There are many different types of tea produced in Japan. A large majority of tea in Japan comes from the Yabukita cultivar (75%), however there are also many other cultivars that exist in Japan. The cultivar will ultimately influence the flavors in the cup based upon its chemistry.
Sencha: Sencha is the most common type of tea produced in Japan. Sencha leaves come from the top of the tea plant, comprising the top two leaves and a bud. It is an unshaded tea. Once the sencha leaves are harvested, they are taking into the factory where the first step of processing is a 20-40 steaming in order to kill the oxidation enzymes in the leaf (needs approximately 70 C degrees) and maintain the green color and flavor characteristics attributed to Japanese green tea. The steaming will increase the moisture content of the leaves to roughly 400%. Sencha will then go through several drying and rolling stages before the final rolling (where it gets its needle shape) and drying (where the moisture content is reduced to ~5%). At this point the tea is called “Aracha” (crude tea or “farmers tea”). Sometimes it will be sold in this way (it’s quite delicious!) But more commonly it will be go through a finishing process where the archa will be sifted, cut, and sorted in accordance to size and shape (ultimately grade). It is then packaged and ready to be sold (or drank!)
Fukamushi Sencha: Fukamushi sencha is similar to regular sencha, however the steaming process is 2 to 3 times longer. The reason for this is that the leaves where this is practiced are a thicker than the normal sencha leaves due to more sun exposure (generally flat land where there are no mountains to block the sun for part of the day, i.e. parts of Shizuouka). This process creates a coarser tea leaf than traditional sencha. It also causes a cloudier cup when being brewed. I will say this — it is delicious and in no way a lesser version of traditional sencha!
Gyokuro: Gyokuro is produced in the the same manner as sencha. However, the one key difference is that the tea will be shaded before it is harvested. This shading period will last for approximately three weeks. These three weeks make a world of difference. During this period of time, like tencha, the catechins and astringency of the final tea are reduced, whereas the theanine and umami/sweetness of the tea are increased. This ultimately produces an incredibly rich and tasty cup of tea — and is the reason that Gyokuro is my absolute favorite tea.
Kabusecha: Kabusecha is right in the middle of sencha and gyokuro. It is not quite as astringent as a sencha, but not quite as umami-rich as a gyokuro. Some would say it is a perfect mix of both. Kabusecha is shaded for a week and a half to two weeks.
Tencha: Tencha is made from a leaf that is shaded for approximately the last four weeks before the harvest. During these four weeks the sun exposure is reduced to a minimum by the covers over the leaf. This decreases the catechins in the leaf which are responsible for astringency in tea. At the same time, chlorophyll is building up creating deeper green color in the leaf. In conjunction, the theanine (responsible for sweetness and umami) in the leaf is also increasing. After the four weeks of shading, the covers are removed and the bushes are harvested. From here the leaf is taking to a special tencha factory where it will be processed. While it goes through a steaming process at the beginning similar to sencha processing, the remainder of the process is very different. More to come in a follow up post in the future. The most important thing to note, is that in the final stages of processing the leaves are put through a machine that will separate the leaf matter from the stems. Once the stems are removed (used for koukicha), what is left over is tencha.
Matcha: Matcha is made when the previously mentioned tencha leaves are ground into a fine powder. This is a very delicate and time consuming process. There are several different grades of matcha, the highest being culinary grade matcha. I will be taking an in depth look at matcha in an upcoming post.
Bancha: Bancha tea is what is harvested after the sencha leaves are harvested. These leaves are a little bit lower on the plant and are generally a bit bigger than the sencha leaves. The caffeine content of bancha is also a bit lower than that of a sencha.
Kamairicha: So all teas in Japan are steamed, right? Not quite… Karmairicha is the exception to that rule. Generally, this tea is produced in the Kyushu area. Rather than being steamed, the tea will be pan fired in order to stop the oxidation process. It will go through multiple stages of pan firings followed by multiple stages of hand rolling. This produces a sweet and lightly roasted flavor.
Kukicha: Remember how I mentioned that during the tencha making process, the leaf matter was separated from the stems and twigs? Well, those stems and twigs are turned in this kukicha, also known as “twig tea”. Kukicha can also be made from the stems of sencha or even gyokuro.
Hojicha: Hojicha is still a green tea! However, it is roasted in an additional step. Hojicha can be made from high quality sencha leaves or also made from lower quality bancha leaves. The tea itself brews as a reddish brown liquor and has a roasted/toasted flavor. Because of the roasting process, it loses some of the caffeine that it would have had otherwise as a sencha or bancha. I really love to drink this cold!
Genmaicha: Genmaicha is said to be a gateway into Japanese tea for those unfamiliar with the flavors of Japanese tea. It is made by mixing sencha tea and bits of toasted rice. Because of this it has a toasted smell that people sometimes associate with popcorn.
Wakoucha: Wakoucha is Japan’s version of a black tea, or more appropriately a “red tea” (koucha) as it is referred to in eastern cultures. It goes through a completely different process than green tea. The first step of the process is withering. It will then go through some sort of a rolling process in order to start the oxidation process. This process will produce a much lighter and sweeter cup than what most would come to expect from a black tea in the western world.
There are of course other specialty teas in Japan, but they are less common: oolong, white tea, and a fermented tea.