Japan is known for its production of green tea - Sencha, Matcha, Kukicha, Bancha, and more! Here we'll explore the different types of green tea and how the tea production in Japan got started.
Tea History in Japan (1,2)
Tea has been produced in Japan for well over a thousand years. It is believed Buddhist scholars brought back seedlings of the tea plant from a trip to China sometime during the late Nara and early Heian periods. Emperor Saga, after being introduced to tea by a Buddhist monk, is said to have encouraged tea cultivation and tea drinking in the country of Japan during the early Heian period. It was in the twelfth century that a Zen Buddhist monk by the name of Eisai wrote a book called Kissa Yojoki. The book discusses tea cultivation and tea preparation as well as details on how beneficial green tea could be for health and longevity of life. The success of this book is said to have led to the emergence of a shared tea culture in Japan and formed the basis for what has led to today's Tea Ceremony, or chanoyu.
What is green tea?
Green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. What makes green tea leaves different from their black, white, and oolong counterparts is the level of oxidation in the leaves. To be considered a green tea, the leaves must be 20% or less oxidized. Oxidation occurs naturally in the leaves when they are plucked, so heat is applied as part of the processing to stop the oxidation.
Native to China, the Camellia sinensis sinensis subspecies of the tea plant is typically used to make white or green tea. The plant is often used in the tea production of China, Japan, and Taiwan, though many different cultivars of the subspecies exist around the world today.
How does Japan and China differ when it comes to green tea? (3,4)
We start by comparing the sheer volume differences in terms of green tea production from China versus Japan. China produces more green tea than any other country in the world, producing approximately 80% of the total world's supply. Though Japan is among the top ten countries in terms of production, it's volume level cannot compete with that of China. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the green tea produced in Japan actually gets exported. To consume green tea produced by Japan anywhere else in the world would be considered a rarity in most occasions. Most of the green tea found around the world in restaurants and stores will have been tea produced in China. Because of the ubiquitousness of China green tea, we use it as a baseline for comparison purposes to learn about green tea produced in Japan.
Though green tea has been grown and produced in Japan for over a thousand years, tea originated in China over five thousand years ago. Even to date, much of the tea produced in China is processed by hand, whereas machines are used in the processing of tea in Japan. The tea leaves from China may be twisted into wiry figures, hand rolled into balls, or flattened into sword-like shapes. The tea from Japan, on the other hand, is rolled mechanically into needle-like shapes or is ground into fine powder. As such, the tea experience in China may be considered more artful as opposed to the more pragmatic approach to the tealeaf production in Japan.
Another difference between China and Japan green tea is the number of cultivars from which the tea is harvested. In Japan, most of the tea is produced from the Yabukita cultivar of the Camilla sinensis sinensis plant. In China, however, there are thousands of different cultivars used to produce green tea. If you're looking for the widest breadth of green tea options, China is the place to go. However, this is not to say one should discredit the many available options, and the fine quality of those green teas, available from Japan which we'll explore in more detail below.
Lastly, we want to highlight the difference in the flavor of the tea from Japan versus that of China. Applying heat is what stops the oxidation process, thereby making green (as opposed to black or oolong) tea from the harvested leaves. During the post-processing of the tea leaves in China, the leaves are pan fried after having been stored. The pan-frying lends to a toasty note in the flavor of the resulting tea. It is believed the small time allowed for storage before applying heat enables a slight fermentation to occur on the leaves, which is thought to result in an added tart or sour flavor many find undesirable. In Japan, however, the leaves are almost immediately steamed once they have been harvested from the tea plants. Japan green teas are often described as being a bit vegetal and, in some cases, as having a slight grassy flavor due to more chlorophyll in the leaves.
Types of Japanese Green Teas
Though most of the tea produced in Japan comes from the Yabukita cultivar alone, many different green teas are generated based upon the timing of the harvest, what part of the plant is used, and how the leaves are post-processed. Here we explore some of the most popular green teas produced in Japan.
Sencha typically comes from the first or second flushes (harvest) of the tea crop each year and happens to be the most common green tea consumed in Japan. The term Sencha simply means simmered tea. The flavor may be described as slightly sweet and grassy.
Bancha comes from leaves gathered in later flushes, which is often thought of as lower quality leaves than those harvested from the first and second flushes of the season. The flavor tends to be described as having a grassy earthiness with some dry, toasty notes.
In translation of the term Kukicha, we get “stem or twig” from kuki and “tea” from cha. Once leaves are plucked from the tea plant, they are sorted and de-stemmed. The remaining stems from Sencha production are what get used to make Kukicha. The stems have a very low caffeine content and the resulting brew may be described as mildly nutty and slightly sweet.
Genmaicha may be translated as “brown rice tea”. The green tea leaves used in this common Japanese blend are often Sencha, but can also be Bancha or a blend of the two. The tea leaves are blended with brown rice kernels that have been steamed, roasted, and popped. The blend typically consists of a ratio of equal parts tea to equal parts roasted rice. As a result, the overall caffeine content is lower than that found in other green teas. The resulting brew is often described as having a toasty, nutty flavor.
In Japanese, Houjicha literally translates as “roasted tea”. To make the tea, Bancha is roasted over high heat turning the leaves into their rich caramel color. During the roasting process, the caffeine is sublimated making the resulting tea less caffeinated and the taste less bitter. The resulting leaves have a savory aroma and yield a roasty-flavored cup with a clear after taste.
Gyokuro may be translated as jade dew. To produce Gyokuro, the tea leaves are shaded for up to three weeks just before they are harvested. The resulting brew has a strong umami flavor, reminiscent of seaweed and grass with sweet notes. Gyokuro is said to be one of the best teas in the world.
Matcha is a powdered tea made from shade-grown leaves like Gyokuro. Once the tea leaves are harvested and heat applied to the leaves, the leaves are then ground into a fine powder. Since the entire leaf, along with all of its many health benefits, ultimately gets consumed with this type of tea, Matcha is thought to be the healthiest of all teas.
These are just a few of the more popular green teas produced in Japan. We invite you to give a few of these different types of green tea a try. Keep sipping and enjoy the tea!
Lee, Reese. “Green Tea: A Century Old Japanese Drink for Better Health.” Just One Cookbook, https://www.justonecookbook.com/japanese-green-tea/. Accessed 08 Nov 2021.
“History of Tea.” All About Green Tea, https://www.itoen-global.com/allabout_greentea/history_of_tea.html. Accessed 08 Nov 2021.
“Japanese Green Tea vs Chinese Green Tea - 10 Battles You Don't Want To Miss.” Japanese Greentea Co, https://www.japanesegreenteain.com/blogs/green-tea-and-health/japanese-green-tea-vs-chinese-green-tea. Accessed 08 Nov 2021.
Dwyer, Katie. “4 Differences Between Chinese and Japanese Green Tea — And Which to Choose.” Pique, 01 April 2021, https://blog.piquetea.com/japanese-vs-chinese-green-tea/.