even though both come in powdered form, there’s a world of difference between matcha and konacha. While konacha is a byproduct of sencha or gyokuro, matcha is made of specially cultivated tea leaves (called tencha) ground with a small mill.
Tencha, leaves used for matcha, are cultivated under a sun shield for 2, 3, or 4 weeks before harvest. The greenest young leaves are hand-picked, and then processed by steaming, removing stems and veins, drying, and finally grounding into a fine powder.
This type of tea has a sweet umami flavor and a smooth, frothy texture because it’s prepared by whisking. It’s rich in theanine and caffeine.
Matcha is the central figure in the centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony – in fact, it’s one of the Japanese teas with the longest history.
Today, you can get matcha in two grades: ceremonial and culinary. Ceremonial matcha refers to high-grade, finely ground tea with vibrant green color, and tea enthusiasts prefer this type of matcha for drinking. Culinary matcha is harvested later and used for cooking because of its strong flavor and more prominent clumping.
This is perhaps the only type of Japanese tea that contains no tea leaves at all! Instead of dried leaves, kukicha is made out of tea twigs and stems.
Due to the fact, it’s low in caffeine, making kukicha the perfect tea to drink anytime you want – even right before bed!
The taste of kukicha is mild, it’s somewhat sweet and doesn’t get bitter easily.
People who love nutty flavors will fall in love with genmaicha instantly!
This unique tea is a combination of two ingredients: sencha tea and roasted rice. Sometimes, matcha is added to enrich the flavor and give the brew an attractive green color.
This combination brings so much to the table. First of all, genmaicha has a uniquely nutty aroma it gets from the white rice (often mocha rice) toasted brown – it may even have a few popped rice kernels. Since it contains rice water, genmaicha can fill you up quickly, so it’s not a tea to drink with heavy meals. Finally, genmaicha contains less caffeine since it, well, contains less tea.
Hojicha (also transcribed as houjicha) is made by roasting bancha. In fact, it’s even known as bancha in some regions. Sometimes, you can also find hojicha made of roasted sencha or kukicha.
Due to the roasting process, hojicha has a pleasant, tasty aroma that pairs well with almost any Japanese recipe. Some people even compare the taste to roasted coffee.
It’s the only Japanese tea you can brew even in boiling water. High water temperature won’t burn your tea or alter its taste because of the way hojicha is processed. The hojicha infusion is brown – and it’s the only green tea where this is completely normal!
Almost Ready to Brew
So, the next time you crave a caffeine kick, want a drink to go with your lunch, or just desire a warm beverage to go with a good book, one of the many varieties of Japanese green tea is a great choice. I gave my best to create a comprehensive overview of Japanese tea types, so I hope it helps you find that perfect cup of tea.
However, you’re not ready to brew just yet! I’ll tell you more about the Japanese tea culture and give you a few important brewing techniques in the next blog post!
Check it out, and if you have any questions left, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!