Japanese Green Tea: Tea Leaf Varieties
What is Japanese tea?
In Japan, 99.9 percent of the tea produced is green. All of the famous Japanese teas, such as sencha, gyokuro and hōji-cha, are green teas.
“Green tea” means tea that has not been fermented (which is a term that actually refers to oxidation).
What people in the West call “black tea” is actually fermented (oxidized) tea; Oolong tea is semi-fermented tea.
In short, in order to produce green tea, oxidation of the tea leaves has to be stopped as soon as possible after they have been picked. This requires heating the tea leaves. The most widespread technique used today around the world, especially in China, is to heat the tea leaves by placing them in direct contact with a heated surface, as if they were in a big frying pan. However, what is special about Japanese green tea is that the tea leaves are heated using water vapour. After they are picked, the tea leaves are steamed. The technique originated in China, but largely disappeared several centuries ago.
In Japan there are three to four harvests, but only the first, which takes place between the end of March and mid-May, depending on the area, produces very high quality Japanese green tea.
Japanese Green Tea - Tea Leaf Varieties
Sencha is the most widespread kind of Japanese green tea, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the tea produced in Japan.
It is produced almost everywhere in Japan, and the palette of senchas is very broad, from very inexpensive to the most luxurious of tea leaves.
Sencha is considered to have been invented by Nagatani Sōen in Uji, Kyoto, in 1738.
This makes it relatively new in the history of tea in Japan.
Sencha really began to be developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it was a major export, essentially to the United States. At the time, tea was Japan’s second largest export, after silk!
Freshly picked tea leaves are brought to factories to be steamed as quickly as possible to stop oxidation. The tea leaves then go through several rolling and drying stages to remove humidity and give the leaves their characteristic needle shape. Indeed, no matter what the type of tea, rolling the leaves results in rapid infusion, but it is also an essential step for good drying of the tea leaves. The producer’s work ends with a drying stage that results in a product containing around 5 percent humidity.
At this point, the tea is still considered an unfinished, raw material, known as “ara-cha.” Ara-cha is sold to tea wholesalers. Wholesalers put the finishing touches on the tea to make it into sencha. The tea leaves are sorted: twigs, powder and buds are removed. Next comes the “hi-ire,” the final drying, which leaves around 3 percent of humidity in the leaves. The hi-ire has a decisive influence on the tea’s flavour.
Finally, in some cases, the tea is blended, and then at last it is packed.
When people talk about Japanese green tea, they often speak of futsu-mushi sencha (or asamushi sencha) and fuka-mushi sencha.
The former refers to sencha produced according to the traditional method, in which it is steamed for 30 seconds. Generally, this produces a tea with a clear yellow-green liquor, and a fragrant, subtle taste. The latter refers to sencha that is steamed longer, from 45 seconds to 2 minutes. This results in more broken leaves and a tea with a deep green liquor. Its taste is stronger but it has less fragrance.
Gyokuro is also brewed in a very special way, though most people are not aware of this.
Less than 1 percent of Japan’s tea production is gyokuro.
It is produced essentially in Kyoto and Fukuoka prefectures, though tiny amounts are produced in Shizuoka as well.
There are many theories about how it was invented, but it seems it appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture.
The way this Japanese green tea is processed is not fundamentally different from that of sencha; the key to gyokuro is the way it is grown. Gyokuro is grown in the shade.
The plantation is covered for 20 days before the day the tea leaves are to be picked. This produces tea leaves that are extremely rich in theanine, the amino acid responsible for the tea’s sweetness.
The fragrance characteristic of covered plantation Japanese green teas is known as “ooi-ka.”
This Japanese green tea is drunk in very small quantities, but, infused correctly, its flavour is extremely strong, mellow and complex.
Depending on the length of the shaded period and the shading technique, kabuse-cha is more or less similar to sencha or gyokuro. Kabuse-cha is in between those two types of Japanese green tea. It is grown in many areas, but the largest kabuse-cha producing area is Mie Prefecture.
The first dates from very long ago, and was probably imported from China in the sixteenth century. It is more generally called kama-iri cha (though its official name is kama-iri sei tamaryokucha).
It is produced according to the Chinese method, in other words, oxidation is stopped by heating the tea leaves in direct contact with a pan. It is much more powerful than sencha, and it was also the first type of teapot-infused tea to have appeared in Japan. Today, kama-iri cha is very rare, and is produced essentially on the large southern island of Kyushu.
It is a tea with a light, refreshing taste, and is appreciated especially for its special fragrance known as “kama-ka.”
In the 1920s, another type of tamaryoku-cha appeared in Japan. It is commonly called guri-cha (its official name is mushi-sei tamaryoku-cha). In reality, it is not much different from sencha, except that it does not go through the rolling stage that gives sencha (and gyokuro and kabuse-cha) leaves their needle shape.
The result is thus twisted, hook-shaped tea leaves. This makes the tea look somewhat like kama-iri cha, but the taste remains very close to sencha. Originally, guri-cha was intended for export to the Middle East.
Today, the main guri-cha production area is in Kyushu, especially Saga Prefecture (Ureshino tea), but it is also a speciality of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Generally, “tamaryokucha” almost always refers to unrolled tea that has been steamed, while the pan-fired version is almost always called “kama-iri cha.”
It has a very ancient history since it was brought from China by the Zen monk Eisai. Matcha is obtained by stone-grinding a tea called tencha to produce a powder.
Tencha itself is almost never drunk as such. Like gyokuro, it is grown in the shade. The tea leaves are steamed and then dried. They are then processed to retain only the flesh, without the stems or nerves of the leaves.
Finally, when it is ground, it becomes matcha.
Kona-cha is made of powder, me-cha is composed of small pieces of buds, and kuki-cha of stems.
One tea made of gyokuro stems is called “karigane.”
Thus, in a way, these teas are “by-products” and relatively inexpensive.
Nonetheless, their quality varies widely. A de-mono resulting from the sorting of a poor quality sencha will be of poor quality, while a de-mono from the sorting of a great gyokuro will be of much better quality.