Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Tea

Japanese green teas have become popular all around the world for their unique flavor profile. One of the things that sets them apart from other green teas is that the leaves are steamed after harvesting, in order to lock in these natural vegetable flavors of the tea. The steaming process can also create these vibrant green colors, particularly with the longer steamed Fukamushi teas. Another thing that makes Japanese green teas unique is that a lot of the tea plants are grown under shade right before the harvest. By cutting these tea plants off from sunlight, they retain more caffeine, theanine and chlorophyll. The tea also takes on a smoother and sweeter flavor, which many tea drinkers enjoy. In this video, we’re going to cover the basic types of Japanese green teas and what each of them taste like.

First, let’s start with the most basic type of Japanese green tea - sencha. Sencha is the most common type of tea consumed in Japan, making up about 70% of the total tea consumption. In addition to being the most popular category, it’s also the most diverse category. Long shaded sencha teas can produce an incredibly sweet flavor, while unshaded senchas can be a bit drier and more astringent. Another variable is how long the leaves are steamed. Longer steamed teas like Fukamushi senchas can take on a smoother and more fruity flavor and short steamed asamushi senchas can be on the fresher or more citrusy side. Sencha teas are typically made from the youngest sprouts of the tea plant, as these are the highest in nutrients and considered to be the most flavorful. Like all Japanese green teas, Sencha is best prepared in the clay Kyusu teapot. This teapot allows the leaves enough space to open up and fully release their flavor into the water, and then keeps the leaves out of your cup with the built in filter.

Gyokuro is similar to sencha, but it is even more labor intensive to produce. To be considered Gyokuro, the tea plant needs to be shaded for 3 weeks prior to the harvest, in order to develop this characteristic sweet and savory flavor. The name means “jade dew”, which is a reference to the fine green residue it produces during the production process. The intensive shading process boosts not only the flavor of the tea, but also the caffeine and theanine as well. One cup of Gyokuro tea can have between 120-140mg of caffeine, making it one of the highest caffeine teas you can find. Unlike with coffee, Gyokuro contains l-theanine, and amino acid that can buffer some of the negative effects of caffeine. Gyokuro drinkers report having a long lasting energy throughout the day, without the crash or jitters. This tea is quite expensive because it is so difficult to produce. It is challenging for the farmers to keep the tea plant alive for 3 weeks without much sunlight. Mr. Sakamoto, a talented Gyokuro farmer in Southern Japan has created his own method of organic fertilization to keep the tea plant strong without the use of chemicals. This innovative new fertilizer allows the plant to absorb lots of nutrients from the soil to produce a powerful sweet and savory flavor.

While Gyokuro and Sencha are made from the youngest sprouts of the tea plant, Bancha is actually made from the more mature leaves. This tea is actually lower in caffeine and higher in minerals. The tea plant produces caffeine as a defense mechanism to deter insects, and because the older leaves are tougher and less vulnerable, they don’t need to produce as much. These older leaves produce a completely different flavor profile, with softer notes of wet wood and popcorn. This tea is often consumed after a meal because it is less acidic and can even help with digestion. After sencha, Bancha is the most common type of green tea in Japan!

In Japan, you may also find a lot of stem teas like Kukicha and Karigane. These teas are made with not only the leaves of the tea plant, but the stems as well. Because most of the caffeine is concentrated in the leaves, the addition of the stems really brings down the caffeine content. With around 40mg of caffeine per cup, this tea has about half the caffeine as a small cup of coffee. The stems also add a nice milder flavor to the tea, with notes of summer grass or straw. This balances out the sweeter and more savory flavors of the tea leaves. 

Another low caffeine tea is Genmaicha. Genmaicha is made by combining tea leaves with toasted rice. This originally began as a way to conserve tea leaves and make them last longer, but now it is the most common “blended tea” in Japan. In addition to bringing down the caffeine content, the toasted rice imparts a nice warm cereal flavor into the tea. This sweet cereal note pairs beautifully with the fresher, more grassy flavors of the tea to create an entirely unique tasting experience. This tea is lower in caffeine so it is suitable for the late afternoon or evening time.

In addition to changing the flavor by steaming the tea leaves, a farmer can also change the flavor by roasting the tea leaves. These roasted Japanese green teas are called Hojicha and Kamairicha. Kamairicha is somewhere in between a sencha and a fully roasted Hojicha. To make Kamairicha a farmer will turn the leaves in a hot pan to partially roast the tea. This makes the tea more similar to a Chinese green tea, with notes of cashew nuts, and even a hint of caramel. This pan-fired green tea is quite rare in Japan but in the mountains of Takachiho, we were able to meet with a farmer that produces a very good Kamairicha. If he wants to produce a fully roasted Hojicha, he will allow the tea to roast for a longer time at a hotter temperature. During the roasting process the leaves change from green to brown, and these fresh vegetable notes are translated into warmer notes of coffee and chocolate. The color of the tea becomes a reddish brown and the caffeine content is reduced slightly. Hojicha is a common tea to enjoy in the colder months, and you may even find people roasting tea leaves at street markets in Japan.

Matcha is a special type of powdered green tea made by grinding tea leaves in a large stone mill. To make matcha, the plant needs to be shaded for 21 days prior to the harvest and then the youngest sprouts are selected from the top of the tea plant. The leaves then have their stems removed to improve the flavor even further before they are ground into a fine green powder. This tea powder can then be whisked into a bowl of warm water with a bamboo tea whisk or Chasen. High quality matcha has a natural smooth and creamy flavor to it and the foam on top aerates the tea to make it taste almost like a latte. This was the original way to consume green tea in Japan, originally brought over from China from the monks who used tea to improve their concentration during long periods of meditation. It later became popularized because of its use in the Japanese tea ceremony.