Green tea is well known for it’s pure, sweet and delicious taste in addition to potential health benefits. In Japan, green tea is the beverage of choice whether it’s paired with food, drunk on a subway platform or in connection with the ancient Japanese tea ceremony started during the 15th century. In general, Japan only produces green tea, much of which is consumed internally. Boasting a distinctive fresh green character and appearance, Japanese green tea is processed differently than the Chinese green teas. After the tea is picked, it’s steamed to neutralize oxidation versus the Chinese pan-fired method. As a result the Japanese teas yield an oceanic flavor profile as opposed to a savory or buttery taste often associated with Chinese green tea varietals.
The quality and price of Japanese green tea will vary depending upon the quality of leaves and the manner in which they are processed. A natural sweetness, oceanic-like taste is characteristic of high quality Japanese teas, as noted above. The Shizuoka Prefecture, located south of Tokyo, produces a large precentage of Japan’s green tea overall. Other areas well known for high quality green teas include Kagoshima, Uji (close to Kyoto) and the Kyoto Prefectures. Uji, in particular, is known for producing some of the finest green teas in Japan.
It’s interesting to note that Japan harvests most of its tea mechanically, and traditional hand plucking is reserved for smaller lots of artisan crafted teas. A variety of technologies are used to harvest the tea ranging from large tractors with mowers to small gas powered hedge-like trimmers. Even though picking may be mechanical the equipment is sophisticated and specialized to ensure consistency and precision of the harvesting process.
Many types of Japanese green tea exist, but they are usually grouped into four growing categories that include Sencha, Bancha, Gyokuro and Matcha. Below is an overview of some of these teas and variations.
Sencha: Sencha is a popular, every day green tea enjoyed in Japan. Developed in the 18th century, Sencha teas are grown in the sun versus some other Japanese teas like Gyokuro grown in the shade. It has an aroma like freshly cut grass and taste reminiscent of sweet, seaweed or spring greens.
Fukumushi Sencha: Fukumushi Sencha is steamed longer than regular Sencha. The longer steaming process creates a richer and sweeter taste profile. The infused tea yields a full-bodied liquor with very little astringency.
Bancha: Bancha tea is harvested late in the season and is often considered a lower grade than Sencha. To produce the tea, larger leaves are used further down the tea plant versus the younger and sweeter buds at the top. It is a mild and mellow tea with toasty notes that is low in caffeine. Bancha pairs well with food.
Genmaicha: Genmaicha (Mighty Leaf calls it’s Genmaicha Kyoto Rice) combines sencha or bancha green tea with roasted brown rice. Sometimes it’s called “popcorn” tea because the rice grains can pop during the roasting process and look like popcorn. Originally created by Zen monks hundreds of years ago, it was also drunk by poor Japanese who used the rice as a filler for the more expensive green tea. However, Genmaicha is now a popular, every day green tea in Japan known for its toasty aroma and rich flavor. You can also find Genmaicha blends with Matcha green tea powder added as well.
Gyokuro: Referred to as “precious jade dew” because of a unique blue color and naturally sweet flavor, Gyokuro is Japan’s most highy prized green tea. Grown in the shade from 20-40 days before its picked, the tea develops a sweet and vegetal flavor with a full bodied mouth feel. The reduced sunlight cuts down on the formation of tannins which create a more astringent taste and also reduces the amount of photosynthesis that occurs resulting in increased amino acids, chlorophyll and caffeine.
Hojicha: A classic green tea, Hojicha is made with roasted bancha leaves and stems from the late harvests in autumn and winter. Yielding a nutty brew Hojicha contains less caffeine than other green teas.
Karigane Kukicha: Made from stems and stalks that remain after making Gyokuro green tea, Karigane Kukicha is also referred to as a twig tea. This traditiona style of tea yields a sweet and delicate cup.
Matcha: Made from premium Gyokuro tea leaves, Matcha is powered green tea commonly used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony or the “Cha No Yu”. It contains a highly concentrated amount of green tea antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, chorophyll and the L-theanine amino acids. Matcha is unique in that the entire tea leaf is consumed versus being steeped like other teas.