In Japan, tea is life. Found at every table from local restaurants to elaborate Japanese tea ceremonies, the beverage is a staple part of Japanese culture. It's no surprise then that there are more than 100 different types of Japanese tea. The teas are unique based on the type of tea, cultivar, growing region, and even processing methods. Most are green tea varieties with flavors ranging from sweet and floral to nutty and spicy though you'll still encounter the rare Japanese black and oolong teas as well. Find out more about the most popular types of Japanese tea from matcha powder and sencha to hojicha and wakoucha.
In Japan, green tea is called ryokucha, ocha, or nihoncha. Most Japanese teas are cultivated using the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea plant. Here are some of the most popular varieties.
Matcha tea is a unique green tea that is a fine powder rather than whole loose leaf tea. The green tea powder is vibrantly hued and popular in drinks such as matcha lattes and boba tea. The bright green color is a direct result of the tea plants being grown in shade rather than direct sunlight. The shade causes the plants to produce more chlorophyll and nutrients such as amino acids including L-theanine.
Matcha comes in two main types: ceremonial grade and culinary grade. Culinary grade matcha is used in baked goods, ice creams, and other food dishes while the ceremonial grade is a high-quality tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Ceremonial matcha is also sub-categorized as Koicha — a rich bodied tea used in fancy tea ceremonies — and Usucha, a mild-bodied tea used for more informal ceremonies.
Sencha tea is the most popular green tea in Japan. It is the tea you'll find in local restaurants and at most household gatherings. It is typically brewed around 175 degrees Fahrenheit and includes a range of sub-teas such as Fukamushi (heavily steamed sencha), Kabuse-cha (shade-grown sencha), and Shincha (early harvest sencha).
Like matcha tea, gyokuro is a shade-grown tea boasting extensive health benefits thanks to the high concentration of nutrients including catechins and polyphenols. The green tea leaves are typically shaded for the final two to three weeks of the cultivation process. The leaves are then steam-dried to prevent oxidation and then shaped for sale.
Genmaicha green tea is a blend of green tea leaves and popped brown rice kernels. The rice adds toasted notes and roasted flavors that help to balance out the bitter notes of some green teas. The rice also lends a fuller body to this green tea.
Ujicha is a type of green tea cultivated in Uji in the Yamashiro region of Kyoto. Uji is considered the birthplace of Japanese green tea where it was cultivated some 800 years ago. The tea here grows on mountain slopes and in sandy soils while the climate provides warm temperatures during the day and mild cooling at night. These factors combine to create some of the most exquisite green tea flavors.
Tencha is a green tea powder that offers an incredibly smooth body and mellow, sweet flavor. The tea is made from gyokuro or sencha leaves and dried to prevent oxidation. The veins and stems of the leaves are removed before the leaves are ground into a fine powder.
Konacha is a powdered green tea made from the remnants of tea leaves used to produce shade-grown gyokuro. Instead of throwing away broken tea leaves, the leaves are ground into a fine powder and sold as a separate type of tea. Popular at sushi restaurants, this tea has strong grassy notes and a full body.
Kukicha, also called bocha or twig tea, is a type of Japanese green tea made using the stem of the tea plant rather than the tea leaves. The stems of the plant are rich in vitamins and minerals, making the tea a popular digestive tea. This type of green tea tends to have a nutty flavor with sweet undertones.
Mecha is a type of Japanese green tea made using only the buds of the tea plant. This type of green tea has heavy notes of astringency that make it a popular after-dinner drink. It's a great tea type for people on a tight budget as the strong flavor can be re-steeped multiple times.
Hojicha, also known as houjicha, is one of the few Japanese green teas that are pan-roasted rather than steamed during the drying process. The roasting process removes much of the caffeine. This green tea is often the first interaction young Japanese have with green tea thanks to its mild flavor profile and the low level of caffeine.
Wakoucha is a type of tea known as black tea. Black tea is made from the same leaves of the tea plant as green tea, but the tea leaves are oxidized to produce bolder flavors. Wakoucha has earthy notes and mild astringent undertones that are emphasized by the cultivar used in Japan to produce black tea.
Mugicha is a Japanese tea that does not contain any parts of the Camellia sinensis tea plant. Instead, it is made by infusing roasted barley grains in hot water. Technically an herbal tea, it is beloved for its toasted tasting notes and brewed as an iced tea to cool off in hot summertime temperatures.
Konbucha — NOT kombucha — is a tea made using seaweed kelp rather than tea leaves. The tea boasts bold salty and umami flavors that make it a unique beverage compared to other Japanese teas.
This list barely scratches the surface when it comes to Japanese green teas. Regional variations offer an even more extensive range of Japanese green tea options. The main tea producing regions in Japan include Shizuoka, Kagoshima, and Mie although tea is largest cultivated across the entire nation with the exception of Hokkaido.
Like regional variation, different harvest windows also create new flavors and new types of Japanese tea. Bancha, for example, is a green tea that is harvested during the second flush of the season. Every step of the process from seed to tea leaf to teapot impacts the type of tea as well as its flavors and aroma.
From the highest grade green teas to more affordable flavors in tea bags, Japan delivers the good when it comes to drinking tea. Whether you're looking for a tea powder to use in a Japanese tea ceremony or a loose leaf tea that's roasted or made with unique ingredients like seaweed, Japan has a tea for you.
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