Everything You Really Need To Know About Japanese Teas!
Even though green tea (ryokucha 緑茶) is the predominant type of tea produced in Japan, other tea types can be also found around the country. There are black and white teas, oolong and even pu-erh like teas. Within the green tea category, we can find multiple kinds, depending on how the teas have been processed before and after the harvest.
First thing to be taken into account, is the region the tea has been grown in. Every region has a different terroir and climate, also the tools and harvesting processes are slightly different depending on the region. These are the tea producing regions in Japan by the amount of tea produced annually:
Shizuoka (静岡) is by far the region with the largest production of Japanese tea, with an average of 32000 tons of raw tea produced per year. It accounts for 40% of Japan’s annual commercial production of tea.
Kagoshima (鹿児島)is the second region with the largest production of tea in Japan, with an average of 28000 tons of raw tea per year. It accounts for 20% of Japan’s annual commercial production of tea.
Mie (三重) is the third-largest producer of Japanese tea with an average of 7000 tons of raw tea per year.
Tea cultivars in Japan are quite diverse, depending on the type of tea to be produced farmers use specific cultivar types bred to yield a specific desired flavour profile. Well known cultivars within the Japanese tea production are Yabukita, Samidori, Saemidori, Gokou, Uji Hikari, Yutakamidori…
Apart from obtaining the desired flavour profile, another reason to engineer the cultivars is to make them more resistant to pests or harsh weather conditions. Those cultivars with the term midori in them (緑 it means green in Japanese) are favoured for green teas whereas the ones with the term beni (it means red in Japanese, black tea is red in Asian countries) are used to produce black tea and other types of Japanese teas. Benifuuki for instance (べにふうき) is a special type of cultivar specifically designed to produce black and fermented teas.
The Japanese teas can be sold refined or unrefined. Until recently, pretty much all Japanese tea sold to consumers was of the refined type, the unrefined tea was sold to tea factories, wholesalers and blenders at the tea auctions. However, unrefined teas have gained a lot of popularity and some tea farms are selling unrefined teas directly to the consumers.
Aracha (荒茶) Also translated as crude tea and is the result of the first tea processing stage: steaming, rolling and drying. The whole leaf is included, blade, stems, fine hair, it is darker in colour with a thicker appearance and a bolder flavour. Tea leaves at this stage are uneven in shape and form and some particles and broken leaves can also be found. Aracha can be consumed as is, it does not need to go through a secondary refining process to be enjoyed. However, in order to obtain a more polished product offering a determined flavour profile producers, blenders and wholesalers convert aracha into refined tea during the second process known as shiage (仕上げ) composed of three steps: firing, sorting and blending.
An easy way to differentiate Japanese teas is by dividing them into two categories: shaded and non-shaded teas.
Within the shaded teas category we have the following teas: matcha, kabusecha and gyokuro whereas within the non-shaded category we have all the rest: sencha, kukicha, genmaicha, wakoucha, houjicha, bancha…
We could also split up Japanese teas in two different groups: green and non-green teas. However, there are not as many non-green teas in Japan currently.
Japanese Green Tea The generic Japanese term used to denominate green teas is ryokucha (緑茶). When ordering a meal in a restaurant in Japan, it is highly likely that it will come accompanied by some sort of complimentary tea, usually referred to as ocha or nihoncha (unless the tea being served is houjicha or uroncha.) Sencha, matcha, kabusecha, gyokuro, genmaicha… all are variations of ryokucha.
JAPANESE SHADED TEAS
Matcha (抹茶) It is one of the most well known Japanese teas in the world. Its popularity has increased over time and nowadays almost everyone has heard about this type of tea.
But what matcha really is? Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea. It falls into the category of shaded teas and before it transforms into fine dust, tea leaves go through a thorough process. Some tea cultivars used for matcha production are gokou, Uji Hikari and samidori.
Tea leaves are shaded for about three weeks (20 days is pretty standardized) before being harvested, not only to increase the amount of chlorophyll released that gives matcha its vibrant colour but also to improve the aroma and flavour. As soon as the tea leaves have been harvested, they go through a specific process which transforms them into tencha, the material used to produce matcha.
After leaves are processed, they end looking like small tea flakes called tencha. The tencha is then ground using a matcha mill (it can be manual, with ceramic balls inside or a more modern and sophisticated machine.) The resulting fine powder is called matcha. It is the only tea in the world that follows this specific process.
Other powdered teas aren’t usually called matcha in Japan. They are sold as green tea powder or tea powder. As an example, if we mill some sencha leaves, the resulting tea will be known as powdered sencha or powdered green tea. If the powdered green tea comes from other Asian countries, is not matcha. These powdered teas have not been made using tencha but just non-shaded tea leaves processed in a generic way.
