Over the long centuries of isolation from the rest of the world, in Japan appeared amazing things: ikebana, bonsai, origami, sumo, kabuki, mange and much more. It is logical to assume that in respect of Japan, tea is not so simple either.
Green tea is very popular drink in the world today, but the Japanese consume tea in quite a peculiar way, starting with the production of special teas and ending with particular traditions of tea drinking. Japanese tea ceremonies (Sado or also known as Chanoyu) cannot be described in gastronomical terms. This is an art of contemplation and meditation, a way to achieve harmony with the world and cognize knowledge of the laws of the universe. Even leaving aside the complexity of a Japanese tea ceremony, we can tell you a lot about the kinds of traditional Japanese teas and its consumption.
The first thing that catches the eye, when studying the varieties of Japanese teas, is that they are all green and non-fermented. There are not that many types of Japanese traditional teas and they are all very unique. Their individual characteristics are not similar against each other, nor anything else in the world. The names of Japanese teas are fascinating: Matcha, Sencha, Genmaicha, Gyokuro, Hojicha, Bancha, Usucha, Kamairicha, Kabusecha, Tamaryokucha and Kukicha. Most of these products cannot be found on the shelves of tea shops outside of Japan. The most popular exception is Sencha and Bancha - the easiest tea to prepare with traditional green tea taste.
Sencha literally means “roasted tea”, a basic Japanese tea and the basis of which many other varieties of Japanese teas are developed. In fact, Sencha is a plain green tea that does not require special knowledge and skills to prepare. Most Japanese green teas are steamed at first to prevent oxidation, then rolled, shaped, dried and finally fired to preserve and add flavor. All lovers of green tea will admire its lightly grassy note. As any tea, Sencha could be a high quality and poor, we should not draw any conclusions about this tea when tasting Sencha of incomprehensible production. Good quality Sencha consists of a flat and long delicate tea leaves with distinctive fragrant of fresh green grass. Even high-graded Sencha contains a large amount of powder or tea dust. When brewed, Sencha gives a very bright infusion with a lively green color, traditionally served in transparent or white cups. The aroma and taste of Sencha are soft, both fresh and slightly sweet and velvety. Sencha tea infusion includes a large amounts of caffeine, vitamins C and B2. This tea invigorates the mind and body.
Preparing Sencha is a simple process, even thou the first attempt may fail, don’t be discouraged: warm teapot, put tea leaves in, cover with water remembering that water should not be boiling, and steep for a while ... However, it is impossible to give universal recommendations about the amount of dry tea leaves, water temperature and time of infusion, since the quality of tea and water are always different. Made with hard water tea is not as good because of its active substances that cannot dissolve fully. For green teas (all teas in general) there is a tip: the more delicate tea and softer water, the lower the water temperature should be and less time of infusion. Sencha tea leaves must not steep longer than 2-3 minutes. This means that the entire teapot tea should be poured into cups or into a separate container no later than in 3 minutes. If over steeped, the tea will be bitter, if under steeped the taste will be watery. Sencha is the only Japanese tea that almost does not change the taste and aroma in the second and subsequent brewing. Other Japanese teas are inconceivable to brew a few times without losing the taste. The first of each new brewing is recommended to take one heaping tea spoon per 6oz serving of tea and infuse for 2 to 3 minutes. If the taste and aroma seem to be weak, hold the second brew a little longer, but next time increase the amount of tea. An indicator of properly brewed Sencha is bubbly foam. If not, that means that the water is too hot, cold, hard or the tea leaves are not the best quality.
Tea Gyokuro (also known as "precious dew" or "jade drops") is a higher grade expensive tea, which is cultivated in a special way. Gyokuro is different from Sencha because it grows under the shade for about two weeks prior to the harvesting period that aims to reduce amount of Catechin in leaves, therefore the bitterness in tea infusion. This fine tea is very rich in aromatic oils, vitamins, minerals, caffeine and other useful and pleasant elements. Splendid Gyokuro is also called "King of tea" and "Tea of genius" because it cheers up (raises) the spirit and stimulates the thinking. The taste and aroma of Gyokuro is similar to Sencha but with light almost imperceptible nuances. Color of dry tea leaves vary from bright green to golden-brown depending on the terrain and weather during the growth and harvest. Tea merchants will recommend a unique method of brewing for Gyokuro which differs from any other tea brewing techniques. Gyokuro tea leaves are typically steeped at low temperature 150 to 165 F for 1 to 2 minutes. Since the temperature of water is low, pre-heating the pot and cups in order to maintain the warmth of tea would be recommended as well. If the water used is too hot, it will destroy the magnificence of taste and aroma.
Matcha is a fine-powder with the consistency resembling talc green tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies and cooking. Matcha is the most difficult Japanese tea to prepare according to traditional techniques and requires specific skills. It was invented in China in the tenth century and was introduced to Japan only in the twelfth century. Being forgotten at home, powdered tea has become a cultural asset of Japan. Matcha is made from Tencha that has very similar cultivation process to Gyokuro. The process of covering tea bushes from direct sun light before harvesting enriches the tea leaves of amino acids and makes it sweeter. Gathered and processed tea lives with removed stems and veins undergo grinding procedure by millstones. Matcha is a premium quality and has a sweet taste with a deep flavor.
During a Japanese tea ceremony, Matcha powder frothes up into a foam with bamboo whisk and a small amount of water. The advantage of this type of tea is the fact that all substances contained in tea leaves are delivered into the human body completely - in the form of an opaque beverage. Matcha is a concentrate of tea leafs. The taste of this tea is very fresh, but slightly bitter. Matcha can be combined with other types of tea adding freshness to taste and aroma. Lower quality grades of Matcha can be added to various dishes of rice, noodles and tempura to chocolate, ice-cream and traditional Japanese sweets.
Tamaryokucha is a high-quality Japanese green tea. To make it, tea leaves are steamed or fried. Tamaryokucha is rich in vitamins and contains little caffeine. This tea has a berry-like flavor with an almond aftertaste and citrus-grassy distinctive aroma.
Genmaicha is a combination of Sencha with roasted brown rice. This mixture gives a turbid light brown color of infusion and well pronounced rice flavor with hints of sunflower seeds and fish. Taste-wise, Genmaicha resembles soup, after the tea is drunk, you can eat the rice. This drink-dish is a great alternative to dinner or lunch for those who are on a diet. Japanese drink Genmaicha to subside the feeling of hunger without burdening the stomach. This tea contains a large amount of vitamin B1 and a small amount of caffeine.
Hojicha is a roasted tea that is set apart from other Japanese teas. This tea is made from Sencha which is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal at high temperature. Tea leaves of Hojicha tea ate brown and shiny with a dominating roasted flavor. Hojicha steeps by conventional infusion for less than a minute. Color of the infusions resembles weakly brewed black tea. Hojicha does not have subtle nuances of aroma and taste. This is a simple tea to quench the thirst or drink during the meal. Because of the process of roasting Hojicha, the amount of caffeine decreases, this tea can be served after the evening meal and/or before going to sleep.
Other Japanese green teas that are characterized as low quality Sencha are Bancha and Kukicha. These uncomplicated teas are made from big crude leaves, stems, stalks and twigs. These types of Japanese teas are collected at the end of the season and are considered as lower grade. Bancha and Kukicha are the simplest and cheapest of Japanese teas and are used for daily consumption of liquid for Macrobiotic Diet, the dietary regimen that is based primarily on grains and plants. This macrobiotic way of eating is very popular in Japan. There are twenty two grades of Bancha. Kukicha can be added to juice for children’s consumption.