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Let's talk about bancha!

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Have you ever heard about bancha (番茶) tea? Bancha is the generic name used to refer to a type of Japanese tea made using older & more mature tea leaves. But did you know that within the group of bancha teas there are a number of different types?
Depending on the region & even the farm, bancha teas might present a number of diverse characteristics. The term used to refer to this type of tea might be also different from region to region. No two bancha teas are ever the same!


The name of bancha is formed by two kanji or Chinese characters, which literally means a number in a series or coarse &which as you might already know means tea. Bancha is described as a coarse tea & as mentioned above, older leaves are more mature & therefore have lowest levels of caffeine & chlorophyll but in turn, more catechins. The leaves found at a lower level within the tea plant tend to be tougher & coarser. The older the leaves, the less desirable they are to produce tea. Generally speaking, bancha is made using leaves from the summer and/or autumn harvest. However, we can also find older large buds that grew too late & weren’t suitable for the first harvest, autumn pruning leaves that are removed to prepare the trees for the next season & even discarded trimmings from the gyokuro production.


Well, I haven’t personally seen them all. However, I have tried several different ones & I have also read about some types of bancha I would like to try. All the bancha teas I tried had a characteristic & distinct taste. I couldn’t find two of them that tasted like one another. I have to say that bancha has never been my favourite type of Japanese tea. Said that I received some nice bancha teas from a friend in Japan not long ago that really caught my attention & conquered my heart. In fact, I enjoyed them very much & I realized that bancha is much more than what we actually know. This is why I wanted to write an article about this often overlooked kind of Japanese tea.


