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Understanding Japanese Tea

Understanding Japanese Tea

Learn about different types of Japanese tea including Sencha, Bancha, Karigane Kukicha, Hojicha, Genmaicha, Gyokuro, and Matcha. Discover the unique characteristics and flavors of these traditional green teas handpicked and crafted in Japan.

Here's a quick guide to Japanese tea, put together by my pal Sebastian Beckwith, a founder of In Pursuit of Tea. Sebastian, a top tea authority, gave a terrific presentation on Japanese tea a couple of days ago at his shop Cha, in lower Manhattan. I asked him if I could reprint the guide from his handout, and he graciously shared it with us. (Thanks, Sebastian!). Here's the guide:

Sencha This is a traditional Japanese steamed green tea with tightly rolled, needle-shaped leaves. It's an early spring pick with a bright color, a clean finish, and a grassy taste reminiscent of a fresh sea breeze. Sencha is stronger than most Chinese-style green teas.

Bancha This green tea is a lower grade than sencha and the other Japanese teas. It's harvested from the same tea plants as sencha but later in the summer so the leaf quality is poorer.

Karigane Kukicha This is a twig tea, a traditional style from Japan consisting of the stems and stalks discarded after making other teas. This style of Kukicha is called Karigane. It is highly prized and made only from Gyokuro green tea. Other twig teas are more woody with less green character. We find this a special tea, almost unknown in the west.

Hojicha This green tea is made by roasting bancha leaves and twigs. Brown in appearance, the tea has less caffeine and tannins than other teas because of the high amount of stems. Originally from Kyoto, this style of tea has gained popularity since it was first introduced in the 1920s in Japan.

Genmaicha A traditional Japanese green tea, genmaicha is a favorite with people of all ages. It is made from bancha tea and popped, roasted rice. It is soothing and mellow; the popped rice adds a wonderful balance of roasty aroma to the refreshing green tea.

Gyokuro This is a high-grade tea with a rich umami flavor. The plants are covered for 2-3 weeks prior to picking, which increases the amounts of amino acids, chlorophyll and caffeine. As a result the color, aroma and flavor are enhanced. Experiment with the infusion temperature; this tea is often made with cold water.

Matcha Literally "powdered tea" - is a special type of green tea: a precious, jewel-green powder made from handpicked, high-grade Japanese tea. It is whisked with hot water in a bowl to make a frothy, healthful beverage. Koicha is the name for the matcha used for "thick tea," a more intense beverage that requires a higher grade of tea as the taste is so concentrated.