Japanese green tea is a wonderful drink but there are so many varieties that we have put together this guide to help you better understand and enjoy it, plus our recommended suppliers for starting your tea journey.
In this post:
- Growing and producing tea in Japan, season by season
- Our recommendations
- Favourite suppliers
The history of tea in Japan begins in around 805 AD when Japanese monks brought it with them from China. However, Japan was reliant on China for its tea supply until around the start of the 13th century when plantations appeared in the Kyoto region. Tea is now mainly grown on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu where the sea air gives the tea a slight hint of seaweed which is not present in most Chinese and Indian teas which tend to be grown in mountainous regions far from the sea.
Although Japan produces less than 2% of the world’s tea, it is justifiably famous for its high-quality teas, particularly Gyokuro, Sencha, and Matcha teas, along with Genmaicha, which is a blend of Sencha with rice. Around 75% of the tea grown in Japan is grown using just one cultivar of Camellia sinensis, the Yabukita cultivar, which was first developed as recently as 1954 and is ideally suited to Japan’s weather and soil. It produces leaves with an exceptionally strong aroma and intense taste. Around 80% of the tea produced in Japan is of the Sencha variety.
The main difference between Japanese and Chinese green teas is the method used to prevent oxidation: Chinese green teas are usually pan-fired while Japanese green teas are steamed.
Most of Japan’s tea is produced in three regions:
Kyoto prefecture is the oldest tea-growing region of Japan, centred around the town of Uji, which are key areas for the production of Gyokuro and Matcha.
Kagoshima prefecture is the southernmost island of Japan and is famous for a wide selection of styles of green tea, producing Bancha and Kamachira as well as Gyokuro and Sencha
Shizuoka prefecture is on the Pacific side of the main island of Honshu and is responsible for half of Japan’s tea output. It mostly produces Sencha tea and its wet cool weather means that the Chinese sinensis cultivar will grow.
Growing and producing tea in Japan, season by season
The tea-growing year begins in Japan when the first pruning of the tea plants takes place in Spring, usually in March, although this may vary somewhat depending on the region and the weather conditions. Three to four weeks before the first harvest, which usually takes place in April, the tea plants used to produce Gyokura and Matcha must be screened from direct sunlight.
This forces the plants to produce more chlorophyll but fewer tannins – the former have a sweet taste and the latter are bitter so this process dramatically alters the flavour of the finished product, as well as making it more intensely green. However, the shading process stresses the plant so it is vital that the plants are closely monitored for signs of disease or ill-health.
Tea plants being grown to produce Sencha will, in contrast, not be covered. Allowing them to receive full sunlight up until harvest gives the finished product a more golden colour with a less sweet and slightly stronger flavour. The flavour of the best quality Sencha will be astringent rather than bitter and refreshing rather than sharp.
The tea leaves have to be harvested within an extremely short window of time, when the plant has three to five sprouts. Even a day or two in either direction will cause problems: leaves harvested too early will produce too little usable tea, leaves harvested too late will be of considerably lower quality in terms of flavour and bitterness.
Once the tea leaves are plucked, they must be processed. It is important that the leaves be processed the same day of harvest. For Gyokura and Sencha, there are three steps to processing: steaming, drying and shaping. For Matcha, the leaves are steamed and dried, then sorted.
The steaming of the leaves is the crucial part which determines the flavour of the finished product. The leaves will be steamed for as little as 30 seconds, up to one minute, depending on the texture, size and thickness of the leaves. A batch of green tea can be ruined very quickly if this step is not skillfully controlled.
Next, the tea must be finished. Finishing for Gyokuro and Sencha includes sorting the leaves and stems and then putting them through a final drying process. Most are simply dried for a short period of time but some styles are roasted to enhance and deepen the flavour. This is the most common finishing step for Sencha tea.
Matcha, being powdered, is treated rather differently. The leaves are sorted, dried and ground to a fine powder with a stone mill. – it can take an hour to grind just a couple of ounces of matcha.
Finally, the tea must be stored. Green tea, because it has not been oxidized, is more difficult to keep fresh than oolong or black tea. Matcha, in particular, will lose its freshness quickly because its powdered form means a much greater surface area is in contact with the air. It is imperative that it be stored in airtight containers and that no moisture is allowed in.
Although the finest quality tea will be produced from the first harvest in Spring, during the summer months, the tea plants will be allowed to recover and the plants may yield another two or three harvests. Each subsequent harvest will produce a slightly lower quality of tea. Generally, tea gardens will continue to harvest until the risk of the first frost appears.
During the summer, the tea gardener will have to keep weeds and insects at bay. Many Japanese tea gardens pride themselves on being organic so cannot use pesticides or synthetic weedkillers. The process of keeping the tea garden healthy is highly labour intensive so tea farmers don’t get a nice rest in between harvests.
During autumn, the tea plants undergo their most vigorous period of growth. The tea farmer will aerate the soil, apply fertilizer, and check the soil is of the optimal composition to support healthy growth. In October, the plants will need to be pruned again before the first frost of winter. Pruning must be carefully times to ensure that the first buds of spring will appear at the right time.
