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Japanese Green Teas

Green tea is the predominant tea beverage consumed throughout Japan today. There are many kinds available. Early season sencha, the new season tea or shin cha, are generally regarded as the best of each year’s crop, and different regions compete on quality and seasonal availability. There are also those special occasion teas such as gyokuro, (a rarity and extravagantly priced); houjicha - a roasted tea and very much an evening drink; and the famous ceremony beverage, a powdered tea called maccha.

Gyokuro or jade dew is actually selected from a precursor grade known as ten-cha and is regarded as the highest grade of tea made in Japan. Seen very much as a luxury, and rare commodity, the gyokuro teas are made only with the limited first flush leaf in order to achieve a rich and round flavour with a delicate, pale lemon-green colour. Gyokuro is grown in the shade for approximately twenty days before harvesting is commenced. Removing direct sunlight in this way has the effect of reducing leaf photosynthesis, which alters the proportions of sugars, amino acids, flavanols and other substances responsible for tea aroma and taste. Gyokuro tea is generally sweet and delicate in flavour, as well as having a soft palate texture. It makes an excellent light evening tea.

Sencha, literally meaning, ‘roasted tea’, pertains to the past processing methods used to make this most popular of all Japanese green tea. Today, sencha is initially steam treated before further processing with hot-air drying and finally pan-frying. Over three quarters of all tea now produced in the Japanese tea gardens is in fact graded as sencha, a tea selected for its pleasant sharpness and fresh qualities complementing a leaf of high uniformity and rich emerald colour. However, the flavour, colour and general quality of sencha is highly variable, and depends not only on origin but also season and the leaf processing practises locally employed. It is well known that later harvests of sencha have more bitter qualities, a more robust flavour and generally less aroma. Furthermore, the leaf of late season teas is generally less uniform. Much is said of the shin cha, the earliest becoming available in April in the south of Japan, and sold because of its high vitamin content, sweetness and superior flavour. Most regions make a number of kinds of sencha, which are named according to the kind of processing used. Sencha is the tea most likely to be offered in a Japanese household or restaurant. Certainly sencha is starting to appear outside of Japan in food stores, specialist food shops and even supermarkets. The higher grades of sencha are available from some tea merchants, but the best teas remain largely unobtainable.

Matcha is powdered or ground tea. This is the well-known powdery green tea of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chano-yu). Maccha is regarded as a ‘heavy’ green tea by the Japanese, but in fact it can be prepared as a strong (koicha) or weak tea (usucha) depending on the way it is made. Quite often the best maccha is used for Chano-yu, and the bitter end to the tea ceremony shocks the uninitiated who attend such gatherings. Usucha is very easy to make, simply add hot water and stir, to give a kind of ‘instant’ tea. No prior knowledge of Chano-yu is needed. Maccha has similar origins to gyokuro, i.e. an early season, high grade, shade-grown tea. After steaming the maccha leaf is comprehensively stone ground to a light and fine green powder. The tea is rich in amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and high in caffeine and catechin antioxidants (the latter being a consequence of the very small particle size of the processed leaf). The highest grades of maccha have more sweetness and deeper flavour than the coarser teas of later harvests. The most famous maccha-producing region is Nishio in Aichi (on the main island of Honshu). This tea is specifically referred to as Nishiocha. Good ceremony teas are very hard to find outside Japan.

Kukicha or stalk tea. Also called stick tea owing the long thin shape of this leaf-stalk blend. The tea is made by collecting the stalk fractions of gyokuro and sencha and processed to an emerald leaf and pale green stalk blend. Kukicha is strictly made from stalks produced by harvesting of one bud and three leaves. The leaves go on to make gyokuro and high graded sencha. The main characteristics of Kukicha are its light flavours, and fresh, green aroma with a very light yellow-green colour. In fact for Kukicha, the thinner and less green the infusion; the higher is the quality of the tea. For the best stalk tea, the flavour is considered to be as good as highest quality sencha. Inexpensive and an enthusiasts tea, rarely seen outside Japan.

Bancha meaning common tea and possibly a reference to the coarser grades and heavier, late season crop from which this full-flavoured tea is made. Bancha is made from larger leaves than are usually available for sencha grades. However, it should be made clear that bancha are generally seen as other kinds of sencha which are harvested as a second flush tea between summer and autumn. It should be said that bancha usually lacks the delicate sweetness of quality sencha. Nevertheless, bancha is respected because of the tea’s well-defined character, vivid yellow colours and refreshing and deep flavours. The strength of flavour held by many bancha means that they go well with food. Becoming more widely available in the West owing to the lower price of these green teas.

Houjicha a pan-fried or oven roasted green tea commonly encountered in teashops throughout Japan. Houjicha holds very little bitterness, they also tend to be aromatic teas as well as being light on the palate and quite refreshing. Both bancha and Kukicha are used to make houjicha grades. The tea is fried at high temperature, the leaf colours then alter from green tints to red, and the roasted flavours are extracted and predominate. The main types of houjicha are light and deep-fried. As expected, the deeper fried leaf produce teas with a deeper roast aroma and taste. Houjicha infusions have a distinctively clear red appearance (as distinct from hongcha) and are reputedly low in caffeine as well as catechin antioxidants. The clean, roasted flavours of houjicha go with any kind of food, particularly oily foods, and is often appreciated as an after-dinner tea. Inexpensive, but rarely encountered in the West.

 Genmaicha or roasted rice tea is a blend of bancha green tea and Genmai (roasted rice grain). The flavours of Genmaicha, are a melange of the green tea and the roasted rice. The roasted aroma of Genmai teas has the effect of lightening the bitterness of the lower grade sencha. The proportioning of tea to rice is important, the more aromatic Genmai teas have a higher amount of rice. Other blends are known including maccha and Genmaicha. Moreover, the tea can be infused with high temperature water and for longer infusion periods than most Japanese teas. The Genmai teas are seen as a modest source of vitamin B1 and like bancha and houjicha contain less caffeine. Genmaicha can be drunk late into the evening without fear that it will disturb sleep. A very common beverage in Japan, manufactured by most tea producing regions. Many travellers who have spent some time in Japan also know the tea.

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