From sencha and other straight green teas to roasted hojicha tea, genmaicha tea with roasted brown rice to matcha green tea powder for the Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese tea is a rich and varied world that is holding increasing amounts of fascination for tea enthusiasts here in the UK.
The vast majority of tea drunk in Japan is some form of green tea. All green tea, from the standard brews to the best green teas in Japan and other countries, is packed to the brim with health benefits. As well as the small amounts of caffeine some of us need in the morning to get started with the day, green tea also contains plenty of antioxidants for body function and protection, amino acids that aid caffeine in brain function without causing the jittery ‘buzz’ of coffee, compounds that aid in weight loss and weight management, and anti-aging agents that are particularly good for the skin.
Read on to find out more about different Japanese teas, the numerous health benefits of green tea, and how to make each type of tea properly to derive the best flavour. If you are wondering where to buy Japanese tea items, including loose teas, teabags, matcha tea powder, matcha tea sets, Japanese tea cups and other teaware, take a look at japancentre.com’s Tea and Teaware sections for one of the biggest ranges of Japanese green tea UK-wide.
The collective term for all types of straight Japanese green tea is ryokucha, which literally means ‘green tea’. Sencha is by far the most commonly consumed type of ryokucha in Japanese households, accounting for about 80% of all the tea produced in the country. Green tea is grown according to a yearly cycle, dependent on differing weather and temperatures. Early April to late May is known as the shincha (new tea) season, when the tea leaves are just sprouting and are at their most delicious and nutritionally dense. These new leaves are picked and quickly steamed to prevent oxidisation (the process that turns green tea into black tea), before being rolled, shaped, and dried. Sencha is often sorted into different grades based on the quality of its leaves, with the best quality leaves having the freshest and sweetest flavour. All sencha has a vegetative, grassy taste, usually with a slight hint of bitterness that adds to its refreshing quality.
Matcha tea (or macha tea) is made out of shade-grown tea leaves, which are also used to make gyokuro (the highest quality variety of ryokucha). When these shade-grown tea leaves are harvested (by hand-picking, no less), they are steamed and then either rolled out and dried for making gyokuro, or they are laid out flat to dry before being de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone-ground to create bright green matcha tea powder. This powder is whisked directly into hot water to make Japanese matcha tea. Because the green tea leaves themselves are imbibed, matcha tea health benefits are more potent than those of any other type of green tea.
Genmaicha, which can be translated to ‘brown rice tea’, is a mixed beverage made from green tea and roasted brown rice grains. Sometimes genmaicha is also known as ‘popcorn tea’, because the rice grains will occasionally ‘pop’ while roasting and resemble popcorn. Genmaicha was originally drunk by poor people who could not afford a lot of expensive green tea. They would add the rice kernels to stretch out the tea and make it last longer. Nowadays the combined nutty, slightly savoury flavour of the rice and the leafy freshness of the green tea has made genmaicha a favourite all over the country.
Hojicha, sometimes spelled houjicha, can be most accurately translated as ‘roasted green tea’. Instead of being steamed like sencha and other green teas, hojicha is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal at a high temperature; a process that changes the colour of the tea leaves from green to reddish brown. It is a relatively new variety of green tea, having first been produced in Kyoto in the 1920s. The roasting process significantly alters hojicha’s flavour (making it sweeter with a roasted, almost caramel-y flavour), as well as lowering its caffeine content. Hojicha is ideal for enjoying after dinner, or for giving to anybody who prefers sweeter flavours, such as children or the elderly.
Also known as kombucha, kobucha is not made from tea leaves, even though it has the word 'tea' in its name. It is instead an infusion of dried and powdered kombu kelp seaweed. Kombu contains high volumes of glutamic acid, which gives any food to which it is added a savoury umami flavour. Kobucha has a similar umami flavour, and will sometimes be made with infusions of ume plums to add an additional salty/sour quality.
A popular drink in Japan, as well as in China and Korea, mugicha is the Japanese word for roasted barley tea. Like kobucha, mugicha is referred to and treated as a tea despite it not containing any tea leaves. Originally made by stewing barley seeds in warm water, mugicha is now almost always made using teabags full of ground barley. It is normally drunk cold in Japan during the warmer summer months, making it a kind of Japanese iced tea. In China and Korea it is drunk hot or cold depending on the season.
Japanese green teas are, in general, more delicate than the black teas we in the UK are more used to making and drinking. As such, their flavour can vary dramatically depending on the temperature of the water while the tea is brewing, as well as how long the tea is brewed. To get the best flavour out of the different varieties of green tea, it is important to know how to prepare each type properly.
Sencha Green Tea
To get the best flavour out of sencha, it should be brewed for one minute in water with a starting temperature of 80°C. To bring freshly boiled water (which is normally around 90°C if boiled using a kettle) down to 80°C, the water is best poured into an open-topped vessel such as a jug, and left to stand for 1-2 minutes before it is poured into a teapot containing loose tea leaves or a teacup containing a sencha teabag. If a teapot is being used to make sencha, it is important that a strainer or infuser is used and the tea leaves lifted out after one minute. When sencha is brewed for too long it becomes very bitter.
Matcha is the tea used traditionally in the Japanese tea ceremony. To make it, approximately 2g of matcha powder is added to a special bowl, along with hot water with a temperature between 70°C and 85°C. It is then whisked with a special bamboo whisk (known as a chasen in Japanese), until there are no lumps in the liquid and no matcha powder is stuck to the sides of the bowl.
Interested in making matcha lattes and other modern matcha treats? Check our Matcha Green Tea page >
To get the best roasted brown rice aroma out of a cup of genmaicha, it is recommended that freshly boiled water is used, and the loose tea leaves or teabag are left in for one minute.
Hojicha is a more hardy tea than sencha and other types of green tea, and its flavour diffuses more quickly. It should be brewed in freshly boiled water, and the loose tea leaves or teabag should be left in for just 30 seconds.
Nowadays kobucha is normally sold as a dissolvable powder, with any extra flavourings (such as ume plum seasoning) already mixed in. Making it is therefore as easy as adding a spoonful to boiling water and stirring.
Mugicha is a robust tea that can be made with water of any temperature. For a darker and stronger Japanese mugicha, add a mugicha teabag or roasted barley grains to a pot of boiling water. Let the water simmer for a few minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the tea to cool. Once cooled, strain and put in the fridge to chill. For a lighter mugicha, simply add a teabag to a jug of cool water and put in the fridge until chilled.
The Japan Centre has a wide range of Japanese teaware sets and selections, including authentic teapots and teacups.
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