Winter is time for the tea farmer to prepare new areas for tea growing. However, they also need to take care of the existing tea plants. Although a well-established tea plant is very hardy and frost tolerant, younger plants which are less than five years old need far more protection. The farmer may use a protective mulch to protect young roots, or apply protective fleece to protect the plants if it is going to be exceptionally cold.
Varieties of Japanese green tea.
At first glance, there may appear to be a bewildering array of Japanese green teas on offer. However, they can be divided into three main categories according to the growing conditions or post-harvest processing. This divides the world of Japanese tea into unshaded, shaded and processed teas. The main varieties are:
This is by far the most popular form of tea in Japan and is sometimes simply called “Japanese green tea” because it is the everyday drink for most people. It has long, needle-like leaves. It may be further subdivided into:
- Shincha, sometimes called Ichiban or New tea, it refers to tea made from the first harvest of leaves in the spring. It has a sweet and subtle flavour, with umami notes. This is the most expensive type of Sencha.
- Asamushi is steamed for as little as thirty seconds so it has the freshest, brightest taste.
- Chumushi is steamed for around sixty seconds which gives it a stonger flavour than Asamushi
- Fukamushi is steamed for up to two minutes and is, therefore, the darkest of the green teas. This longer steaming time also results in more broken leaves ending up in the final product than with Asamushi or Chumushi. It makes a drink which is darker than other green teas and its flavour is more astringent with hints of seaweed and a slight nuttiness.
- Kukicha is a blend of Sencha leaves plus stems gives a sesame-like, chestnutty kind of flavour.
- Bancha is plucked from the same bushes as Sencha but later in the season so is of lower quality with a stronger, more straw-like aroma.
Sencha can also be bought in powdered form this is superficially similar to Matcha, and is prepared in the same way, but as it is not shaded it is not as sweet and vegetal. It will simply be called “powdered Sencha”
The other main two types of Japanese green tea are shaded for a few weeks before harvesting. The main two types of shaded tea are:
The production method is much the same as for Sencha, but like Matcha it is shaded for at least three weeks before harvest. While the Yabukita cultivar is sometimes used for Gyokuro, more often it is made from another cultivar such as Asahi, Yamakai or Saemidori.
It is shaded like Matcha but unlike Matcha, it is kept in whole leaf form like Sencha. It tends to be brewed at a lower temperature than Sencha and steeped for longer. It is one of the most expensive types of Japanese tea.
Kabusecha is very similar to Gyokuro but shaded for only one week before harvesting so its flavour falls somewhere between Gyokuro and Sencha.
Matcha is a tea that has been finely ground into a powder and can be thought of as powdered Gyokuro. In Japanese, “matsu” means rubbed and “cha” means tea so the translation is rubbed, or ground tea. It has a slightly bitter, vegetal flavour. This powdered form is much more perishable than whole leaf tea so is sold in small quantities. This is the type of tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony.
These are teas that undergo some sort of post-production processing. The two most popular are:
- Genmaicha: a blend of Sencha with toasted rice. Warm and nutty with a lovely savoury quality.
- Hojicha: roasted Sencha or Bancha leaves with Kukicha twigs. Although it is unoxidised so is technically a green tea, the roasting process turns the green leaves to a reddish-brown and the resulting drink is full of these roasted, almost caramel flavours rather than the bright vegetal flavours of other Japanese green teas.
If you’re completely new to Japanese tea, then do some research before making a purchase. The most important thing is to ensure your Japanese tea is from Japan. Some suppliers list “Japanese green tea” but the country of origin is China. This is likely to be cheaper, but will not provide the authentic product.
Otherwise, our guidance would be to start with what seems most familiar to you:
- If you already enjoy Chinese whole leaf green tea, and you love its astringency, then a Sencha would be a good place to start.
- If you like the idea of a smooth, frothy, almost milky but vegan drink, then Matcha or another powdered tea would suit you.
- If you’re a coffee or hot chocolate fan then try Hojicha, with its roasted, toasted richness.
- If you want Japanese chicken soup for the soul, then Genmaicha is what you’re looking for.
- If you love roasted chestnuts, try Kukicha.
If you’re keen to find out more then I highly recommend the following sources of information:
Find out more about green tea in general and how to brew it in this post: What is green tea?
Some of our favourite suppliers of Japanese tea
The organic movement and certification has been relatively slow to catch on in Japan so it’s relatively difficult to source organic Japanese tea compared to other growing regions.
If you’re not sure where to start, one of our favourite tea suppliers, Art of Tea have a Taste of Japan Sampler Pack. This contains a sample of four different varieties including Sencha, Matcha and Gyokuro.
Clearspring. We listed Clearspring on our five green best tea brands: they are specialists in organic Japanese food and drink, they have a good selection of teas including Sencha, Genmaicha and Hojicha.
Chill Tea Tokyo is another supplier of organic Japanese tea we love. They have a wide range of products inlcuding many exciting and exotic blends of tea with additions like lemon or cherry blossom, as well as Sencha, Genmaicha and Hojicha.
TeaSpot have a lovely selection of organic products including a number of Japanese teas.
If you are only interested in Matcha, and want the very highest quality, see our recommendations in our guide to easy recipes with Matcha.
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