Japanese Green tea is revered worldwide as some of the best tea in the world. It is quite different from Chinese green tea. Here's what you need to know before you buy.
There is a wonderful world of Japanese green teas to explore. If you're not sure where to begin, I'm going to give you a good overview here of the types of Japanese green tea. But it's always the same way in tea, the more you learn the more you realize you don't know. The "rabbit hole" goes very, very deep.
But isn’t that what makes it all so fascinating? Let's dive in.
All Japanese green teas are steamed during processing and are classified as either sun-grown or shade-grown.
The four main categories of Japanese green tea are sencha, bancha, gyokuro, and matcha. Sencha accounts for eighty percent of all Japanese green teas. Sencha and bancha are sun-grown while gyokuro and matcha are shade-grown teas.
Japanese green teas adhere to quality through standardization and control over each process, despite nature’s variables. The tea is crafted to fit an exacting flavor profile which is rich with theanine.
Japanese green teas are famous for their focus on manufacturing, modern production and artful blending for a specific flavor. Unlike the artisan green teas of China, most Japanese green teas are machine picked.
You can easily recognize a Japanese green tea by its distinguishing, thin, needle-shaped leaf and characteristic vivid green color.
The Japanese are masters at making the complex appear simple. 'Shibui' is the art of simplicity masking complexity.
Sun-Grown Japanese Green Tea
The most widely produced green tea in Japan is Sencha. It’s characterized by its needle-shaped leaves, as pictured here. Sencha is a non-shade grown quintessential Japanese green tea produced throughout the year.
Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan. Much different than matcha, it is a leaf tea, plucked and processed throughout the first three harvest seasons of the year. The first and second flush sencha is considered the best, sweeter in taste and stronger in flavor than each subsequent flush.
The first flush, ichiban-cha or number one tea, is usually April to mid-May. The second flush, niban-cha, pickings are in June and the third are in July. If it's picked in the fourth harvest of the year, around autumn, it’s called Bancha or “last tea”.
Unlike China or India, the specific tea estate or region is not named in the selling of sencha. Almost always, sencha tea is blended with the signature touch of each artisan, creating a unique brand for the tea company or shop. No matter the grade, all sencha is high in vitamin C.
Bancha is the fourth and last plucking of the harvest season. Bancha contains less flavor and less caffeine and is rarely exported. Bancha is sometimes roasted and used as the base for Genmaicha. Sencha is rarely used for Genmaicha.
Genmaicha originated with the peasants who added roasted brown rice to bancha tea leaves to extend the tea infusion. The roasted rice gives the tea a rich nutty flavor.
Shade-Grown Japanese Green Tea
The Japanese discovered that shading the tea shrubs 10-20 days before harvesting changes the chemistry of the leaf, producing a different kind of tea. Shading reduces tannins which eliminate the astringent qualities in the leaf. This imparts a strong vegetal sweetness to the tea. The shading also increases chlorophyll production in the leaves, increasing the caffeine, sugars, and flavanols.
Another benefit to shading is that the reduction of photosynthesis increases the production of L-theanine, an amino acid found only in tea. L-theanine has a relaxing effect on the mind which balances out the stimulant effects of caffeine. This provides a relaxed but alert and focused state of mind. Ingenious really.
Related: 10 Best Online Tea Shops
Kabuse cha is a shade-grown tea grown throughout Japan. It’s only shaded for about 10 days and is considered a shade-grown sencha. It’s picked early, usually the first couple of pickings.
The plant reacts to the shade and stops breaking down theanine. This shading makes the tea rich in theanine, combining the freshness of sencha with the richness of gyokuro.
Gyokuro is the highest quality and most treasured of the Japanese shade-grown tea. The name Gyokuro means “jade dew” after the color of the pale green infusion.
It's shaded for about 20 days, making it very rich in umami, and very rich in theanine giving it a savory sweetness.
Gyokuro is usually a delicately sweet and full-bodied tea with a vegetal flavor and buttery mouthfeel when brewed properly.
Gyokuro is hand-picked and it's only harvested once a year. It's the first flush and only the first flush. Then the bushes are cut down and they wait until the next spring for the next harvest of the next year.
Very high quality, hand-picked Gyokuro is Japan’s best and one of the world’s costliest teas. The tea bushes are shaded for the first three weeks in May providing an intense and complex taste. I've never had the opportunity to taste this grade of tea but I would love to.
Tencha is the pre-cursor to matcha and is made once a year and saved under refrigeration until powdered into matcha.
Tencha leaf is a shade-grown tea specifically for matcha. It is deveined and ground in slow-turning stone mills turning it into delicate tea powder.
Matcha is a powdered tea stone ground from the tea leaf after the stems and veins are removed. Matcha completely diffuses into the water so you are drinking the entire leaf.
The tea shrubs are shaded for three weeks prior to harvesting increasing chlorophyll which increases sweetness. There are three grades of matcha: ceremonial, premium and cooking or culinary.
Other Japanese Green Tea
Roasted Bancha or Sencha and kukicha twig for a savory nutty flavor.
Literally “Stalk Tea”. Consists of stems and stalks blended with Sencha or Gyokuro providing a clean taste and light fragrance.
Pesticides in Japanese Green Tea
Japanese green teas are picked at a low altitude which means insects can be a problem. This is particularly true for teas picked in the summer months when the insects are active.
But with first flush teas that are picked in April or May, the first harvest of the year, it’s not common to use pesticides since the insects are not out.
If you are concerned about pesticides, the best advice is to stick with first flush teas or organically grown tea and you'll be fine.
Brewing Japanese Green Tea
The biggest mistake people make when first brewing green tea is brewing too hot for too long. This can result in a bitter and disappointing tea, even with the best quality tea.
- Water Temperature: As a very general guide, most experts recommend relatively cool water 158-167°F (70-75°C), with 1 heaping teaspoon (4-6 g) per 7 – 8 ounces (225-250 ml) of filtered water.
- Steeping Time: This can be 30-45 seconds for the first, 45-60 seconds for the second, over a minute for the third and then longer steeps.
It’s always best to experiment with brewing times and water temperatures. Brewing Tea: The Ultimate Guide will give you more information on brewing tea. The experience of brewing and drinking is where a real understanding of tea is found.
6 Places to Buy Japanese Green Tea Online
Most Japanese tea is not made for export. It’s a real treat to find good quality Japanese green tea online.
- Palais des Thes has a really nice variety of Japanese green teas. They sell very high-quality first flush (ichiban-cha) organic Japanese green teas.
- I have had excellent sencha from Adagio Tea, I recommend their masters collection. It’s a good place to start.
- The Tea Spot also has a very good sencha, as pictured here in my photographs. To me it has a really nice vegetal flavor reminding me of spinach, which I absolutely love.
- Matcha Source has excellent matcha. But you can also buy quality matcha from Adagio and The Tea Spot. I recently ordered matcha from Mei Leaf, but I haven’t received it yet to tell you about it.
- Japanese Green Tea specializes in just Japanese green tea. They've won awards for their tea at the North American Tea Championship.
- Ippodo is a Japanese tea company that just sells high quality Japanese green tea online and in their shops.
Most vendors will offer samplings of a variety of green teas. This is how I like to experiment with different teas. I love the sample packs!
Happy Green Tea Drinking
I hope this has given you a good overview of the types of Japanese green tea. If you'd like to learn more about tea, I recommend these excellent books on tea for further reading.