Japanese Teas

Tea was originally brought to Japan in 805 A.D. by a priest by the name of Saicho, who was returning from studying at the T’ien-t’ai monastery in China. It did not become popular at the time, and was reintroduced again in 1,200 A.D. by another Buddhist priest, named Eisai, returning from China with both tea and Zen Buddhism. Tea and Zen have maintained a strong partnership ever since. Japanese tea was first exported in 1862 and slowly gained momentum until it made up approximately 20% of the U.S. market by World War II. Currently, Japan exports less than one percent of its tea production, and is home to some particularly unique types of tea.

Some of the more commonly known Japanese green teas are:

Kukicha (stalk tea)
Made from the stems of the tea plant with a few leaves. This tea is generally the results of the final pruning of the plants to prepare for the winter dormancy.

Bancha (last tea)
This is sencha (see below) that was harvested at the last plucking. The leaves are the larger, coarse, older leaves, which results in a less robust flavor.

Genmaicha (Popped-Rice tea)
A blend bancha and genmai (roasted rice). An acquired taste for most westerners, which was the result of the more poverty stricken individuals in times past who added roasted rice to their meager stores of low quality tea to enhance its flavor and bulk.

Hōjicha/Hojicha (pan fried tea)
Hojicha is bancha that has been roasted. Interestingly, this tea was created in 1920 by a Kyoto merchant with old stores of bancha that he could not sell. He roasted the tea and found that it resulted in an interesting new flavor, and it has been somewhat popular ever since.

Sencha (broiled tea)
Probably the most common green tea in Japan. The leaves received no special treatment but are of sufficiently high quality. This is the baseline against which green tea quality is measured. The finest of the sencha teas is the first flush, and is called ichiban-cha (number one tea). This is a more subtle tea than the second flush, niban-cha which is not picked until after May 15th. While the most commonly known Japanese tea ceremony is based on matcha, there is also a sencha based tea ceremony as well.

Kabusecha (covered tea)
Another sencha tea, but the leaves were grown in the shade before being harvested for a short period of time. It is more delicate than sencha.

Gyokuro (Pearl Dew)
From a grade of green tea known as “Ten-cha,” the name “gyokuro” refers to the pale green color of the infusion. The plants are shaded for the first three weeks of May prior to harvesting the leaves which results in an overproduction of chlorophyll and an under production of polyphenols. This gives the tea a deep, rich green color and a mild, sweet taste. It also results in a costlier than usual product.

Matcha (rubbed tea)
A high-quality powdered green tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is also used to flavor ice cream and other foods in Japan. It is made by chopping Gyokuro finely, into a form called tencha which is then stored. Tencha is further ground into a powder to make matcha. Matcha keeps for a month in the best of conditions, but often a lot less, so is usually ground from tencha just prior to use.

Amacha (sweet tea)
Amacha is a rare treat, a green tea served at temples on April 6th, for the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday with a sweet finish.

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