Japan is renowned for green teas with a natural and vivid green color, fresh bitter sweetness, and famed umami flavor. This unique character is typically imparted when the tea is steam fired. Inside of Japanese green tea exists a world of nuance and character. In this entry, we will review the history of Japanese green tea, the many types and styles of Japanese green tea and the nuance and preparation of Japanese green tea.
While emerald green tea gardens cover the landscapes of central and southern Japan today, Camellia sinensis is not originally native to the island nation. Japanese Zen Buddhist monks first learned about tea during travels to China in the ninth century. In 1191, the monk Eisai changed the history of green tea forever when he brought seeds back to Kyoto and cultivated, for the first time, tea in Japan. Monks were the earliest tea farmers. They planted tea tree gardens on monastery grounds and produced the rustic style of powdered green tea they learned in China. Along with seeds, they also adopted an elite culture of tea preparation and appreciation. Monks incorporated tea into their meditation rituals, savoring the uplifting energy and mental clarity provided by this early powdered tea. They would also prepare tea for samurai warriors and other social elites during elaborate banquets and prior to battle.
In time, the Japanese developed a tea culture all their own. By the mid18th century, they had refined their processing technique and began to use steam to make loose leaf green teas. This resulted in a character that paired well with the tastes of Japan, emphasizing a natural and vivid green color, fresh bitter sweetness, and famed umami flavor.
The Types of Japanese Green Tea
When most people refer to “Japanese Green Tea” they are usually talking about green tea that is steam fired. Both Sencha and Matcha are classical examples of tea produced with the steam firing method and in combination account for over 75% of the Japanese tea market. However, there are many types of notable Japanese Green Tea.
Sencha is a type of Japanese green tea that is prepared when the whole processed tea leaves are infused in hot water and then decanted. Within the category of Sencha there are different styles including based on the level of steaming; asamushi, chumushi, and fukamushi. We explore these styles further on in this article. Today, Sencha represents over two-thirds of Japan’s tea production.
Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea made from a particular type of tea leaf called Tencha. Tencha is shade grown tea leaves that are produced exclusively for grinding into Matcha. Tencha is de-stemmed and de-veined then stone milled into a fine powder. Matcha has a rich cultural tradition as the tea prepared and revered during the Zen based Japanese tea ceremony known as chanoyu. The elite class of samurai used matcha and the chanoyu tea ceremony for stress relief and energy during battles that could last for days on end.
Gyokuro (“jade dew”) is a prestigious shade-grown green tea from Japan that represents less than 0.3% of Japanese green tea production. The shading of the tea plants restricts the sunlight by up to 70-80%. The plants respond by developing very tender, deep green leaves as they try to capture the sunlight. Shade-grown plants develop higher concentrations of chlorophyll and L-theanine amino acid, known for its umami taste and promotion of calm focus. The tea plants also develop less catechin (tea tannin), resulting in a smooth and almost oceanic cup of jade dewdrops. Usually the tana frame-and-thatch technique is the used for shading, though many producers have their own specialized method. To brew gyokuro, the hojin or kyusu would be the most appropriate methods.
Kukicha is a steamed green tea made with leaves, stems, and stem fibers. Due to the cultivars typically used in sencha, as well as the use of stem fiber, there is low bitterness and a high L-theanine content.
Go Hakkoucha or Post-Fermented Tea in English, is the application of fermentation to Japanese green tea. The addition of fermentation increases the potential benefit to aid digestion. The Japanese green tea is inoculated with koji spores in a lab-like setting. The koji is allowed to ferment the tea, until the desired level of post-fermentation occurs. Batabatacha also employs koji mold for fermentation, awabancha is essentially pickled using lactic fermentation, while goishicha uses mold followed by lactic fermentation. Steps in this unique process involve the harvest of whole branches from the tea bushes during the autumn, followed by boiling or steaming, finalized with fermentation before sun drying.
Houjicha is a green tea made from the remnant tea leaves and stems from bancha, which are roasted again to give a chocolatey, smooth taste. The additional roasting lowers the caffeine content in the final tea.
Kamairicha is a special type of steamed and pan fired green tea from Japan. It is noted for a balance of nutty sweetness with a slight citrus touch. The cultivars typically used to create kamairicha are known as Zai Rai, which translates as indigenous cultivar. This concept is similar to other regions of the tea-growing world and is essentially the equivalent of a Chinese tea cultivar known as Quntizhong. These landraces of cultivars were once tended to by tea farmers but were long left on their own in nature. In recent years, farmers have selected the best from among these indigenous cultivars to farm again and revive a bit of ancient tea history.
Sencha that is wrap-shaded for a few days or a week before harvest to elevate chlorophyll and amino acid content.
Konacha is made from the flaky leaves and tender stems that are sorted out during the sencha and gyokuro process. With its smaller leaf size, konacha delivers a rich and dewy flavor. You have probably tasted it before—it is the green tea of choice for sushi bars around the world. In just a quick two-minute infusion,
There are three common terms to use as to the level of steaming for Japanese green tea: asamushi, chumushi, and fukamushi. These terms can be applied to sencha, gyokuro, and shincha, though there are preferential levels of steaming for sencha, gyokuro, and shincha.
Unlike pan roasted green teas, which need to be infused longer with hotter water, steamed green teas should be infused with cooler water, as their contents are easily extracted within two brief cooler infusions. This infusion style reduces the potential for unwanted, excess fresh tea polyphenols from being brought into the water and hot water burning the delicate tea. The kyusu is typically made from clay, with a built-in filter and is an ideal brewing vessel to achieve the two infusions, as well as to keep the cooler water at temperature during the brewing process.
The Japanese tea harvest season is divided into several distinct periods known as flushes. The early spring “first flush” begins in April and runs through May. The summer crop “second flush” picks up in June and ends in early July. Later flushes occur through the autumn. First flush teas contain more amino acids and sweetness whereas late flushes have more tannins. In general, Japanese tea cultivars are bred to create lower levels of tannin (for lower astringency) and higher contents of lTheanine amino acid (for increased umami flavor). Regardless of the growing region, the most sought after Japanese teas are those picked in the first or second flush by hand or scissor harvesting techniques.
Shincha “new tea” — The first tea harvest season beginning in late March in warmer southern regions of Japan and lower elevations; and mid to late April for higher elevation regions
Ichibancha “First tea” — First harvest including Shincha starting from late April until May
Nibancha “Second Tea” — Second harvest of the year taking place in June to early July
Sanbancha “Third Tea” — Third harvest of the year taking place July to August
Yonbancha “Fourth Tea” — Fourth harvest of the year taking place September to October