Sure I will just keep reading! Bancha: (番茶) is a widely popular type of tea, easily available, low in caffeine & quite affordable. It is the second most-consumed tea in Japan after sencha & is considered a commodity or everyday tea. The production of bancha is pretty much the same as the one used for sencha, yet the leaves used in its production are of a lower grade. Genmaicha: (玄米茶) this type of Japanese tea has a characteristic nutty flavour, it is made using bancha tea as a base. Usually white roasted mochi rice is added to the mix which helps to elevate the taste of the bancha tea. The first time I had bancha was in its genmaicha form, years ago back home. I grew tired of it rather quickly since the quality of the genmaicha I used to get at the time wasn’t what I would call spectacular. Personally, my favourite type of genmaicha (which you can find in the shop) is actually made with sencha instead of bancha.
Yanagibancha: (番茶) also known as Kawayanagi (川柳) within the Tokyo region or Ao Yanagi (青柳) within the Kyoto region, due to its shape & colour (Yanagi means willow in Japanese & Ao means green but actually it can be used to describe tonalities on the blueish side) its leaves are a bit flat, thick & with pointy ends. Its colour is not golden brown more on the green side. It is a type of non-roasted bancha. Or the non-roasted material used to make bancha before being roasted. This tea might be known as houjicha in some Japanese regions such as Hokkaido. Until I ordered for the shop I have never had this type of bancha (knowingly) before. I like its fresh taste & the fact that it doesn’t taste the same as other types of bancha teas. Houjicha: while it is usually seen as a type of tea on its own, the truth is that houjicha or hojicha is a type of roasted bancha. It is roasted at a high temperature (200 degrees Celsius) which alters its colour. Then is cooled down straight away. Some houjicha teas are lightly roasted, they look pale golden yellow & their taste is crisp & light. Their flavour is smoother & might be preferred by those who don’t like teas that have a bold flavour. My first encounter with houjicha was during my first trip to Japan. However, I did not really appreciate it as much as when I went back to the country later on since my knowledge about Japanese teas had broadened by then. It was served cold as a complimentary drink in Japanese restaurants. Kyobancha: (京番茶) this is a type of smokey bancha that originates from the Kyoto region, hence its name. It is also known as Iri bancha (いり番茶) or Hira bancha in other regions of Japan. It is made using the very last leaves of the year, some farmers throw the leaves after pruning. However, many others use these leaves to produce this type of tea. The leaves are steamed for a long time, up to 30 minutes, yes, you have read that correctly. Minutes. Then dried & roasted but not rolled so its leaves remain large & unfolded. This whole process is what helps the tea leaves to develop their characteristic smokey flavour. It is low in caffeine, it barely has bitterness or astringency. I tried this type of tea for the first time in a wagashi shop in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. I had just finished consuming a set of matcha & wagashi. Before we left, we received a golden brown tea to close the meal. As soon as I tried it I went back to Scotland, where I lived for almost 5 years. It brought back flavours stored in my palate memory, peat, smoke, burnt wood, Scotch whisky minus the alcohol. But the smoke flavour wasn’t aggressive or bold, it was smooth & delicate, closer to the Japanese whiskies that are usually sweeter & have a more elegant body. I asked the wagashi master what type of tea was that one. He said, Kyobancha. I am longing to source it for the shop since it is an absolute delightful treasure, despite it being considered a low-grade tea. Akibancha: (秋番茶) also known in some regions as shutoubancha (しゅうとうばんちゃ) this type of bancha takes its name from the Japanese word for autumn because is typically harvested late during such season, late September early October when the autumn starts changing to the winter. It is considered one of the best bancha teas, since it is made out of the buds from the third harvest, picked up during the fourth one. Shizuoka, Saga & Kyoto are among the regions which produce this type of tea.
Awabancha: (阿波番茶) one of the very few post-fermented Japanese teas. This type of tea is made in Tokushima. Boiled bancha leaves are fermented for a month inside a sealed barrel without any oxygen. In this way, lactic acid bacteria develop, which is what gives this type of tea an acidic smell & taste. I tasted awabancha during my tea training in Japan. It has an off-putting smell & a sort of sour/acidic taste. Since I have only tried it once, I would have to drink it again to figure out if it the flavour I remember is, in fact, the actual flavour of the tea itself. Goishicha: (碁石茶) another type of post-fermented tea from Japan. This type of tea is produced in Kochi & it also uses bancha leaves that are steamed, fermented for a week, then sealed in a barrel without oxygen where it remains for several weeks. The first & only time I have tried goishicha was also during my Japanese tea training in Japan. The smell is a bit acrid yet its taste is not as bad & in fact, it has a milky element in it. Definitely, a type of tea I would love to come across with again soon. And something I would like to have in the shop as well. I really love reading about lactic fermentation since I am now experimenting with it myself at home. Mainly to pickle fruits & vegetables. Kancha: (寒茶) a type of artisan bancha tea made, mainly by hand, in some rural areas in Japan such as Aichi & Tokushima, using a variety of methods, some steam, roll & dry the leaves whereas others prefer to sun dry them without rolling them. Large & mature leaves picked during the cold months, December/January are used this is why is known as cold tea or winter tea. The very last tea of the season. It is not very easy to get hold of this type of tea since it is considered a low-grade non-commercial product. Its value stems from its rarity & the fact that has been produced using traditional Japanese tea manufacturing techniques. It is usually boiled up to 15 minutes & it produces a golden mildly sweet/sour tasting infusion. I am still waiting to be able to get some of it so I can try it. Kageboshi bancha: (陰干し番茶) also known as Hikage bancha (日陰番茶) a shadow dried bancha from the Fukui, Gifu & Shimane prefectures. Made by cutting tea branches with a sickle during the autumn season. Then the leaves are weaved using a rope, they resemble a bamboo screen, & they are hung from the eaves. It is lightly roasted & consumed by boiling the leaves to obtain a fully bodied liquor. This is another type of bancha tea I haven’t had the pleasure to taste yet, perhaps someday when I can travel back to Japan. Yoshino nikkan bancha: (吉野日干番茶) also known as Tenpiboshi bancha (sun-dried bancha) this type of bancha has been traditionally made in Yoshino, a region of Nara Prefecture, since the Edo period. The tea leaves are deeply steamed then left to completely dry under the sun. It usually takes around 24 hours, after that, the leaves are roasted. The leaves remain whole from the most part which gives the leaves a better taste, aroma & lower bitterness. It is brewed by using boiling water for a couple of minutes, low in caffeine, bitterness & astringency it produces a reddish liquor. While not so well known outside Japan, this type of bancha is a bit more popular than others, especially around the region where is produced. There has been a promotion campaign going on, there was even a powdered version of it created to be used in food by local restaurants & cafés. This type of bancha is considered Hojibancha or roasted bancha. Another type of Japanese bancha I haven’t encountered during my travels so still in my forever growing list of teas I want to try. Mimasaka bancha: (美作番茶) also known as Musashi bancha (named after the renowned warrior Miyamoto Musashi) or Mimasaka Nikkan bancha is mainly produced within the Okayama Prefecture, around the Mimasaka & Sakuto areas. This type of bancha contains boiled leaves & stems that have been sun-dried on top of a straw mat. While they are being dried, they are sprinkled intermittently with the same water they have been boiled in. Due to this, the colour of the leaves & stems turns into an amber tonality. Another type of regional bancha that is hard to come by & therefore still in my tea wish list.

