While there are many different types of Japanese green teas, there are 8 that have become the most well known. In this article, we are going to break down the 8 basic types of Japanese green tea. We’ll talk about what they are, how they’re made and what they taste like. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Sencha is the most common type of Japanese green tea. It’s made from tea leaves that have been steamed, rolled and dried. In addition to being the most common type of Japanese green tea, it’s also the most diverse category.
Sencha tea can be separated into 3 different categories, just based on how long it is steamed for. Most sencha teas are steamed for between 60-90 seconds and these are known as “chumushi” or normal steamed. If the tea is steamed for a shorter period of time, it will be called “Asamushi” or short steamed tea.
Asamushi teas tend to take on a slightly drier taste profile. They play more on these fresh and citrusy flavor profiles with less of this sweetness. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many tea drinkers prefer these flavors.
Finally, we have fukamushi or deep steamed sencha. This tea is steamed for somewhere in between 90-120 seconds. During this extra steaming time, the cell membranes of the leaves are broken down, which alters the flavor of the tea. More flavor is able to flow out of the leaves and into the infusion, creating this strong, cloudy green color. The deep steaming process really brings out the steamed vegetable characteristics of the tea, but also removes a lot of its bitterness.
Matcha tea has become one of the most famous types of Japanese green teas because of its use in the Japanese tea ceremony. This is essentially a powdered green tea, but it has to be made from special tea leaves.
First the tea plant is shaded for 3 weeks leading up to the harvest. When the tea plant is exposed to sunlight, it begins to convert theanine into catechins as a protection against the UV light. These catechins are actually responsible for the bitter flavors in Japanese green tea. If a farmer wants to reduce the bitterness in a tea, he will cover the tea plant, and maximize the theanine content in the leaves.
After the three weeks are up, the tea plants used to make matcha are harvested. For matcha tea, only the top 3 sprouts are used. The tea plant spends all winter long building up nutrients from the soil and then releases them into the fresh crop of sprouts in the early springtime. These sprouts are the highest in nutrients, and they are also the smoothest and sweetest in flavor.
Once the top leaves have been collected, they are ready for the next phase in the production process. One step that is unique to matcha is the removal of the stems. The stems detract from the flavor of the matcha, so they must be removed before the leaves are ground. If this step is skipped and the matcha tea is ground with the stems, it will make the color a less appealing yellowish green. This is one of the many reasons why high quality matcha tends to have a greener color.
Finally, the leaves are ready to be ground into matcha powder. To make high quality matcha, the tea leaves need to be ground in a large granite mill. This stone mill has a complex system of grooves that pushes the tea leaves out from the center as they are ground into a finer and finer powder. If a smaller matcha mill is used, there will be less grooves to grind the matcha powder, so it will end up being much coarser. It takes these large mills 1 hour just to produce 50 grams of this precious green powder, but the process is worth it!
Along with matcha tea, Gyokuro is one of the most sought after teas in Japan. It was originally the tea of choice for the emperor himself, and it still retains the title of “the Emperor’s tea” to this day. To be considered a Gyokuro, this tea has to be shaded for 21 days or more before the harvest. During this time, it is difficult to keep the tea plant alive without sunlight. While most farmers turn to using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, organic Gyokuro farmers like Mr. Sakamoto have a more natural approach.
Mr. Sakamoto and his brother have been working on this farm since they were little kids, and when it was their turn to take over the family business, they wanted to grow tea without the use of pesticides or chemicals. They developed their own organic fertilizer, made with a combination of sedimentary rock and organic compost. This delivers nutrients to the tea plant, and allows it to stay strong and healthy even during the long periods of shading. The result is a delicious, healthy Gyokuro produced without the use of chemicals or pesticides.
Gyokuro is known for its powerful sweet and savory flavor, which is perfected during the careful production process. Some tea masters will push the flavors of this tea even further by preparing it with a lot of leaves and very little water. The result is a powerful cup of gyokuro tea with a thick consistency. When you drink Gyokuro from a small glass like this, you are savoring not only the flavor of the tea, but also the consistency as it glides over the top of your tongue drop by drop.
Hojicha is another well known type of Japanese green tea. This is made from roasted green tea leaves. The color of the tea leaves is anywhere from a light to dark brown, and the infusion becomes a dark red brown color. Even though it looks like a type of black tea, it is actually a green tea. Whether it is a black tea or a green tea has nothing to do with the color, but rather the oxidation of the tea.
