Getting started with Japanese green tea
Japanese green tea has a long history spanning many hundreds of years into the past. Recently, it has become increasingly lauded in the Western world for being healthful, delicious and versatile. In fact, the teas of Japan represent a wonderfully diverse but cohesive spectrum, from everyday drinking sencha, ceremonial grade matcha and gyokuro, through to cold weather comforts and post-meal digestives like hojicha and genmaicha.
Enjoying these teas doesn’t stop at one brewing. Using the same tea leaves, you can achieve multiple infusions until the leaf is fully unfurled and exhausted of flavour. Furthermore, the tea itself is delicious brewed in a variety of hot or cold styles. For the gourmand, the rich umami and soft sweetness make for excellent food pairing opportunities, too.
With all of this in mind, you will surely agree that there has never been a better time to take a deep dive into the teas of this region, as the global market is full of wonderful teas of all price ranges for you to choose from. Whether you are a seasoned tea lover or just getting started, we hope to provide you with the equipment and knowledge to help you appreciate the wonderful landscape of Japanese green tea. Please read on!
A short history
Tea was first introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks, who brought seeds from China to cultivate for the purposes of nourishment, as well as an adjunct to religious ceremony. It is important to note that preparing powdered, steamed, pan-fired and fermented teas were and continue to be traditions of China; both the tea material and the techniques of processing were introduced and refined in Japan. That being said, there are many products and techniques, such as the processing method for sencha, which are endemic to the region in their own right.
As history would tell it, a school of Zen Buddhists advocated for the democratisation of tea shortly after, imploring that all citizens should have access to tea owing to its healthfulness for mind and body. Although tea became an everyday commodity, for a long time the highest grades were still reserved for nobility. The blend genmaicha was born out of the thriftiness of the poor, as a means of stretching their ration of tea with toasted rice.
Terroir, processing and flavour
As an archipelago, Japan's major tea growing regions are never too far from coastal influences. Vegetal, marine, iodine, floral and licorice are among the adjectives commonly used to describe the flavour of Japanese green tea.
Roasted and blended teas, such as Hojicha and Genmaicha, are beloved for their notes of popcorn, cereal or roasted nuts/seeds, toast and their smooth, buttery mouthfeel.
Astringency, a tongue and mouth drying sensation, is common to all kinds of tea, but particularly noted in Japanese green tea. This is caused by a flavonoid called catechin, which has antioxidant properties. Caffeine, also found in the leaf, induces bitterness as it is one of the the plant's primary defenses against biting insects.
Lastly, umami, or savoury-broth like flavour is created by an amino acid known as L-theanine. This elusive fifth taste is highly revered in Japanese green tea, and is one of the attributes that makes Camellia sinensis such a fascinating plant.
Key factors to brewing
If you don't already have one, we recommend that you invest in a kitchen timer, a thermometer and a kyusu. This specialised Japanese teapot is a workhorse, capable of brewing any kind of Japanese tea with elegance and ease.
The shiboridashi is another specialised Japanese brewing vessel, though it is better suited to preparing high grade green tea, such as kabuse sencha and gyokuro.
Brewing & temperature
Although it might seem as though there are many rules, brewing Japanese green tea isn't terribly difficult. All the fuss you may have heard is because green tea is particularly sensitive to time and temperature. Infusing the leaves for too long or using water that is too hot will accelerate the release of bitterness and asstringency. Your brew can become highly unpalatable if you aren't careful.
The methods commonly used to brew green tea are western style and Senchado. The most commonly recommended temperature to brew standard green tea is 80°C, but depending on the desired outcome, it may be as low as 40°C or as high as 100°C.
Whichever brewing method you choose, if you want a stronger tasting tea, we don’t recommend increasing the amount of steep time, as this will affect the balance of flavour. Instead, increase the amount of tea leaves that you use.
What type of green tea should I drink?
Nighttime, low caffeine
Hojicha has a lightly toasted, biscuit-like flavour. It is low in caffeine, making it a great post-meal digestive or evening nightcap. Brewed cold, it is refreshing and mellow; served piping hot, it is comforting and warm.
For indulgent moments
Gyokuro is a special indulgence tea. It is suited to any occasion of focus, perhaps a quiet weekend when you have time to slowly prepare, and savour multiple infusions alone or with friends.
Sencha and Genmaicha are delicious everyday drinking teas, being easy to appreciate and prepare. Try these teas as a cold brew infusion to bring on the commute to work, or an anytime pick-me-up that is full of flavour.
Matcha is a delectable daily tonic for the body and mind. High in antioxidants and bursting with sweet-savoury flavour, it is enjoyable as part of your breakfast bowl or savoury lunch, part of a dessert, or served in a bowl with a luscious mousse ‘head’.