Beginner’s guide to Japanese teas
Elyse Petersen introduces 5 varieties to get you started.
AS AN INTERN for Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations in Wazuka, Kyoto, Japan, I learned a lot about tea.
Kyoto has some of the most unique teas in the country and serves as a standard of quality in the global tea community. Here’s a simplified list of Japanese teas that can get you started on your exploration of 日本茶 (Nihon cha – Japanese tea).
新茶 (Shincha – first flush)
Japan gets cold in winter. Snow coats plantations of tea trees, putting them into a dormant state.
While sleeping, the plants protect their flavor and umami (Japan’s awesome fifth savory taste). Once the weather warms up, the trees wake and grow shoots that Japanese tea grower Akky-san from Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations says is packed with “more powerful taste!”
The season for picking the first flush is dependent on the weather. Due to a very cold winter in Japan in 2012, some farms didn’t begin harvesting tea until late May.
かぶせ煎茶 (Kabuse sencha – shaded tea)
Many tea drinkers are probably familiar with Gyokuro, a very rich green tea with strong sweet and umami notes. Kabuse sencha, a fantastic tea with an acquired taste, is similar but has a slightly different growing process. It’s sweet and savory because the grower plays tricks on the trees by shading them.
As the weather warms and new shoots start growing, the farmer will cover his rows with large black tarps to block the sun. This causes the plants to produce less bitter notes, which gives the sweet and savory flavors more prominence. The tea is so savory it resembles seaweed after it’s been brewed.
Many people enjoy this tea with shoyu (soy sauce) over rice. おいしい! (Oishi! – Delicious!)
玄米茶 (genmaicha – tea with brown rice)
This is a refreshing tea usually made with lower quality sencha (green tea) mixed with roasted brown rice. The rice brings out the sweetness of the tea and gives it a slight popcorn-y aroma. It’s one of my favorite teas to drink on a daily basis because it’s affordable.
Genmaicha is a great way to add value to tea that would normally be considered of lower quality.
ほうじ茶 (houjicha – roasted green tea)
The later in the harvest season a tea is harvested, the lower its quality due to increased bitterness. Some Japanese farmers have figured out that if they roast the tea, they can bring out more sweet notes. This is a tea I believe people in the US would enjoy because its roasted flavor is reminiscent of coffee.
Houjicha is kid-friendly because of its low caffeine level and soft flavor. It’s a great place to begin if you’re just starting to explore Japanese teas — it’s also one of the more affordable teas because it’s made with a lower grade leaf.
抹茶 (matcha – ceremonial powdered green tea)
The most famous of Japanese teas is matcha, a finely ground green tea used in traditional ceremonies. Tea used to be enjoyed in Japan as a symbol of peace and tranquility, drunk among friends and enemies alike in a humbling environment where many conflicts during the Samurai period were resolved. Warriors couldn’t fit through the tiny door of the tea room with their swords, so all weapons were left outside.
Many people around the world still carry on this tradition, so matcha is produced in large quantities. It’s also used in the kitchen to produce dishes such as green tea ice cream.
There are many other teas being produced in Japan, even some black teas. Each growing region has its own specialty and tea culture, which is why it’s so important to connect with the tea you drink.
Since returning from Kyoto to Hawaii (the largest domestic producer of tea in the US), I’ve dedicated myself to building a network that connects drinkers with growers around the world. Visit www.tealet.com if you’d like to check us out.