Genmaicha (玄米茶)

This month we explore genmaicha (玄米茶) – an everyday (but quite unusual) Japanese tea that is easily loved by different palates. The name of this tea literally means “brown rice tea”. But would you have guessed that it is actually roasted white rice? And what tea is it used for it? Why is it so likeable by both tea connoisseurs and tea starters alike? Let’s have a deeper look into it.

Genmaicha is a blend of tea with roasted rice. Traditionally, Japanese teas used to be pure only, therefore this already makes it quite an exception. How did this happen? There are several theories and histories about the origins of this tea. To be honest, it is quite difficult to understand which one is the real one. Some legends say that a servant dropped – either accidentally or on purpose – some grains of rice into the tea cup of his samurai master. Some others claim it was a tea merchant of Kyoto that decided to mix the remaining of New Year’s mochi into tea to avoid throwing it away. And few Kyoto tea shops claim to have been the origin of this last story. Another tale features a sweet maker that after dropping some mochi on the floor, scraped it away and mixed it with tea, again not to throw it away. We might never discover the truth, but all in all, there is one deeply Japanese concept present in this tea – “mottainai 勿体無い”: an encouragement to reuse something, so that to avoid wasting it.

Now to the tea itself. Even if the name means brown rice with tea (“genmai” is brown rice), if you had to blend whole rice with tea leaves you would probably find the rice taste to be overpowering the tea. This is why in reality, the rice usually mixed into genmaicha is roasted white rice – or sometimes glutinous (mochi) rice. Sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose, the roasting might pop some grains, transforming them in what might look like popcorn. It is in-fact, popped rice. Or, like in the tea in our photo, popped sorghum. On this note, lately in Europe we’ve seen some remarks being made about genmaicha with poprice being of lower quality. It is not the case: either with some poprice or not in it, that does not affect the quality of genmaicha. The poprice is there more for an aesthetic purpose, as it gives a lively touch.

The proportions of this blended tea, are usually half rice and half tea. Also, genmaicha has always been considered a simple every day tea, therefore lower grade tea is commonly used. Usually bancha leaves are the base tea material. Nowadays in some cases we might find it made with a high grade sencha, like the one on top right in our photo below.

Different types of genmaicha (right) made with sencha leaves, roasted rice and popped sorghum (top line) and made with bancha leaves, roasted mochi rice (bottom line).

If genmaicha material is bancha, the tea taste will be quite mellow, while the nuttiness of the rice will be very present. This is one of the reasons why genmaicha is really appreciated – it might be a simple tea, but it is soft, gentle, not astringent and very refreshing. The rice helps to cleanse the palate, making it perfect as an after-meal drink. The low content of tea leaves makes it a tea quite low in astringency and caffeine content. Therefore it is considered a tea apt for many people or taste profiles.

Enjoying a cup of refreshing genmaicha.

To spicy up a bit this mellow tea, some producers or tea shops might add some matcha to it (matcha iri genmaicha 抹茶いり玄米茶 ). This turns the tea into a brighter green colour and a fresher taste thanks to the matcha powder. Other tea farmers might decide to blend the roasted rice with hojicha. Or with sencha leaves – in which case, the tea will have a more decisive flavour profile.

How can you brew genmaicha to enjoy it fully? To be honest, this is a very easy tea to brew, with little chance to make it wrong. It goes well in all sorts of steeping techniques and it can even be a very refreshing summer cold brew. Traditionally, it is commonly brewed hot. Using water at 90ºC/194ªF, for example or even hotter, allows you to fully appreciate the pleasant buttery aroma of this tea. At the same time, because astringency and bitterness tend to be low in genmaicha, the brew will still be light and fresh.

We hope you try it out and enjoy this comforting tea at every season.

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