Gyokuro (玉露) Is one of the most expensive and delicate Japanese teas of all, also known as Jade Jewel or Jade Dew.
Together with matcha is one of my favourite Japanese green teas. Shaded for about three weeks before being harvested to improve the aroma and flavour, as soon as leaves are harvested go through the first process known as Aracha (steaming, rolling and drying) then sold at the tea auction where wholesalers can purchase it, to blend it and finish it. Gyokuro is brewed at a lower temperature than other Japanese teas, between 45 and 55 degrees is the optimal temperature for gyokuro brewing.
Kabusecha (かぶせ茶) Also known as kabuse sencha. Together with matcha and gyokuro, kabusecha is part of the shaded teas group from Japan. Kabusecha is shaded for about a week or two before being harvested (in a similar fashion as the tencha leaves) and processed straight away to stop the oxidation. It takes its name from the action of shading the tea plants known as kabuseru in Japanese. Like gyokuro and matcha, kabusecha is at the top of the highest quality Japanese teas. The optimal brewing temperature for kabusecha is between 60 and 65 degrees Celsius.
Arabikicha (粗びき茶) A type of Japanese powdered green tea that is not matcha. It is made using kabusecha tea leaves from the first flush. It can be used in drinks, desserts or enjoyed by just mixing it with cold water. Arabikicha won an innovation award granted by the Japanese Government in 2016. Some people might mistake this tea powder for matcha. However, the amount of days it has been shaded is lower than kabusecha. And even though it is made with first flush leaves, it is not made from tencha. A dedicated article talking about the different powdered teas that can be found in Japan will be published in the future.
JAPANESE NON- SHADED TEAS
Sencha (煎茶) This is one of the most common types of Japanese tea. Even though it is not a shaded tea, there are different grades within the sencha category, depending on the region, cultivar, terroir and harvesting season. Sencha from the spring harvest is of a higher quality than the sencha produced during the summer. Not to be mistaken with shincha (新茶) which means new tea, usually the first tea produced during the spring or first flush, similar words but completely different meanings. Shincha and ichibancha mean almost the same. Sencha can be brewed at a slightly higher temperature than matcha, kabusecha and gyokuro but it might vary depending on the producer and also about the desired flavour profile. Between 75 to 85 degrees Celsius is the recommended temperature for brewing sencha tea.
Japanese White Tea (白葉茶) A very rare type of tea in Japan is also known as hakuyocha (はくようちゃ). Its production is limited, not easy to find and well sought after. Produced using just young tea leaves handpicked during the first flush in a similar fashion than other white teas from China, it yields a mild and delicate infusion. To be brewed between 85 and 100 degrees Celsius.
Genmaicha (玄米茶) Back in the day, tea was an expensive commodity in Japan. Farmers would add roasted popped brown rice or genmai to the tea as a filler in order to make it last for longer. It was drunk during fasting to help to go through the day without having to eat as much. It is also known as popcorn tea since some rice kernels pop during the roasting process resembling popcorn. The starch & sugar from the roasted rice combined, release a nutty aroma and flavour in the hot brew. It is believed that drinking genmaicha helps to alleviate an upset stomach. There is a variation called matcha-iri genmaicha (抹茶入り玄米茶) since it contains matcha, they can be brewed at a higher temperature than other Japanese green teas, 80 to 85 degrees Celsius.
Kukicha (茎茶) Twig tea also is known as boucha. A blend made out of twigs stems and stalks from sencha or matcha production, its flavour is slightly different from other Japanese green teas since it contains parts of the plant excluded from other types of green teas. If coming from gyokuro production its name is karigane (雁ヶ音) or shiraore (白折) instead. Its flavour profile is slightly nutty and creamy, to be brewed between 75 to 90 degrees Celsius. Widely used in macrobiotic diets for its high content of amino acids and vitamins, it is also recommended for those who want to drink tea with low caffeine content.
Bancha (番茶) This type of tea is harvested from the same plants than sencha, after sencha leaves have been harvested. It is generally harvested from the second flush onwards between the summer and the autumn seasons. Considered the lowest grade among green teas it is used as an everyday tea. Which its characteristic straw smell is the perfect tea to pair with food especially smoky cheese, ham, jerky, dry meats… It can be infused at 100 degrees Celsius. Within the bancha category, we can also find sannenbancha (三年 番 茶) a tea made out of mature stems that are roasted and left to ferment for 3 years. It has a pleasant and earthy aroma, a bit sweet. It is low in caffeine and can be infused at 100 degrees Celsius. There is also kyobancha (京番茶) or iribancha (いり番茶) a type of smoked bancha from the Kyoto region, produced using leaves that have been maturing during the winter. It is known as the last tea of the year, it has very low caffeine content and can be brewed at 100 degrees Celsius. Its flavour reminds of Scotch sometimes.
