Japanese Green Tea Cultivars
Just like wine has different varietals, tea has different cultivars. Different tea cultivars can have different nutrient and flavor profiles, so they are very important to consider when choosing a tea. Some cultivars produce smooth and sweet flavors, while some produce slightly more bitter or grassy flavors. Some tea cultivars are more resistant to the cold, while some can only be grown in milder temperatures. In the photo above, you can see how two different cultivars even produce different shapes of leaves! Let’s take a look at some of the more common cultivars of Japanese green tea.
The most common type of cultivar in Japan is the Yabukita cultivar. This represents around 70% of all the tea produced in Japan. There are two main reasons for its popularity. The first is that it captures a lot of different aspects that people want in a green tea. It has a vegetal or grassy flavor, a little bit of sweetness, a light floral note and a hint of astringency or bitterness. The second reason for its popularity is that it is the most resistant to frost so it can be grown all over Japan, not just in the more tropical regions.
Yutaka Midori is the second most popular tea cultivar in Japan. The name means “lush green” and it is known as the perfect cultivar for these deep steamed Fukamushi teas. The Yutaka Midori provides a nice sweetness and a powerful green color. It’s commonly grown in the regions of Kagoshima and Miyazaki and the buds begin to form earlier in the springtime, which means it can be harvested before Yabukita.
Okumidori tea plants were created by crossbreeding the wild zairai tea plants with the more common Yabukita tea plants. This cultivar was originally intended to produce premium quality sencha, but now it is often reserved for premium Gyokuro and Matcha. The flavor profile of the tea is smooth with a round finish. This comes from the higher concentration of amino acids in the tea. It buds later than other teas, which gives it an advantage in case the tea crop experiences a frost in the early springtime.
Saemidori is another variety of tea produced in Japan. It is typically used for higher quality teas because of its light and sweet flavor. The name means “clear green” and it was actually discovered as recently as the 1990’s. Although this tea has its advantages over Yabukita when it comes to flavor, it has one big disadvantage and that is that it is very sensitive to the frost. That’s why you will mostly see Saemidori being grown in southern Japan, where the winters are milder.
The Asanoka tea cultivar is quite rare in Japan as a whole, but you may encounter it more frequently in the region of Kagoshima where it grows best. This tea provides a nice sweetness, with a hint of this starchy cereal flavor. This tea is mostly used for lighter senchas, but it can be found in blended teas as well. This tea cultivar was created by crossbreeding the Yabukita with the Chinese Hiramizu cultivar.
The Asatsuyu cultivar is a light and sweet cultivar often used in shaded teas like Gyokuro and Kabusecha. It can be crossed with the yabukita to produce the Saemidori cultivar, another great variety to use for shaded teas. This tea has a nice smooth taste, with notes of steamed vegetables and sweet corn. It is even said that senchas made with this varietal almost taste like a Gyokuro.
The Gokou tea cultivar was originally cultivated from wild tea plants in the area around Uji. When shaded, this tea plant produces a powerful umami flavor, which makes it a good choice when it comes to producing teas like Gyokuro, Kabusecha and matcha. This tea cultivar is quite rare, but it is sought after by Gyokuro and matcha enthusiasts for its rich umami flavor.
Next time you purchase tea, you should check to see which cultivar it comes from. Just like you search for different varietals of wine before making a purchase, you should also search for different cultivars of tea, to get a basic
sense of what the tea will taste like before you buy it.