There’s no better place in the world for green tea than in Japan. In fact, about 99.9% of the country’s tea is green- and just about everyone drinks at least a cup each day. Take just one sip of a well crafted Japanese green tea and you’ll soon understand why. Best of all, there are close to twenty varieties of Japanese green tea, meaning you can a wide variety of different flavors in your cup, from robust and earthy to light and fragrant. There’s something truly special about these rich and flavorful tea blends, which is why you’re missing out if you don’t experiment with different Japanese green tea blends when you can.
What is Japanese Green Tea?
Contrary to what most people think, black and green tea actually come from the same plant. The difference in coloring and flavor in the leaves comes from the processing. Black tea leaves are simply fermented (oxidized) green tea leaves, which gives them their darker coloring. In contrast, green tea is steamed almost immediately after picking so that the leaves don’t have time to turn brown. This leaves them with a distinctive flavor and plenty of nutritional benefits.
History of Japanese Green Tea
Tea as we know it today originated in China with the mythical emperor Shennong who found that he enjoyed the taste of tea leaves in his boiled water when some fluttered into his cup from a nearby tree. Tea drinking spread throughout China thousands of years ago, and Buddhist missionaries from the seventh century are credited with bringing the first tea leaves to Japan.
During the Heian Period of Japanese history, the Emperor Saga encouraged tea drinking throughout his empire and spread the tea tree throughout Japan. Within a short amount of time, tea became extremely popular, though the high price meant that only the wealthy could enjoy it.
Today, more efficient growing and processing methods mean that tea is now affordable for everyone, and the Japanese continue to drink close to 1 kg of tea per person per year. Instead of relying on just one or two varieties, however, there are almost two dozen varieties of Japanese green tea to experiment with.
10 Top Japanese Tea Varieties
It’s hard to get bored with green tea when there are so many varieties to experiment with. Below are ten top Japanese green tea varieties you should try.
Often considered the emperor of Japanese green tea, gyokuro tea is unique because the leaves are shaded for the last month of their growing period. This prevents the amino acid L-Theanine from converting into catechins, which are responsible for the bitterness of lower quality tea varieties. For this reason, gyokuro is known for its sweet, nori seaweed like taste and relaxing effects that many people believe resembles sencha and matcha. Less than 1 percent of Japanese green tea production is gyokuro, and high quality gyokuro tends to be expensive because of how labor intensive the growing process is. For this reason, gyokuro tea is usually drunk in tiny quantities, though its strong, complex flavor makes you feel like you are drinking more.
Made from tencha tea leaves, matcha is a finely ground green tea powder that is dissolved and drunk, rather than simply used to infuse water. In order to get the desired flavor, matcha leaves are covered with shade cloth for the last month of their growth cycle in order to preserve the natural amount of L-Theanine in the leaves. Once harvested, matcha leaves are steamed, dried and stripped of their stems and veins. The leaves are then ground into a fine powder by a stone mill. In order to drink matcha, a small amount of powder is dissolved in water to create an emerald green, frothy drink that is delicious served with milk and honey. Because you drink the entire tea leave, matcha is one of the healthiest forms of Japanese green tea available. One cup provides as many antioxidants as twenty cups of regular green tea, and it also gives you a hearty serving of Vitamin A, E, beta carotene and dietary fiber. Long used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, matcha tea is a healthy ceremonial drink that should be celebrated.
As the most common form of Japanese green tea, sencha is what you are probably drinking every time you enjoy a generic cup of green tea. Even so, though there are many cultivars and grades of sencha in Japan, meaning that there is a wide spectrum on quality and pricing for it. Because it accounts for 70 percent of Japanese green tea, sencha can be found throughout the country and is made by steaming freshly picked tea leaves for thirty seconds. After this, sencha leaves are rolled and dried until the leaves are at less than 5 percent humidity. The leaves are then sorted to remove twigs, buds and powder, and dried again to 3 percent humidity before being sold around the world. In most cases, sencha tea produces a clear yellow-green color and has a subtle, almost floral, taste.