Tamaryokucha (玉緑茶) Also known as guricha (ぐり茶) or curly tea due to its shape, is produced in the Kyushu region. It can be steamed or pan-fried, its infusion has a slightly yellow tonality and citrusy tangy aroma. The recommended water temperature for this type of tea infusion is around 80 degrees Celsius.
Kamairicha (釜炒り茶) Processed in a different way than other types of Japanese teas, instead of being steamed, tea leaves are pan-fired in Chinese style after having been withered for a short while. Less astringent than other Japanese tea types the leaves take a comma or magatama shape due to the rolling process. A speciality tea from the region of Kyushu, it has almost the same amount of vitamins than sencha. The recommended water temperature for this type of tea infusion is between 80 to 90 degrees Celsius.
Wakoucha (和紅茶) Most commonly know as koucha, is Japanese black tea produced using the Camellia Sinensis Sinensis tea leaves. After the leaves have been harvested and withered, they are not steamed but go through a process of bruising, rolling and drying by pan firing the leaves in Chinese style. Some farmers leave their wakoucha in storage for about two to three years before releasing it to the market. According to them, this allows the tea to develop a more fragrant aroma and also helps to mellow down its flavour. Black tea can be brewed at 100 degrees Celsius.
Houjicha (ほうじ茶) Even though the colour of this type if tea is usually dark and its infusion is light brown, houjicha is still green tea that has been roasted over charcoal or using a houjiki (ほうじき), (also known as Hojiki, Houko or Houroku) a ceramic device specifically made for this purpose. In theory, any green tea can be roasted and converted into houjicha. However, for the most part, bancha is used to produce houjicha. It has a lower caffeine content than other types of Japanese green teas and can be brewed at 100 degrees Celsius.
Konacha (粉茶) This type of tea is composed of the dust, tea buds and small leaves that are left behind after processing other types of Japanese green tea such as sencha or gyokuro. If from gyokuro, itsit’s known as gyokurokonacha (玉露粉茶). Anyhow, it is also considered low-grade tea and is usually served in sushi restaurants as a complimentary drink. It has a bright green colour and a bold taste. Good to be used as an ingredient for cooking and also to make tea-based drinks.
Goishicha (碁石茶) A rare type of fermented tea from Kochi. Bancha leaves are used to produce this pu-erh style Japanese tea. No really well known even by Japanese citizens, it has become increasingly popular among tea lovers during the recent years. The way this type of tea is produced is unique making it a very unusual Japanese tea. Bancha leaves are steamed, then left to ferment for about a week before packing the leaves in hermetically sealed barrels using a pressing lid for compression. The second fermentation takes place inside the barrels without oxygen and lasts several weeks. Once the tea is ready, is retrieved from the barrels, cut into square pieces and placed under the sun to let it dry for three days. Its smell is acrid, its flavour milky and surprisingly mild. It can be brewed several times using water at 100 degrees Celsius.
Awabancha (阿波番茶) A type of fermented bancha from Tokushima. After tea leaves have been harvested, they are boiled until losing their colour. Then they are processed rubbing leaves against each other by hand or using a specific machine for this purpose. Once the leaves are ready, they are placed inside a barrel that will be sealed and left fermenting for about a month. This anaerobic fermentation is also used to produce goishicha. Finally, the tea leaves are dried under the sun for a day, then they are ready for brewing. Like goisicha, it also has an acrid smell but less milky flavour. It can also be infused at 100 degrees Celsius.
Zairai (在来) Also known as yamacha (山茶) or mountain tea. It is not a cultivar per se and it is believed to be the tea that was cultivated in Japan before the cultivars were created. While Japanese cultivars are usually coming from cuttings (since tea seeds only preserve up to 50% of the genetic information of the mother plant) zairai bushes grow from seeds that sprout in the wild without any help from tea farmers. They are usually old tea bushes and farmers cannot identify the variety. This type of tea is usually produced by handpicking the tea leaves then processing them afterwards in a similar fashion than other Japanese teas. Since the tea bush is wild, the flavour from tea to tea produced varies greatly from one bush to another. The same with the shape and colour of the tea leaves. Highly appreciated by tea connoisseurs but difficult to source since the production of zairai tea is quite uncommon.
Some farmers in Japan are now increasing the zairai production and also experimenting with tea blends including zairai tea leaves on them. As an example, the Miuori Kirishima sencha in our shop has been produced using zairai leaves.
There are other types of teas and cultivars being produced in Japan as I type. The Japanese like innovation and are always looking for new tea cultivars and ways of processing the tea leaves in order to create new tea types and flavour profiles.
Have you ever tried any of the tea types mentioned above? Which one is your favourite? Write your comments below!