Tea is widely consumed all over the world, but especially so in Japan, where it is served anywhere, anytime – a popular beverage for all occasions. While its popularity is obvious to all, not many tourists alike are aware of the classification of Japanese tea or its history.
In this article, we hope to provide a brief introduction to the types of Japanese tea and a brief history, and we hope that this help you better understand and appreciate Japanese tea when you next drink it.
A brief history of Japanese tea
Tea was first imported into the country from Japan in the 8th Century. The ruling classes immediately took to the beverage and made it available only to the royalty, rich noblemen and high ranking priests. It was not until the 12th Century, in the Kamakura Period, when the Buddhist priest Eisai brought back tea seeds from China once more to Japan, that the common people got their first taste of tea as well. They too, fell in love with the beverage, and this time beginning the mass cultivation of tea plants in Japan.
Japanese tea hit a peak during the Muromachi period in the 14th and 15th century. At this time, tea drinking parties became popular where large groups of people gathered to sample and guess the tea they were drinking. At such parties, it was common for hosts to show off their intricate tea sets and other ornate pottery ware.
Separately, those seeking a more elegant and refined experience developed parties that involved smaller numbers of guests, but which emphasized the pomp and ceremony of the tea brewing by an experienced host. This was the beginning of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Today, the Japanese tea ceremony is still a famed unique cultural experience and still widely practiced today by skilled practitioners. The rowdy tea drinking parties have faded into obscurity, leaving behind only the techniques to make exquisite pottery ware, such as those made by Kutani Pottery.
Types of Japanese tea
Over the centuries, the Japanese have experimented with adding tea to various foods and confectioneries (to resounding success). However, Japanese tea in its most basic form – simply brewed with water – remains the most popular method of consumption. The following are a list of the varieties of the tea beverage today.
1. Ryokucha (Loose leaf Green tea), inclusive of
Gyokuro – Highest Grade
Sencha – Common Grade
Bancha – Low Grade
The grade of these green teas depend on the timing of their harvesting. The Gyokuro are harvested first in the earlier rounds, next is common Sencha and finally the Bancha, which spends the most time in the sun. Inspite of grade, they are the same basic tea, and are simply steeped in tea to release all of its goodness and taste.
2. Matcha (Powdered Green Tea)
The leaves selected to be made into Matcha come from the highest quality plants, higher than any of the Ryokucha. They are then dried and then milled into powder. This means that, when Matcha is brewed into tea, one consumes the entire leaf as opposed what is released during gentle steeping.
This is the reason why Matcha is the strongest tasting (bitter) and also contains the highest percentages of the beneficial compounds found in Japanese teas. It also has the highest caffeine levels of all teas.
3. Genmaicha (Green tea with roasted brown rice puffs)
Brown rice is roasted into mini puffs (think popcorn), and then added to the usual Ryokucha to give it a unique grain taste. All the health benefits associated with brown rice is also assimilated into one super health drink.
4. Houjicha (Roasted Green tea)
Houjicha is made from roasting green tea leaves, which breaks down the chemicals in the green tea to give a milder but sweeter taste. The process also reduces the amount of caffeine in Houjicha, but also some of the other beneficial compounds that is associated with the common green tea. However, the sweeter taste and reduced caffeine makes the Houjicha a popular choice with children and the elderly.
It is also this author’s favourite type of Japanese tea!
5. Oolongcha (Chinese tea)
Oolongcha is made by allowing the plucked green tea leaves to oxidize to a for a time before it is the steamed to stop the oxidation process. Despite being as common as Ryokucha in Japan, it has an interesting reputation as a “Chinese tea”.
6. Koucha (Black tea)
Koucha is made when the tea leaves are left to oxidise even further (and not stopped). This is the actually the basic western tea, such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling, and is commonly marketed and served as such in Japan. Slightly less commonly consumed than other teas in the country.
We hope that this article has given you some insight into the world of Japanese tea, to help you better appreciate the humble yet delicious beverage you receive every time you step into a restaurant in Japan. If you would also like to learn more about the health benefits of Japanese tea, please read our other articles to find out more.