If you’re looking for a fully bodied comfort tea, your search can end with genmaicha, a nutty, toasted Japanese comfort tea. Also known as ‘popcorn tea’ genmaicha is made from sencha tea combined with roasted brown rice at a fifty-fifty ratio. This gives it a unique, toasted flavor that contains a hint of sweetness. Originally, genmaicha was considered a commoners tea because it was less expensive than other forms of Japanese green tea. Today, however, genmaicha tea is prized for its unique flavor and lower caffeine content. In order to brew it properly, make sure you use water that is close to boiling, as the rice needs high heat in order to release its full flavor.
Also known as tamaryokucha, guricha tea is a rare form of Japanese green tea that is renowned for its sweet smell and full bodied taste. Guricha is mainly produced on the island of Kyushu and makes up less than 5 percent of the total tea production of Japan. Unlike other forms of Japanese green tea, guricha gets its sweetness from the processing method, which skips the final kneading process that most tea leaves go through. This gives dried guricha leaves a distinctive comma shape that produce a sweet tasting, deep colored tea when brewed.
For those that prefer mild tasting, low caffeinated forms of tea, hojicha tea is a delicious variety to try. Instead of being steamed like most other forms of Japanese green tea, hojicha is made from sencha leaves that are gently pan fried in order to create a uniquely nutty, roasted flavor when it’s brewed. This also gives hojicha tea a brown color when it’s brewed, even though it’s still technically a form of green tea. The roasting process also removes much of the caffeine content and leaves the leaves less bitter. For full flavor, brew the leaves in water just below boiling and let them infuse for fifteen seconds before straining them out and drinking it.
Instead of relying on leaves like most Japanese green tea varieties, kukicha tea is made from the stems, stalks and twigs of the tea tree, giving kukicha its nickname of bocha (stick tea). Best when used medicinally, kukicha tea is a natural way to calm your stomach and nerves without subjecting yourself to too much caffeine. When brewed in water that’s kept well below boiling, kukicha tea produces a light colored drink and has a creamy, nutty flavor.
Like other sweeter forms of Japanese green tea, kabusecha gets its unique flavor from growing in the shade. However, it only needs special shade treatment for about ten days instead of a full month. Traditional kabusecha tastes similar to sencha, but there are variations that are much more powerful than sencha and full of a floral like fragrance. Also unlike sencha, kabusecha doesn’t go through the rolling stage and instead the leaves are sold in twisted needle-like shapes.
Not all Japanese green tea needs to be delicious in order to be drunk. Konacha tea (also called “tea powder” is made from the leftovers from the processing of sencha and gyokuro tea. Usually made from rejected buds, stems and dust, konacha has a strong color, aroma and flavor that makes it perfect for culinary use. The most common use for konacha is in sushi restaurants as a way to quickly remove the fishy taste of your sushi rolls from your mouth.
Literally translating to “new tea”, shincha tea leaves are the first pickings of the season, which is why it is also known as “in-season tea”. During the winter months, tea bushes store up nutrients in their stems and buds in order to form the first tea leaves of the new year. This makes the first few leaves a vivid green and packed with nutrients, making them highly desirable for health and wellness. According to traditional belief, drinking a cup of shincha tea is a way to ensure your year is filled with health and happiness. The young tea leaves used in shincha tend to be invigorating, even though the tea is renowned for its low catechin and caffeine content which makes it less bitter than other Japanese green teas. The full-bodied flavor of shincha instead comes from the higher than average amino acid content.
There’s no reason to stick to boring beverages when there are so many forms of Japanese green tea to try instead. Whether you’re looking for a green tea to drink for health reasons like matcha or a sweet and fragrant variety like guricha tea to wake you up in the morning, there’s sure to be a variety of Japanese green tea that gets you excited.
Not a green tea drinker? You don’t have to limit yourself to coffee instead. Check out this list of healthy coffee alternatives to find a drink that makes sense for you.