Dominating over 70% of Japanese tea consumption, sencha (green-leaf tea) is the hallmark tea of Japan. It is created through a process of picking, steaming, kneading, and drying tea leaves that have been grown in natural sunlight. The first-grade tea picked from late April through early May is a top quality product boasting an exquisite taste and fragrance. Fukamushi-cha (deep-steamed green tea) is popular for it’s milder taste, the bitterness having been subdued by a longer steaming process.
Gyokuro is processed in the same way as sencha, but there is a big difference in how it is grown. During a fixed period before the leaves are picked, the tea plant is covered, usually with a reed-blind, and grown without exposure to direct sunlight for a minimum of twenty days. Cutting off direct sunlight causes an increase in theanine, responsible for sweetness, and a decrease in catechin, responsible for bitterness, giving the tea a rich, sweeter taste. The highest grade of gyokuro is grown with much time and effort and kneaded by hand. Tea that is shaded for less than twenty days is known as “kabusecha”.
Matcha is grown in the shade just like gyokuro, but after the leaves are steamed, rather than being kneaded, the dried “tencha” is ground into a powder on a grindstone. Besides being used in ritual tea ceremonies, the powder is also a common ingredient in sweets. Matcha is mainly produced in Uji, Kyoto. Matcha has everything you could want in a tea with its combination of sweetness, savoriness, and bitterness. Since the leaves are consumed as well, it is also a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and other nutrients found in tea leaves.
Bancha is an inexpensive tea made in the same way as sencha, but using larger, harder leaves left over from sencha-picking as well as leaves and stems exempted from the sencha production process. It has a light, refreshing taste that doesn’t grow tiring.
Since so many different types of leaves are used, it is also interesting to note the variations in taste depending on where it was produced. Bancha translates as “evening tea,” since it is produced from later tea crops, but it is also sometimes written with characters meaning “course tea.” Its reasonable pricing is one of the reasons it is so popular.
Hojicha (roasted green tea) is created using the leaves of teas such as bancha, kukicha, and low-grade teas. After the final stage of production, the leaves are roasted at high temperature to bring out the fragrance. Hojicha has a brown color, is low in caffeine and catechin, and has no bitter taste. It has a fragrant and refreshing flavor.
After the final stages of sencha production, the leaves are strained through a mesh sieve, and the small, round grains that fall through are called “mecha,” or “bud tea”. Mecha is a highly fragrant tea with a very pleasant savory taste. It takes a while for the taste to come out on the first infusion, but from the second infusion on, the rich taste can be enjoyed many times over.
Kukicha (twig tea) is made only from stems and leaf-stalks and has a crisp taste. Kukicha made from gyokuro stems is a high-quality tea known as “karigane” or “shira-ore.”
Brown rice that has been soaked and steamed is then roasted and added to bancha or sencha in approximately equal parts to make this tea. Enjoy a combination of the fragrance of the roasted rice and the crisp taste of the bancha or sencha. Genmaicha has a low caffeine content, so it is also great for children and seniors.
While most Japanese tea leaves are steamed, kamairi-cha is instead roasted in a kettle in the same way as Chinese green tea. This method is said to have come to Japan around the 15th Century, giving it an even longer history than steamed sencha.