Monday, January 12, 2015

Green in the Land of the Rising Sun

What is it about Japanese tea that gives it such a special place in my heart?  Like most other tea producing regions of the world, tea came to Japan by way of China.  As early as the 8th century, Buddhist monks returning to Japan from studying in China are known to have brought tea back with them.  It wasn’t until the 12th century, however, that Japan began cultivating its own tea and tea culture thanks to the Buddhist monk known as Eisai who first established tea farming in Japan when he brought back tea plant seeds from China.(1)

Japan is known for green tea, in fact, most of the tea produced and consumed in Japan is green tea. It differs from Chinese green tea because of different processing techniques. One especially unique Japanese technique is the steaming of harvested leaves to halt the oxidation.

Rona Tison, green tea expert and Vice President of Ito En tea company, discussed the five main Japanese teas to an audience of tea lovers at the San Francisco International Tea Festival 2014.  Here’s what I learned about them at her presentation:

Photo by Hattie Hagedorn
Matcha is a powdered green tea used for the Cha-no-yu, which is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.   It is prepared for drinking by adding hot water and using a fine toothed bamboo whisk to whip the tea liquor into a froth.  This style of tea was first created in China during the Song period (960-1279 AD), but lost popularity in China in subsequent years.  Nowadays, it is considered quintessentially Japanese.

Photo by Masa Sinreih in Valentina Vivod
Sencha is green tea brewed from whole leaves.  The leaves are carefully chosen from tea plants fully exposed to the sun as they grow, not shaded.  About 80% of the tea produced in Japan is Sencha.(2)

Hojicha green tea is made by roasting bancha tea at a high heat instead of steaming.  Bancha are leaves and stems harvested in the later part of the year.

Photo by Chahltd
Genmaicha tea is bancha or sencha with roasted rice kernels mixed in.  During roasting some of the kernels pop open like popcorn.


Photo by A Girl With Tea
Considered the caviar of teas, Gyokuro is the highest grade of Japanese tea.  The leaves for this tea are harvested once a year during the late spring.  About two weeks before harvest, the entire tea plant is covered to shade it from sunlight until picking time.  This treatment is believed to bring out exceptionally rich flavors in the leaves.

So, what is it about Japanese teas that I like?  Perhaps the flavor of the steamed leaves, or the thick liquor of a whipped brew of powdered matcha, or the savory notes when roasted rice is mixed in, or perhaps just the beautifully refined cha-no-yu culture.  For me it’s all good.

Tison's presentation was a good start for my forays into Japanese teas.  Explore for yourself, if you haven’t already.  Here’s a link to a video where Christine Savage, tea expert at the Samovar Tea Lounge, introduces several types of Japanese green teas.  She gives a great overview on how the teas are processed and what their particular characteristics are.
Click the image for link to video.

  1. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, by The Camelia Sinensis Tea House (Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, Hugo Americi. Firefly Books Ltd, 2014, p.90
  2. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, by The Camelia Sinensis Tea House (Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, Hugo Americi. Firefly Books Ltd, 2014, p.116

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