Japanese Tea – A Refreshing Cup For Everyone

Healthy and delicious; with so many options out there, green can be anybody’s cup of tea. Here’s more on the types of Japanese green tea.

Whether it’s your morning or your afternoon cup, Japanese 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?

Green tea is the tea of Japan. It’s grown, processed, and served in many different forms. It’s so popular that there’s an entire ceremony of tea, which usually serves specially grown, powder form of green tea – matcha.

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.

 

Green tea plant
Factors like exposure to sunlight, time of harvest, and processing methods like steaming, drying, and roasting all come into play.

 

Japan cultivates all kinds of teas, but green tea has become an integral part of Japanese culture over the centuries. The “default” green tea in Japan today is called sencha, but historically, powdered matcha was the dominant type of tea. Green tea, in general, 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.

vending machines in Japan, full of colorful drinks, also selling both sweetened and unsweetened chilled green tea
Vending machines often sell both sweetened and unsweetened chilled 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 let the tea oxidize or achieve kill-green by pan-firing, Japanese tea usually goes through a steaming process. The hot steam stops tea leaves from changing color, and it accentuates the natural umami, sweeter and grassier flavors in the tea, while the pan-fired Chinese tea tends to have a toastier flavor.

The Most Popular Varieties of Tea in Japan

various kinds of herbal, flower, and Japanese green teas in wooden spoons

Sencha (煎茶)

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 flavor and a yellow-green 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 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), steeping it for about a minute. If you use water that’s too hot, your sencha will go astringent. However, this is not necessarily bad – while not tasty, it increases the catechin (antioxidant) effects.

Gyokuro (玉露)

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 – as a result, the tea has a deeper green color and almost no astringency – just an enticing umami flavor. 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. Like with sencha, don’t scorch your gyokuro with boiling water.

Gyokuro is known as the highest-quality clear Japanese tea

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 (番茶)

Bancha is cultivated in a similar way as sencha – but unlike sencha‘s premium-grade young leaves, the leaves of bancha are 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.

A single tea plant can be harvested several times in one year, but typically, the first “flush” is the best (because it contains all the nutrients that the tea plant developed over winter). Leaves harvested from the second and later flushes are all bancha, more specifically called nibancha (second tea), sanbancha (third tea) and so on.

Konacha (粉茶)

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 – but contain very few whole leaves.

Compared to sencha, konacha is said to have a thicker, fuller, and more astringent 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.

There are other types of powdered Japanese green tea: specifically, funmatsucha and matcha.
Funmatsucha is similar to konacha, in that it’s really a powdered form of sencha leaves, with their unique astringency and grassy flavor. The bitterness-free matcha, however, requires a special growing process.

Matcha (抹茶)

In recent years, matcha (also known as maccha) has taken the world by storm. It’s called a superfood by many – and besides its numerous health benefits, matcha is also thick, fluffy, and delicious. Since you consume the whole tea leaf, powdered, matcha also has stronger health benefits (and more caffeine) per cup, than any clear Japanese tea (like sencha or gyokuro).

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), carefully processed, and ground with a small mill.

Tencha, leaves used for matcha, are cultivated under a sun shield for 2, 3, or 4 weeks before harvest. This puts stress on the plant, making it develop more chlorophyll (responsible for its bright-green color) and amino acids (theanine, responsible for the umami flavor of green tea), while it also discourages the development of catechins – antioxidants pretty good for the health, but very astringent on the tongue. This shielding part of the process makes matcha what it is – a tea of a strong color and umami flavor, with almost no bitterness.

In high -quality matcha production, like that in the Uji area near Kyoto, the greenest young leaves are hand-picked, ensuring both manually checked leaves and less stress and injury on each leaf (thus, less oxidation). Matcha is then processed by steaming, removing stems and veins (often used to make kukicha), 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. You’ll need a whisk and a wide tea cup to make a good cup of matcha.

Matcha is used for both drinking and cooking, and you get to try many kinds of sweets, lattes, and even ice creams with matcha flavor in Japan.

P.S. – a bag of matcha from Uji is an amazing omiyage (souvenir) if you’re traveling near Kyoto!

matcha: powdered green tea, frothy matcha drink, and a bamboo whisk

Kukicha (茎茶)

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. They’re often a byproduct of the production of other tea.

Due to the fact that it’s low in caffeine, kukicha is 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.

Genmaicha (玄米茶)

People who love toasty, nutty tea 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 toasted white rice (or brown rice) – 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.

Genmaicha is a type of Japanese tea that combines green tea and toasted rice

Hojicha (焙じ茶)

Hojicha (also transcribed as houjicha) is another favorite among everyday teas, 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 brown color and a pleasant, toasty 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 here!

Check it out, and if you have any questions left, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

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