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Japanese Green Tea Part 1

Doug Palas green tea Japan kagoshima matcha sencha

This is the first of two posts outlining Japanese green tea. It is not intended to be a complete guide to every type of style, cultivar, or growing region, but a general reference explaining the relationships between the different aspects of tea grown in Japan. Part 1 addresses history, and the different styles of Japanese green tea, while Part 2 looks at cultivars, producing regions, and harvest seasons.

History

Tea was originally believed to have been brought to Japan from China around 590 AD.  It was in 1191 however that tea really rooted itself in Japan when a Buddhist monk named Eisai returned from China. He brought with him Rinzai Zen Buddhism which used tea as a part of its meditations. Shortly afterward the Shogun of Japan, Sanetomo, adopted tea after it cured him of illness. As a new tea devotee his influence greatly increased the popularity throughout Japan. By 1336 all classes of people throughout Japan consumed tea and teahouses sprung up across the country. During this time the tea consumed was powdered tea. Steeping tea wasn’t practiced until the 1700’s. The most common style of tea consumed in Japan today, Sencha, was adopted from the Chinese in 1738. Today tea is still a part of everyday life in Japan.

Styles of Tea

The word for tea in Japan is cha. The tea can broken down into three quality tiers: Bancha (lowest grade), Sencha (medium grade), and shaded teas such as Gyokuro and Matcha (highest grade). Most styles are steamed green teas that fall within one of these groupings. In addition to the common styles of tea listed below, Japan produces very small quantities of oolong, black, and fermented teas. These teas are quite rare, almost never exported, and specific to very small regions in Japan.

Aracha- This is the term for tea that has been picked but has not been fully processed; raw tea. Often tea tasters purchase tea in this form and are responsible for the final processing, which entails blending of different grades and vintages as well as roasting the tea. Kilogram often receives Aracha, and then has the tea blended and roasted to our specifications.

Bancha- Tea that has been picked before the official growing season begins (Ichibancha) or tea that was picked late in the fall (Yonbancha). The term Bancha applies to many different styles including Hojicha, Kukicha, Genmaicha, and sometimes just Bancha. The term Bancha in Japan simply means course or common tea. Due to the huge impact of the roasting process, Kilogram rarely purchases Bancha. Instead we prefer styles that accentuate the cultivar and terroir.

Gyokuro- Famous style of tea that has deep green, almost blue color and unbelievable sweetness. Unusually the tea is handpicked and processed. The leaves are shaded up to 21 days to increase the nutrients, reduce the enzymes, increase the amino acids, and thus deepen the color. The leaves are deveined and the stems are carefully removed. Once picked authentic Gyokuro is aged several months before final processing occurs. The original Gyokuro was first produced in Yame in 1835. Today much of Gyokuro produced is made in Uji, located in Kyoto prefecture, but Yame is still a major producing area for shaded tea.

Hojicha- Noted for its savory roasted flavor, Hojicha is simply roasted Bancha. Despite being a style of green tea, Hojicha is brown in color and doesn’t have a typical green tea flavor. Sometimes it contains a large number of stems, which increases the nuttier flavors of the roasting process.

Kabuse Sencha (kabusecha)- A specific type of Sencha which has been shaded like Gyokuro or Tencha to sweeten the flavor and boost the umami character. It is sometimes called Netto Gyokuro, or false Gyokuro.

Kamairicha- Pan-fired green tea that is rare but sometimes exported to the States. It has a similar character to pan-fired China green tea.

Karigane- Style of twig tea that differs from Kukicha due to the use of Gyokuro, Matcha, and shaded Shincha stems with a mix of leaves for the base as opposed to Bancha stems and leaves. The flavor is smoother and sweeter than Kukicha.   

Kukicha- The most common style of twig tea made from Sencha or Bancha stems and leaves. Kukicha is sometimes roasted to produce a “green tea” with a deep brown color similar to Hojicha.

Matcha- A powdered tea made from TenchaMatcha is the oldest style of tea in Japan. It is stone ground to a very fine powder, usually by machine, but sometimes painstakingly by hand. The grinding process takes many hours since too much heat from fiction will damage the delicate flavor. The final product is whisked in a bowl to produce a frothy deep green beverage. Using a high water to tea ratio creates a lighter beverage called Usucha (thick tea).  A lower concentration of water to tea creates Koicha (thin tea) - the style of Matcha, often sweetened, commonly used for green tea lattes. Lower quality Matcha is often used for wide variety of food products such as pastries or green tea iced cream. 

Sencha- By far the most produced and consumed style of green tea in Japan; accounting for about 75% of all Japanese tea. Due to the enormous amount of Sencha produced quality can vary from excellent to course lower grades. Quality is result of many factors - the grower, the region, the processing, the elevation, time of year it was produced. Even the amount of time it is steamed to kill the enzymes plays its part in determining the final flavor. Sencha can be lightly steamed (Asamushi), moderately steamed (Chumushi), or deeply steamed (Fukamushi).  Often mistaken for being a Japanese invention Sencha, like virtually all teas in Japan, has its roots in China. 

Shincha- Sencha a style that is picked during a festival that announcing the beginning of a new year’s Sencha harvest. It is prized for its delicate flavor and often considered the finest Sencha available. It is a direct reflection of the quality of particular year’s harvest.

Tamaryokucha- An uncommon style that is processed nearly identically to Sencha except the final product is rolled into wiry strands instead of thin needles.

Tencha- Tea mostly used as the raw material for making Matcha. Like Gyokuro, Tencha is deveined and the stems are removed and it is shaded. The final product is flat and smooth with a much, flatter and wider leaf than Sencha



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