The Best Japanese Teas
The Best Japanese Teas
If you are like me sitting home, wishing I could be traveling the world in search of experiences rather than in the same relatively small spot staring at a computer screen on Zoom call number 614, then this is for you. Over the next few articles my hope is to go on a journey with you around the world with a cup or two of tea at our side chatting about the world’s favorite beverage other than water, tea. Our first stop, Japan.
Tea in Japan
We hop on our virtual plane and travel to the island of Japan. Despite Japan being slightly smaller than the state of California, it is one of the top 10 producers of teas in the world. Tea is a core part of Japanese culture where the locals drink almost 700 grams per person per year, or about a cup a tea per day. Due to the massive local consumption only about 5% of all the tea in Japan is available for export.
Sencha was brought to Japan in the 17th century from China and due to it being much easier to make than Matcha it became and remains the most popular tea in Japan. Sencha is grown in direct sunlight for all but the last days before plucking (no not picking, plucking). Sencha is then steamed which is the process that stops oxidation and makes green tea different from oolong or black tea. The steaming process can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as 2 minutes. Sencha has a wonderfully summer earthy and grassy taste to it with a light nutty aftertaste. It is excellent hot or cold.
Before the 17th century introduction of Sencha into the Japanese culture, Matcha was the tea drink of choice in Japan. Unlike Sencha, Matcha is grown in the shade, which gives it more caffeine and theanine than Sencha but less catechin antioxidants. Matcha has a smooth savory flavor to it and comes in a powder form unlike the other Japanese teas which are best as full loose-leaf teas.
The unique roasted Japanese tea Hojicha is customarily produced from the sun grown Japanese Bancha tea. Bancha is typically harvested from the tea plant late in the season. Hojicha started in the Kyoto region of Japan in the 1920’s when tea merchants started roasting tea leaves over charcoal. The intense aroma and smooth nutty, earthy taste with a hint of caramel make this tea a warm comfort on a cold day.
Not wanting to waste any parts of the tea plant after World War II the Japanese started using the leftover stems of Sencha, Gyokuro and Hojicha and created Kukicha tea. Kukicha has a slightly creamy taste profile different than the other Japanese teas and will range in taste and price based on which type of tea plant it has come from.
Found in 1835 during the Edo period by well known tea merchant Yamamoto Kahei the 6th, Gyokuro was originally only made for the emperor of Japan. The tea is made from the highest grade Sencha plants except instead of full direct sun, once the first tea shoots appear in April, the entire plantation is covered in straw to block the sun which allows the tea farmer to control the rate of photosynthesis. Gyokuro is known for its full flavor umami and sweetness.
Genmaicha, meaning “brown rice tea”, was the poor man’s tea in Japanese history as the tea farmer would take the lower grade tea plants and add roasted brown rice as a filler. Genmaicha has become a favorite due to its liquid nutritional benefits of vitamins and minerals and its filling feeling in the stomach even though it contains no calories. Sometimes called “popcorn tea” because the small, popped rice kernels appear to be popcorn.
Thanks for joining me on our tea journey to Japan. Stop by next week to see where we venture off to next.