When I first started at the tea shop, the owner asked me what my favourite kind was. I told him I was really into Japanese greens, and he sort of mumbled “ah. Okay,” and shot a disappointed look in my direction. The shop owner was a vehement dark oolong and pu-erh drinker, which was just about the total opposite of what I said. He had over one hundred varieties of tea available at the shop, and only one of them was a Japanese green. When I got around to tasting the tea, it was awful and it wouldn’t shock me if he admitted to not changing it in three years. He had quite the distaste for Japanese greens, but I happen to be rather fond of them. You should be, too.
Green tea is the only variety of tea Japan produces, so over there, they just call it “tea”. In 806 A.D., a monk named Kukai brought back tea seeds with him to Japan, after his study in China. He cultivated some tea and served it to the emperor. Emperor Saga was so impressed by this beverage, that he ordered mass cultivation. Tea became a drink of the upper class.
In 1191 A.D., a Japanese Zen priest named Eisai came back from his study in China, and brought two things back with him: scriptures which he later turned into the Rinzai school of Zen, and tea seeds. Rinzai is one of the three sects of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and certainly the most popular. Eisai planted the tea seeds in Uji, which is where some of the highest quality Japanese green tea comes from. Eisai wrote a two volume book on tea, and was adamant in its prospects, with the opening sentence being “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.” The man liked tea. He introduced the beverage to the warrior class, the well-cultured, and the monks. This link between Zen and tea set the foundation for the Japanese tea ceremony. Many political negotiations were carried out in the setting of the tea ceremony, and by the end of the sixteenth century, the “way of tea”, a way of spirituality involving a fusion of both Rinzai Zen and tea emerged. Tea was now given to the public at large, and grew to be the most popular beverage in the country, next to water.
From 1641 A.D. – 1853 A.D. Japan had a policy which forbade contact with other nations. They were more-or-less isolated from the rest of the world, which lead to a development of much of Japan’s unique cultural flavour, not to mention new tea production methods. In 1738 a man named Soen Nagatani invented means to roast leaves using steam instead of dry heat. This, combined with the fact that the sea is never more than 120km away in Japan, lead to one of the most noteworthy traits of Japanese tea; it tastes like the sea. Japanese tea often has marine-like qualities to its aroma and taste. Seriously, drink Japanese greens.
Modern Japanese tea production is almost entirely done by mechanization. A mechanized scissor contraption plucks the leaves instead of plucking it by hand, for instance, and all of the tea production is done by factory machines. Because, well, robots.
Here are a list of the most common Japanese greens as well as their attributes.
Sencha: This is Japan’s most common tea, making up about 80% of the country’s total tea production. Most tea is of medium quality, but there are certainly high quality Senchas out there. Typically, they are known for their crispness and subtlety in flavour.
Bancha: This is a lower grade of Sencha. The leaves are usually picked in the late summer or early fall. They’re blended with the stems of the leaf, which denotes a lower quality.
Hojicha: This is a Bancha, but the production is a little different in that the leaves are roasted for a longer time. This kills much of their marine qualities, but a new nutty flavour emerges, which is interesting in a green tea.
Gyokuro: If you’re an important visitor to the country, it’s said they’ll serve you Gyokuro. And for good reason; there’s much care taken in the growing and production of this tea. The best is grown in the province of Uji, which is a location that is surrounded by mountains. The mountains help shade the tea, as well as help subdue harsh weather conditions. In addition to this, it is a shade grown tea, which means that farmers erect a canopy over young crops, progressively adding more and more shade to protect the leaves from sunlight. After three weeks, the buds of the leaves are picked. The shading process is done to increase levels of theanine and caffeine in the leaves, while decreasing catechins. Catechins are what makes tea astringent, so it increases the flavour profile while lowers the astringency. The shading process combined with the use of buds instead of mature leaves, makes Gyokuro among the most caffeinated – comparable to a typical cup of coffee.
Tencha: It is grown using a similar shade-grown model to Gyokuro, however, mature leaves are used more typically than in the instance of Gyokuro. The leaves are not shaped, so they remain in their original leaf shape. They are used exclusively for Matcha.
Matcha: These are ground up Tencha leaves. In the old age, leaves were ground between millstones, but today, this processed is mechanized. Matcha is used for the Japanese tea ceremony (a subject which warrants a post in its own right.) Matcha was originally used for monks as an aid to remain awake during meditation. There are but a few single origin Matcha teas, as it is believed that blending of different crops can bring out the best taste. Like Gyokuro, the caffeine content can be similar to that of a cup of coffee, but unlike Gyokuro, Matcha is consumed traditionally in three sips, so caffeine enters your body much sooner.
Genmaicha: I like to call this the “sushi tea” because it’s the tea you almost always get when eating sushi in the west. It has grains of roasted puffed rice blended into the tea, which as you might imagine, gives it sort of a rice base flavour, which, incidentally, is why they pair it with sushi. The flavours match beautifully.
For preparation of every sort of Japanese tea apart from Matcha, it’s best done in a Kyusu (literally translates to teapot,) which is pictured below. If I have to be honest, I can’t tell you why it’s better, just that it’s better. For Matcha, you should always always always prepare it with a whisk, and I highly recommend you use a Matcha bowl as well (second picture below)
DAVID’sTEA Specifically for their Matcha. If you live in Canada, it’s a great place to get some decent Matcha for a good price. Plus, no shipping costs if you have one around you. Their Gyokuro isn’t bad, either.