Everything You Need to Know About Kukicha
Kukicha is a little known secret in the world of tea. This unique tea provides an entirely different flavor profile and it is much lower in caffeine than a regular green tea.
These teas are also an innovative way for farmers to prevent wasting resources in the tea production process. In this article, we’re going to talk about what kukicha is, what it can be used for and how to prepare it.
Without further ado let’s dive right into the world of kukicha! 🍃🍵
What is Kukicha?
A stem tea is made by combining the stems and leaves of the tea plant into a single tea blen. This tea is also called kukicha meaning stem tea or twig tea. When more stems and less leaves are used, the tea takes on less of a vegetable flavor and more of a nutty or summer grass flavor. These teas can be a bit milder, and well suited to someone who is new to tea. The color of the tea becomes lighter and clearer as well.
Green Tea stems
The stems of the tea plant used to make kukicha are much different than the leaves. Stems can contain about ⅓ the caffeine content of the leaves, and that is the main reason why kukicha tends to be a low caffeine tea.
The stems are also the mineral delivery system for the leaf, so they can be high in minerals themselves. Although the stems in kukicha do have a mild flavor, the have this distinct minerality that you can feel tingling on your palate. This makes kukicha not only a healthy tea, but a delicious one as well.
Japanese Twig tea
Another name for kukicha is twig tea. If you see the name twig tea or Japanese twig tea, this is essentially the same tea as kukicha just under a different name. When you are translating the Japanese word back into english, sometimes it can have multiple possibilities. Kukicha can either be translated to stem tea or twig tea, so either is acceptable. We like to use the Japanese word kukicha wherever possible to avoid confusion.
History of Kukicha
First, let’s talk a little bit about the history of kukicha. Tea used to be a luxury good. The top leaves of the plant were made into premium sencha teas and the stems were often discarded. Often farmers couldn’t afford to drink the teas they produced, because they could only grow so much on limited land. Some farmers began to brew the stems of the tea plant, so they could enjoy at least some of their harvest. They found that these teas actually tasted quite good, and soon people began taking notice of these stem teas. The stem teas were eventually sold on their own as kukicha.
Types of Kukicha Tea
The two main types of stem teas are Kukicha and Karigane. Kukicha is far more common, made from the stems and leaves of almost any tea plant. Karigane is made from the stems and leaves of shaded tea plants, like those used for Gyokuro and Ceremonial Matcha. As a result, Karigane takes on a sweeter flavor and it has a slightly higher caffeine content.
When we visited Mr. Sakamoto in Shibushi, we were first introduced to the concept of cold brewing Karigane. The cold water extracts the sweeter components from the leaves and stems, so the tea takes on a smooth, even fruity flavor with notes of cucumber and melon. Because this tea is low in caffeine, it’s a great relaxing drink to enjoy in the late afternoon.
How is Kukicha Produced?
To make a stem tea, you have to separate the tea leaves from the stems. This used to be a very labor intensive process but now it is all done by machines. When we visited the producers at Marufuku in Shizuoka, we got to witness this first hand.
The stems are pushed through a machine and the stems are filtered out based on their weight and size. These bins will be separated into a few different stem teas based on their leaf to stem ratios.
How to prepare Kukicha tea?
Preparing kukicha tea is easy and very similar to other types of Japanese green tea like sencha. The only difference is that the stems in kukicha are much less sensitive to hot water, so kukicha can be prepared at a higher temperature. Just follow these steps and you should be able to prepare great tasting kukicha tea in no time!
Step 1 - Measure
Measure out 5 grams of kukicha tea and place it into your kyusu teapot. The kyusu teapot is the best tool for preparing all types of Japanese green tea, and kukicha is no exception.
Step 2 - Pour water
Next you can pour in 150ml of water at a temperature of between 160-170 degrees fahrenheit. Normally for a tea like sencha or gyokuro, we would recommend a temperature between 140-160, but because kukicha is a stem tea it can be brewed at a hotter temperature.
Step 3 - Let it brew
Let the kukicha tea remain in the teapot undisturbed for about 1 minute. You can either keep the lid on the teapot to keep the tea warm, or you can remove the lid and watch the leaves expand.
Step 4 - Tea time!
Pour out the tea and enjoy! If you are using the kyusu teapot, the built in filter will automatically filter out the leaves and prevent them from going into your cup. This will also stop the leaves from brewing, until they are ready to be used again.
Step 5 - Reinfuse
Once you are done with your first cup of kukicha, you can reinfuse the leaves 2-3 more times, or until they lose flavor. It is important not to throw your leaves out after one brewing, but rather use them for multiple infusions. Each infusion will be slightly different, so you can observe as the flavor of the kukicha evolves overtime.
What are the benefits of Kukicha?
One benefit of stem teas is that they can be quite high in minerals. When we visited Mr. Henta in Kirishima, he explained this concept to us. When assessing the quality of a tea plant, he likes to look at the thickness of the stems. Because the stems are how the tea plant delivers minerals from the soil to the leaves, thicker stems are able to transport more minerals. Because these stems are moving minerals around the plant, they tend to carry a high concentration themselves. That’s why stem teas can be higher in minerals than many leaf teas.
Another benefit of stem teas is that they are actually low in caffeine, containing about a quarter of the caffeine in a small cup of coffee. Caffeine is produced by the tea plant to protect its leaves from insects. As a result, the caffeine of a plant is concentrated on the outside of the leaf and not the stems. Teas made from mostly stems and only a small amount of leaves will be quite low in caffeine. Depending on the type of stem tea, you can have different ratios of stems to leaves.
