VARIETIES OF JAPANESE TEA
Tencha roughly translates into “milling tea” and Tencha leaves are the only real source to make Matcha powder, used in the traditional tea ceremony. The leaves are being shaded for at least 20 days before harvest. They grow under a cover to avoid direct sunlight. The process of covering the leaves is called “Oishitaen” and traditionally is done with reed screens which are then covered with rice straw. By limiting the photosynthesis there is going to be less catechin which leads to astringency or what most people distinguish as bitterness. With less sunlight there is less catechin and more L-Theanine (protein) what creates more umami flavor (savory taste). Due to shading the tea leaves a more humid and cooler environment is created what leads to slower growing tea buds.
In addition to shading the leaves with reed and straw, the leaves may be harvested by hand picking to get the best of the best.
Tencha Aracha after the first drying process
Matcha roughly translates to powdered tea. Matcha has its origins in medicine and was considered very precious. Matcha as a concentrated form of green tea is rich in caffeine, theanine, proteins resp. amino acids and vitamin A, C, E, B1, B2. Due to its reputation of having a lot of health benefits, monks were drinking Matcha because of the caffeine which has a stimulating effect, which helped them with meditation. The amino acid L-Theanine helps brain nerves to work better. Back in the day Matcha was not a tea for a wide range of people. Almost only noble folks, samurai and monks drank the powdered green tea. After getting more and more popular among people in ancient Japan, matcha found its way into the tea ceremony.
Real matcha tea is only made from one single type of green tea leaves, from Tencha tea leaves. Every year, the tea trees are covered from the middle of April to May for at least 20 days. the leaves are then harvested preferably by hand instead of machinery. Within a few hours after picking the leaves, the tea is then further processed. The leaves are steamed for around 20 seconds, this step prevents the leaves from oxidation and a natural green color along with nutritional components are retained. Then the leaves are dried with hot air. Next come the different sorting and drying steps (at least five more processing steps) to enhance the tea even more to even out its appearance and flavor. The last step is the grounding process, the leaves are ground into powder with a granite stone. For high quality matcha this step has not changed for more than 800 years. The only difference is that today the stone is turned with a machine and not by hand anymore, with the result being a superior consistency in the ultra-fine Matcha powder. Matcha does not dissolve completely during preparation. It is drunk as a so-called suspension, i.e. the whole powdered leaf with all the ingredients is consumed.
And just to be clear, high quality Uji-Matcha is not bitter in taste at all. It has a smooth texture and a mellow taste. The best of the best feels a little bit milky in the mouth.
Freshly grounded Matcha powder
Matcha tea urasenke style
Gyokuro is a refined green tea, which literally translates to “jewel dew”. Aside from the Matcha powder, gyokuro tea is among the most expensive teas in Japan. Not just due to its exquisite fragrance and savory taste, the commodity is also costly because its manufacture is labor-intensive. Not even 1% of the total tea output in Japan is Gyokuro. The Gyokuro we know today is a fairly new tea, having its origin dating back to 1835.
The leaves, just like Tencha leaves, are grown under a cover to avoid direct sunlight for more than 20 days to make soft, dark green leaf bunds. At least 90% of the sunlight is blocked. The leaves are then preferably picked by hand (1 bud with 2 leaves of 1 bud with 3 leaves) instead of using a machine. Unlike Tencha leaves the leaves we use to make Gyokuro are not directly dried after the steaming process. The leaves are only cooled down and then several kneading, twisting, rolling and drying steps are applied to release the tea flavor components by softening the fibers. After a final classification step and a final drying, the leaves have their characteristic thin needle shape. Inside the twisted leaves is the essence of the teas natural flavor. Gyokuro is less astringent, full-bodied and tends to be smoother than unshaded green tea. In particular, Gyokuro is much richer in umami and has a smooth, slightly sweet characteristic.
Fine Gyokuro leaves
A bunch of fresh-picked tea leaves
Fine Sencha leaves
Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan, roughly around 70% of Japans tea output is Sencha. Sencha is grown under the sun without a cover. Usually the leaves are fully exposed to the sunlight what leads to more photosynthesis and so more catechin what causes astringency or bitterness. The overall processing procedure is almost the same as Gyokuro. The leaves are mostly harvested by machine. Only superior Shincha Sencha is picked by hand.
The new leaf buds are then steamed, followed by several kneading, twisting, rolling and drying steps. Through these steps the flavor components are released by softening the fibers in the tea leaves.
The difference in steaming is the biggest difference between Gyokuro and Sencha in processing the leaves after picking. Almost all the tea produced in the Uji area is lightly steamed tea “asamushi”. The well-known deeply steamed tea “fukamushi” is a tea manly produced in the Shizuoka area. Bigger leaves than in Uji are used for the procedure.
Sencha has a refreshing fragrance and refined astringency. Japanese usually do not tend so say Sencha is bitter in taste.
Sencha in not a less superior tea than Gyokuro or Matcha, it is rather a completely different product with its unique characteristics.
Young tea buds on a rainy day
Genmaicha is a combination of green tea leaves and roasted brown rice. The roasted rice is mixed with green tea in a proportion of around 1:1, although this ratio can change depending on the manufacturer. The green tea used is usually a type of bancha leaves preferably “kawayagani”, which is made from large, fresh-steamed leaves left-over from the production of higher-grade teas such as Gyokuro and Sencha. Sometimes a solely higher-grade Sencha can also be used depending on the desired quality. Genmaicha was usually drunk by poor people because of its affordability but nowadays is appreciated among Japanese tea drinkers. The quality of the roasted rice (usually 100% mochi rice) is almost more important than the quality of the leaves. Genmaicha has a warming aroma, and therefore is widely drunk by the Japanese after a meal or before sleeping because of its low caffeine content.
Saijō Genmaicha begin processed
Karigane also known as Kukicha which literally means “stalk tea or stem tea” is made of twigs, stems and stalks. During the production process of Gyokuro and Sencha the leftover is used to make Karigane. It is made out of around 90% of twigs and stems. Karigane is almost caffeine free but is rich in trace elements. Infusions of Karigane give a unique flavor quite different to the normal Sencha or Gyokuro leaves. The flavor is full-bodied and quite refreshing compared to normal leaf tea. Like Houjicha, it is very easy to make tea but loses the flavor quite fast after one infusion, unlike leave tea.
Twigs and stems are beginning separetat from Aracha (Unrefined Tea)
Houjicha is made from roasted green tea leaves. Like for Genmaicha usually, Bancha leaves (larger, older and bigger leaves usually used for Sencha) are used to make Houjicha but depending on the manufacturer, Sencha or only twigs are sometimes used. The leaves are roasted over fire at high heat, during which the leaves take on a brownish color and are imbued with a rich savory fragrance. And it is this roasting process that makes a good Houjicha. The tea leaves taste a bit toasted but Houjicha is low on caffeine and tannin. Therefore, Houjicha is well suited to be taken as an evening or bedtime tea by those with a slightly sensitive stomach.
And because the leaves are already roasted, preparation is as simple as it can be. Just add boiling hot water to the leaves and brew for around 1 minute.