Boke bancha: (歩危番茶) is another type of Nikkan bancha made in Ōboke valley within the Tokushima Prefecture. Unlike the Yoshino Nikkan bancha, the Boke bancha is not roasted. Miyoshi (三好市) is the place where we can find the largest production of this tea. Made in a similar fashion than other Japanese bancha teas, the leaves are harvested during the autumn, steamed & left to sun-dry over woven mats. The leaves remain pretty much whole, they are non-rolled & wilted since the drying process takes quite some time. They might look similar to awabancha tea leaves since both come from the same region yet the aroma & flavour are not the same. Like many of the regional bancha teas, it isn’t so well known outside Japan & it isn’t easy to get. So still in my list of bancha teas that are hard to get. Tou bancha: (糖番茶) this is a very peculiar type of bancha. It is not steamed, boiled or pan-fried. The leaves are rolled & dried straight away in order to increase the amount of polysaccharides released into the tea. Leaves from the autumn & sometimes winter seasons are used to make this type of tea. Used for cold brewing in order to extract the maximum amount of polysaccharides possible. Brewing it hot is not recommended because the polysaccharides are sensitive to heat. There are a number of regions that produce this type of bancha such as Izumo or Mie, for what I could see the majority of them are located in the South of Japan. However, there isn’t so much information available about this type of bancha. And it isn’t in my list of teas I have already tasted, yet. Tosa bancha: (土佐番茶) a type of bancha elaborated in the Tosa region. It is a roasted type of bancha mixed with Kishi mame (Kawara-Ketsumei), a type of annual legume that grows in the region. The tea leaves are steamed, partially dried, then placed in a large iron kettle to be roasted in order to extract the best possible aroma. Low in caffeine, astringency or bitterness, it is suitable for everyone, including elderly & children. I have even seen t a PET bottled version of it. A very local type of bancha I hope I will be able to taste one of these days. Hakuta bancha: (伯太番茶) is another type of sun-dried bancha tea from the Hakuta region in the Shimane Prefecture. After the harvest, the leaves are steamed, then left under the sun to dry. Once dried, the leaves are roasted without rolling. The dry leaves are almost whole & have a dark brown colour due to the way they have been processed. The steeping process is similar to the one used for other types of bancha. I guess this is a good reason to travel to Shimane next time I visit Japan.
Sannenbancha: (三年 番 茶) this is a type of bancha tea I have never heard of until I received some tea pouches from a friend in Japan. It is a very special type of Japanese tea as well as a type of bancha. Also almost unknown outside Japan, there are a number of ways to produce sannenbancha. While I have seen some people describing sannenbancha as a type of bancha made with leaves & stalks that have been left uncut for three years, the fact is that there are two ways of making sannenbancha. One of them, called Jukusei, stores the leaves for about three years. The other method is known as Koba & in this case, time-consuming the leaves & stalks are grown for three years, then cut & processed. Both methods are used as a way to lower the caffeine content in the tea as much as possible. With the ripening process, (a type of controlled oxidation) the tannins in the tea break down which helps to mellow down its taste. Once the desired flavour has been developed, the tea is roasted in small batches, leaves separately from stems. Since this method involves a lot of work & is time-consuming there are not large amounts of sannenbancha produced with each batch. Its flavour varies depending on the manufacturing process, terroir, processing method & so on. From the ones I have had the pleasure to try, one was earthy, it had more leaves than stalks, it was treated with EM (effective microorganisms technology, which in turn will make it into an article) & remained dark green after the brew. It wasn’t roasted. The other two were roasted & therefore would qualify as hojibancha. The last two had a caramel/chocolate flavour profile which makes them ideal candidates to be used for lattes, non-dairy drinks, smoothies…

San juu bancha: (三十年番茶) until very recently I have never heard of something like this. Nor during my training, neither during my travels. When I saw the post from one of my contacts in Social Media & I was surprised. My friend Mieko contacted the manufacturer and he confirmed this a tea made with leaves & branches that are left to grow for 30 years. So not aged (koba) still interesting. It looks like pieces of chopped dark wood. It needs to be boiled. This is an interesting tea due to its rarity but also to its longevity since Japanese teas are never that old. So far, I couldn’t find any other Japanese tea farmer who makes this type of tea. Said that, since it is a rarity in itself, there might be more who are making it but are not posting anything on the internet. I really hope I can get hold of it at some point, then I will update this listing with my impressions.