Does kukicha tea have caffeine?
While kukicha does have a much lower caffeine content compared to other loose leaf teas, it still does contain some caffeine, so you shouldn’t drink it right before bed. The caffeine content in a serving of kukicha is somewhere in between 20-40mg. This means that it is about half the amount of a cup of sencha. While you can drink this well into the afternoon, it is not advisable to drink kukicha within 4-5 hours of going to sleep. If you are not very sensitive to caffeine, you can probably get away with drinking this tea throughout all hours of the day.
Using Kukicha to make a DYI Hojicha step by step
One great added bonus of kukicha is that you can easily use it to roast your own hojicha at home. This can be difficult to do with leaf teas because the leaves take a long time to heat up and then they tend to burn very quickly. Because the stems are lighter, they roast very quickly and evenly, making them easy for an untrained tea roaster! Let’s dive right into this fun kukicha project.
Step 1 - Choose a great Kukicha
For this experiment, the best kukicha to use is the kukicha osada. This tea has slightly drier tasting notes that translate very well when roasted. The tea is very light and it’s easy to get a good roast on it.
The kukicha sakamoto can also work well, but it is a much sweeter tea. When roasted, the kukicha sakamoto produces a much richer and brothier consistency in the tea. While this may be enjoyable for some tea drinkers, it’s generally not what you would find in a hojicha, so it’s best to start out with the kukicha osada if you can.
Step 2 - Warm up the pan and start roasting your Kukicha
The next step is to put your kukicha tea in the pan and turn on the heat. You can start off with a high heat to get things going, but you’ll want a medium heat during the roasting process. Make sure you are in a well-ventilated kitchen, as this can set off the smoke alarm!
You may find that not much will happen for about 5 minutes. Just keep turning the leaves, and check for any signs of the kukicha changing colors or smoking. Once the roasting starts, it will really happen all at once so you’ll have to frantically start turning your leaves all at once.
Once the stems start to turn a yellowish brown, you may want to turn off the heat. It is better to turn the heat off too early rather than too late, as the kukicha will continue to cook in the pan even after the heat is switched off.
Step 3 - Infuse your freshly made Hojicha in a Kyusu and enjoy!
Once the leaves are done, put 5 grams into your teapot and prepare your cup of freshly roasted hojicha tea! Make sure you take the time to really evaluate the flavor of this tea, and see if you can compare it to other hojicha teas. Maybe you want to give the kukicha a heavier or lighter roast next time, or maybe the flavor is just right! Whatever the case may be, you can adapt this overtime and get better at kukicha roasting!
What are the Best Kukicha?
After traveling around Japan for years, we have met dozens of tea farmers and sampled hundreds of different green teas. We have found 4 different kinds of kukicha teas that we like the most, and we are sharing them with people all around the world! Let’s take a brief look at the best 4 kukicha teas we’ve found.
#1 Kukicha Sakamoto
This kukicha is made by Mr. Sakamoto in southern Japan. Because it is made from the same plants used to make gyokuro, the tea is incredibly sweet, but you also get some floral notes from it. Many people may consider this tea to be a karigane, but what separates it from the karigane sakamoto is that the stem to leaf ratio is much higher. This means that the tea will have a much milder flavor and a lower caffeine content.
#2 Kuki Hojicha
Just like leaf teas, stem teas can also be roasted. The end result is called Kuki Hojicha or roasted stem tea. During the roasting process, the caffeine content is actually brought down even further, so this is one of the lowest caffeine teas you will find. The flavor is converted into rich notes of black coffee and dark chocolate. If you are a coffee lover trying to give up caffeine, a tea like the Kuki Hojicha may be a good option for you!
#3 Kukicha Osada FF
Another good kukicha tea is the kukicha osada. This is a low caffeine stem tea from the organic village of Isagawa in Shizuoka. When we met with the Osada family, they took us up in the mountains to see some of their tea fields. Even though they are a slightly larger company, they still maintain relationships with a lot of smaller farmers that grow tea without pesticides up in the mountains of Shizuoka. They have made an agreement not to use pesticides or chemicals on their tea fields, which is why they refer to this area as the organic village.
#4 Kukicha Chanoka
This is the newest addition to our selection of kukicha. The kukicha chanoka is produced by Mr. Takada in Uji. This takes on a much drier taste profile, with pleasant floral and hay notes. Like the other types of kukicha, this kukicha tea has more minerality to it and less caffeine, making it suitable for the late afternoon or evening.
Where to buy kukicha?
If you would like to buy kukicha, you can browse our selection of kukicha tea at Nio Teas. As we mentioned before, we have 4 different kinds, all with there own unique tasting notes. You can also try out the mega sampler and sample 30 different teas from all over Japan. This not only lets you try the different kinds of kukicha teas, but also compare them to other Japanese green teas to see which ones you like the most.
Final words on Kukicha
Although kukicha tea was discovered out of desperation, it has become a very delicious tea in its own right. It still maintains a lower price tag, and gets far less attention compared to its leafy counterparts, but it is a fantastic tea all the same.
Don't buy Kukicha tea bags but always loose leaf tea
One final reminder is not to buy kukicha in tea bags, only in loose leaf form. Teabags are mostly a gimmick to sell cheap low quality tea leaves. If you really want to get the full tea experience, you have to go for loose leaf. Here you will get to experience the full range of flavors, and you will have access to thousands of different kinds of tea, not just the ones you find produced by a handful of large companies.