Green tea is one of the oldest cultivated teas in the world and today there are hundreds of varieties. Have you ever found yourself walking aimlessly down the aisles of Teavana not so sure which is which? After all it’s all “green tea” right? There’s as much variety to tea cultivation and brewing as there is to coffee beans. In fact the only thing that all green teas have in common, other than being related to the same plant, is that whatever the excuse for green tea that comes from the office coffee/tea machine is terrible! So if you’ve ever wanted to expand your green tea horizons read on, this article is for you!
The two major variations in green teas are Chinese vs Japanese green teas. Both countries have a long and rich history of tea but for this article we’re going to focus on the Japanese varieties of green tea. If you’re interested in the Chinese varieties Serious Eats has an overview guide on both countries and Canton Tea Co also has a guide focused on the Chinese green teas (don’t be shy about asking us to write another blog either!). Among Japanese green teas there are still a lot of variations between teas grown in different regions, and growers in each are known to frequently quarrel over whose tea is best. For this blog we won’t look at the regional differences but will cover the different major varieties of Japanese green tea.
Most Japanese green tea is actually exactly the same tea. That’s right; it’s the exact same leaf. So we’re done then right? Sounds like Japanese green tea is just a tea that happens to be green and good for you. Not quite, we’ve mentioned in previous blogs but as it turns out the way the tea is grown produces an almost entirely different tea. From differences in taste, smell, and color, the nutrition in the tea variations is different as well. While all are healthy and nutrient packed, you may want to choose one over another depending on your goal. Let’s take a look at some of the growing differences that produce the best known varieties of Japanese teas.
Kabusecha is Japanese for “covered tea” which is taken directly from how the tea is carefully cultivated. Kabusecha starts its life as a Sencha tea leaf and remains so until right up until a week before it’s harvested. Kabusecha grows in the sun until the plant itself is covered before harvesting. The shading technique used is pretty unique to Kabusecha. Only the physical tea plant is actually covered with an artificial shade to reduce the sunlight. The shade over the plants blocks about 50% of the sunlight. Kabusecha ends up a sort of hybrid between Sencha and Gyokuro tea; it’s a sort of medium sweet but refreshing tea. The final tea ends up being lower in EGCGs and anti-oxidants than Sencha but balances out by being higher in B vitamins.
Almost everyone has heard of Tencha except they’ve probably heard it by a different name…Matcha! Tencha leaves that are ground immediately after harvest are called Matcha, while Tencha leaves that are not ground are sold as Tencha. Tencha is also grown in the shade though for a 20-30 day period prior to harvest and the shade blocks out more light than the shade used to produce Kabusecha. The lack of light means the tea plant will produce more chlorophyll and amino acids which produce a deeper green color. Tencha leaves are dried after harvest like other Japanese teas (this is done to preserve freshness and prevent the tea from rotting or growing mold) but the Tencha leaves are not broken down by “kneading”. As the cell walls of the tea aren’t broken down by kneading, it’s harder to steep it correctly for the proper flavor. Only the highest quality Tencha leaves are not ground down and are used for steeping in water. Tencha is usually sweeter due to the longer period of shaded growth.
Ah Matcha! In Japan, Matcha can only come from Tencha leaves which are ground immediately after harvest. Unfortunately overseas no such standards exist and a lot of the “Matcha” sold in the US market, would not be considered Matcha by Japanese standards. Due to the high cost of production (mainly in the constructing of the shades over the Tencha) a large portion of the Matcha sold outside Japan is actually powdered Sencha!
In Japan, Matcha is widely used in traditional tea ceremonies and generally is the only type of tea used. Matcha has gone far beyond the traditional tea ceremonies and is now prized for its sweetness and versatility. Matcha powder has grown in popularity as an ingredient in sweets and desserts as it’s easy to blend right into baking.
Hojicha is the coffee-addict’s green tea and has a very earthy flavor that appeals to a lot of coffee drinkers. If you’ve never really gotten into green tea before, this would be the tea to start with. Hojicha is grown the same way as Sencha so full sunlight and no shade covering. The difference here is that to become Hojicha, the Sencha leaves are roasted in a roasting pan at 200 degrees Celsius! The roasting gives the tea its brownish look, earthy flavor, and a delicate roasted aroma. The roasting process also removes a lot of the caffeine so Hojicha contains lower caffeine than most other teas. For this reason, it’s a popular tea among children and older people in Japan.
This odd looking tea is actually a mixture of Sencha leaves and roasted brown rice. The name Genmaicha comes from the Japanese word for brown rice. The content of Sencha to rice is about half and half, which means that, like Hojicha, the caffeine content is lower than that of other teas. Genmaicha has a roasted and savory flavor owing to the brown rice which is offset by the sweet and refreshing flavor of the Sencha. Hojicha is also popular with children in Japan.
If you’re a tea connoisseur then you’ve probably heard of Gyokuro. This is the premium, best of the best, fine wine of teas, Japanese green tea for tea devotees. Similar to Kabusecha, Gyokuro is grown under shade cover, however, Gyokuro can be covered for up to 30 days before harvest (and as a rule any tea covered for less than 20 cannot be considered Gyokuro) and the shade covering is specially constructed to block up to 90% of incoming sunlight! Gyokuro is sweeter than other Japanese teas but most of all it has that ever so rare umami flavor that very few other teas on Earth can claim. Gyokoro can be eye-wateringly expensive, costing over a thousand dollars an ounce for the finest leaves. Steeping Gyokoro tea is nothing short of an art, traditional steeping instructions are not much help; the Gyokoro leaves are too delicate. If you manage to come across some of this tea, we recommend taking a look over an online video guide before attempting to steep it! If you get it right, you’ll get to enjoy one of the finest green teas in the world.
We’re a bit biased here but Sencha tea is clearly our favorite! Most of the teas you have just read about all start their lives as Sencha, but differences in the shade covering and refinement make them a bit different. Sencha is the most popular and widely consumed tea in Japan. Sencha tea is not shade covered which results in a complex, refreshing, and delicious flavor. There are a number of healthy contents in Sencha tea that won’t dissolve in water, which is one of the reasons why SenchaFit uses only powdered Sencha! Since we’ve written pretty extensively about Sencha and how Sencha can help you lose weight, we won’t cover it too much here. Check out our last blog or Our Sencha page to learn more!
Whew, that was quite a list! There are other regional variations or slight processing variations that create different types of Japanese teas as well so this list isn’t exhaustive. We hope that this gave you an insight into some of the more common types of Japanese green teas, as always feel free to contact us with any questions, comments, or suggestions! If you know someone who is looking to get an introduction to green teas, or is wondering how Sencha tea can help them take their fitness goals to the next level show them this guide and make sure to follow us on Instagram for more! Thanks for reading and until next time!