In this section we would like to introduce you to the range of teas produced in Japan. Some of them vary slightly region to region, and may have different names depending on where they are produced. As tea farmers in Japan are becoming more and more open to experimenting with tea production, the list of the tea kinds may change and grow in future.
Matcha is a popular Japanese powdered tea. In fact, it is commonly believed, that a version of matcha was the first tea people used to drink in Japan, when tea was introduced from China to Japan centuries ago.
To produce matcha, tea leaves are steamed and dried. For ceremonial matcha they are then slowly ground to powder by stone-mills. Culinary Matcha is produced in a more industrial way using factory grinding machines.
Traditionally matcha is prepared in a bowl (called ‘chawan’) where green tea powder is mixed with hot water (at about 80ºC) and whisked using a bamboo whisk (called “chasen). The liquid is bright green in color, and because of whisking has a smooth almost creamy texture with the foam on top.
Recently matcha has become increasingly popular, especially as an ingredient in sweets and food production. Matcha sold for this type of use is of much lower grade: made from later season leaves or ground by industrial machines.
Despite being the most consumed tea in Japan today, sencha was only created in 1738.
The word ‘sencha’ itself means ‘simmered tea’. Actually, in the old days ‘sencha’ used to refer to tea in general, because of the way tea was brewed at the time – by boiling it in a kettle. So you may find the word ‘sencha’ in texts even before 1738.
The creation of sencha is attributed to Nagatani Souen – a tea manufacturer in Uji, who went through 15 years of trials before getting to the same process as we know today. He firstly started selling his new creation to Yamamoto shop in Tokyo (Edo, at the time) and from then, sencha spread all over Japan.
The process of sencha has two peculiarities:
- The oxidation of the freshly picked tea leaves is stopped by steaming them instead of pan-frying as common for green teas in other countries. This method is used for most Japanese green teas today;
- After steaming and cooling, leaves go through different steps of rolling. While leaves are gradually losing their moisture, they are also taking the characteristic needle shape Sencha is known for.
If sencha is made from leaves that have been shaded before harvest, it is often called kabuse sencha or kabuseicha.
It is believed that gyokuro was created in 1835 by Yamato Kahei VI, a tea merchant from Tokyo, who decided to try shading tea leaves for sencha production in the same way that was done for tencha. The result was a sweeter and richer taste, as well as a deeper green colour – hence the name – gyokuro, that means “jade dew”.
To produce gyokuro usually only spring tea leaves are used; and tea plants are covered to protect them from the direct sunlight for three weeks before harvest.
Traditionally dry straws and rice stalks were used for shading by placing them on a structure high above tea plants to allow enough room underneath for free growth. Picking and processing in those days was done by hand.
Nowadays straws and stalks are mostly replaced by black nets. Hand-picking and hand-processing is not very common anymore either.
Bancha is a tea for common people. It is often considered lower in grade because it is made from bigger and more mature leaves.
Bancha is usually harvested after sencha, gyokuro or tencha harvests. Because the tea leaves are more coarse, they are usually steamed or boiled longer. The process may vary depending on what type of bancha is produced.
Despite being considered of lower quality and not having the complexity of flavours and aromas found in sencha, bancha can be an interesting and pleasant tea, as there are many regional variations stemming from different manufacturing methods and ways of consumption.
Bancha is also often used as a material for hojicha or genmaicha.
Genmaicha is a Japanese green tea, where bancha (sometimes sencha) is mixed with roasted rice.
Genmaicha was created with the purpose of lowering the cost of tea and making the tea supply last longer. Because of the pleasant roasted aroma and buttery taste it has become a beloved tea in Japan and around the world.
Sometimes matcha can be mixed in genmaicha to give it a greener colour and stronger taste. This tea is commonly known as matcha iri genmaicha.
Hojicha is a roasted green tea. It can be made by using bancha, sencha or kukicha as a base.
To begin with, the tea material for Hojicha goes through the regular Japanese green tea production, after which it is roasted.
Roasting is done with high heat (traditionally using a special pan called “houroku”). This process gives a new roasted flavour and aroma to the original tea. Thanks to roasting, the colour of the liquid is golden brown.
Hojicha is an everyday tea, commonly consumed during meals in Japan.
It is another roasted Japanese tea. When made in Kyoto it is called kyobancha. In other regions it may be called iribancha or hirabancha.
Kyobancha is quite peculiar as it is made from the very last leaves of the year – it is harvested in March to prepare the tea plants for the coming spring season. In some regions those leaves are used as fertilizer because they are very coarse. To become kyobancha tea leaves need to be steamed for a long time (usually about 30min.), then dried and roasted.
Considered low in quality, kyobancha a nice surprising tea with pleasant smoky aroma and nutmeg aftertaste.
Rarely consumed by itself, tencha is more commonly known as a material for matcha.
To produce tencha tea leaves are grown in shade for 4 weeks before harvest. They then go through steaming and drying; and after that dried leaves are carefully separated from the stems. When grounded to powder it becomes matcha.
Even if rare, it is possible to drink tencha too. Because the rolling process, that breaks the tea leaf cell walls and helps to release flavour components into water, is skipped entirely, the infusion of tencha is usually very light in flavour.
In matcha and high grade sencha production stems are normally separated from leaves for practical or aesthetic reasons. These stems are then used to make a different kind of tea – kukicha. The name comes from the Japanese word ‘kuki’ that means ‘stem’.
Kukicha tends to be milder in flavor (because a stem acts as a corridor for tea components to get to a leaf, and just some of them remain in the stem). It is also an easy tea to brew – regardless of brewing methods, it rarely becomes bitter.
It is a lower grade Japanese tea, made from small tea particles and dust – the byproduct of the sorting process. It is normally used for teabag production.
Japanese green tea made by using pan-frying method which both stops the oxidation and gradually dried the tea leaves.
Depending on the technique of rolling, the tea can result as tamaryokucha (curled leaves) or kamanobicha (straight needle shaped leaves).
Sanpincha is a jasmine-flavored Japanese green tea. The technique was brought to Japan from China and it is commonly produced in the southern Okinawa islands.
Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea, for the production of which tea leaves are withered, rolled and dried (and drying also helps to halt further oxidation)
Traditionally not common in Japan, recently oolong is becoming more popular.
Wakoucha is a Japanese black tea.
The tea leaves are first withered, then rolled to accelerate oxidation, and finally dried.
Historically black tea was not common in Japan. Its production started during Meiji Era (late 19th century – early 20th century) – as Japan opened to foreign trade, it was hoping to sell its black tea abroad, but never had much success.
As green tea is struggling in Japan these days, there is more curiosity and interest in the farmer community to produce black tea, so its production might increase in future.
Less known but with a very old history, fermented teas have been produced in some areas of Japan, especially on Shikoku island.
Usually tea leaves are left to grow until summer, picked and boiled. After that they are fermented for several weeks or months (process differs depending on the kind of tea) and finally dried.
Varying in the processing method, bacteria for fermentation and production region, several known fermented teas are: Goishicha, Awabancha, Kuroishizucha, Yamabuki Nadeshiko.