After tea leaves are picked, they will begin to oxidize and the catechins will be converted into theaflavins. If a tea is allowed to oxidize fully, it will become a black tea and take on a much warmer taste profile with notes of caramel, cinnamon and cooked fruit.
To produce a green tea, a farmer will heat the leaves directly after harvest. This deactivates the enzymes that cause oxidation and prevents the tea from turning into a black tea. Hojicha goes through the normal process of a regular Japanese green tea but then it goes through the additional step of roasting. During the roasting process, the tea leaves change from green to brown, and the tea trades these fresher, more vegetable taste characteristics for warmer notes of coffee, caramel and chocolate.
Hojicha tends to be made from the older leaves and stems of the tea plant, while the younger tea sprouts are reserved for teas like sencha, matcha and gyokuro. Hojicha was originally invented as a way to make use of all the leftover leaves from the tea production. A tea merchant in Kyoto found that when he roasted these leaves and stems, they produced a wonderful flavor and aroma. This soon gave rise to the delicious hojicha we know today!
While all teas must come from the tea plant, camelia sinensis, certain teas can be blended with other ingredients. These are known as blended teas, and the most popular type in Japan is Genmaicha. Genmaicha is made by combining tea leaves with toasted rice. This originated as a way to make tea last longer during difficult times, but now is a tea enjoyed by many all around the world.
The addition of the toasted rice adds a nice warm cereal note to the tea, and pairs quite well with the flavor of the tea leaves. The toasted rice also brings down the caffeine content, making genmaicha a suitable tea to drink in the afternoon or evening.
Kukicha is a stem tea made from both the leaves of the tea plant as well as the stems. While these stems are usually discarded from the tea production, they are celebrated in kukicha. The stems give the tea a mild, straw flavor and more minerality. The stems also bring down the caffeine content.The stems of the tea plant contain about ⅓ the caffeine of the leaves, so depending on the ratio of stems to leaves, kukicha can be very low in caffeine.
Karigane is another type of stem tea, but it is made from tea plants that have been shaded, like those to produce matcha and gyokuro. This tea will have a darker green color, a smoother and sweeter flavor and it will also have slightly more caffeine. The addition of the stems makes karigane much milder compared to Gyokuro, so Karigane is a good way to experience some of these sweet and savory flavors without being overwhelmed.
While hojicha is a fully roasted tea and sencha is an unroasted tea, Kamairicha is partially roasted. This partial roasting process is carried out in a hot pan, making the production of this Japanese green tea more similar to that of a chinese green tea.
Roasting the tea leaves in a hot pan imparts some warmer flavors into the tea. Kamairicha takes on more of these roasted almond and cashew notes, which a lot of tea drinkers really enjoy.
Kamairicha is very rare in Japan as a whole, but in some areas it is produced as a specialty. In the area of Miyazaki in Southern Japan, small farmers like Mr. Issin are able to craft incredible pan-fired green teas like the Kamairicha Issin. Mr. Issin also produces a hojicha, which he will roast in the pan for a longer time at a higher temperature to produce the fully roasted tea.
After sencha, bancha is the most common type of green tea in Japan. This is a far less expensive tea, made from the older, more mature leaves of the tea plant. This tea is higher in minerals and lower in caffeine.
The tea plant produces caffeine as a defense mechanism to protect itself against insects. It produces more caffeine around the younger, more tender tea leaves as these are more vulnerable. The thicker and tougher leaves lower down on the tea plant produce less caffeine and as a result the teas made from these leaves will be lower in caffeine.
Some people like to drink bancha tea after a meal. Apparently the tea can help with digestion, and because it is high in minerals and low in caffeine, it makes sense to drink it later in the day. The flavor of bancha has more of these earthy, wooden or cereal notes, making it very different from most sencha teas.
Where to Find these Teas
If you are interested in trying any of the teas mentioned in this article, you can find them all on our website nioteas.com. These teas are a collection of the best teas we’ve found during our travels around Japan. We’ve met with dozens of farmers and sampled hundreds of teas grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals and these are a few of our favorites. If you want to try all of them at once, you can also try out one of our tea samplers.
Which of these teas is your favorite? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!