Makibi bancha: (薪火番茶) a type of bancha made in Kagoshima by the originator of the sannenbancha himself. Mr Kawakami, who runs the Oguchi Food Village in Kagoshima, is a member of Ohsawa Japan which is the company founded by George Ohsawa, the founding father of the macrobiotic diet. When he moved to Kagoshima, he planted a new tea tree & did many trials & errors until he developed what is known as three-year tea or sannenbancha.
Isa city is the small region where this type of bancha originates from. The leaves & stalks used for this tea are harvested after three years during the winter when they have endured a lot of sun, wind & snow. It presents a number of broken leaves & thick stalks, it looks dark brown, in fact, it looks like discarded trimmings. The leaves are harvested, then roasted & immediately packed & left to age for three years. The whole process doesn’t stop there. Once aged, the tea is roasted again & it is finally released for sale. Used widely to prepare umesho bancha which is bancha tea with umeboshi & fresh ginger in it. I was about to wrap up this article when my Japanese friend Mieko sent me a message about this bancha tea. She did not know I was writing this article today so this is a typical case of serendipity. I decided to add it to the list since I believe is a wonderful piece of knowledge. And I hope I can try this special tea someday.

Bukubukucha: (ぶくぶく茶) this is not a type of bancha but a method to prepare it from Okinawa. This type of tea is known as furicha (振り茶) & it is frothy like matcha, in fact, a special type of larger chasen known as meoto chasen (夫婦茶筅) is used for its preparation. It is also prepared with a type of Jasmine tea with roasted rice, similar to genmaicha or with bancha mixed with sekihan (rice with red beans.) More than tea is considered a full meal. In different cafés & restaurants in Okinawa, they serve it in different ways & use different ingredients to prepare the buku buku cha which I have yet to try. Batabatacha: (バタバタ茶) similar to buku buku cha, typical from the Toyama region, it is believed it takes its name from the sound it makes when being whisked. Its colour is dark & oftentimes is called Asahi kurocha (黒茶 dark tea from the Asahi area.) This is also a way to serve a type of post-fermented Japanese tea. Funnily enough, I have read often times that Goishicha is the only post-fermented tea in Japan. Also prepared with a long chasen called meoto chasen or also batabatachasen, it is usually served with light snacks & consumed through the day. It is whisked until frothy & drank together with the snacks served with it. While the origin of this tea is unknown, it is believed the way of processing it comes from China. It has a long-standing tradition, there are records of this tea being drunk to celebrate special occasions as early as 1400’s following Buddhist rites. Summer leaves are harvested, steamed & kneaded by hand. Then, they are placed on a straw mat in the shade indoors for half a day. After this, the leaves are placed in a 2-metre wooden box & compressed by a person standing on the leaves. This is where the magic (fermentation) takes place. The temperature is controlled so it doesn’t go higher than 60 degrees Celsius to avoid killing the Kouji (a Japanese type of bacteria used to make sake, miso, amazake, soy sauce….) which is the bacteria that makes the fermentation happen. The leaves are loosened every four days, which helps to aerate the tea leaves & make the final product more even. The total process takes about a month. Finally, the leaves are dried indoors for about three days, then finished under the sun for another 2 or three days. Studies have shown that this type of tea is rich in B12. And it is also pending in my list of nice rarities to try. Botebotecha: (ボテボテ茶) another type of furicha consumed by the labouring classes within the Shimane region. It is believed that is was consumed in a frothy way in an effort to imitate the way matcha was served during the tea ceremony. First, the tea is whisked using a meoto chasen until frothy, then some pieces of food are placed inside the tea & then it is all consumed together, like a form of a light meal. Rice, beans, pickled vegetables, herbs or flowers can go into the tea. I have now added it to my list. While I believe these aren’t all of the bancha teas made in Japan, it gives us an overall idea about the different types & processing methods in use. Have you ever tried any of them? Share your comments below!


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