Taking a small break from talking about anime this week to instead continue my sporadically ongoing Japan drinks series. Despite being one of the largest consumers of coffee in Asia, Japan is still very much a tea kingdom – “the ultimate mental and medical remedy … to make one’s life more full and complete” according to Japan’s oldest tea specialty book, written by a Buddhist priest in 1191.
Although tea was first introduced to Japan from China as a luxury product in the 700s, used largely by priests and noblemen (and then only as a medicinal beverage), it later became a staple among cultured people in Japan – the gentry, the Buddhist priesthood, and samurai society. By the end of the sixteenth century, the “Way of Tea” was firmly established and green tea was destined to become Japan’s most popular non-alcoholic drink of choice for the masses.
While today there are literally hundreds of varieties and grades of tea produced in Japan, all with their own unique characteristics, the purpose of this particular list is to go over some of the most common of them, giving a very brief overview of how they’re made and, probably more importantly to many readers, how they taste.
Quick note: Though I refer to any kind of green tea here as just that, it’s generally known in Japan as ‘ocha’, or sometimes ‘ryokucha’ or ‘nihoncha’. These are all just generic names rather than a specific type of green tea. With one exception, all the beverages making an appearance on this list are green teas. Black tea, which has not been included anywhere on this list, is called ‘kocha’ in Japanese.
Perhaps the most well-known example of tea in Japan, and certainly the most well-known example of green tea, matcha is the one being used in all those tea ceremonies (as well as in various snacks and sweets like ice cream and cake). Made only of the highest quality leaves, which are first steamed and dried before being finely ground into powder form, hot water is then added and the tea whisked with a bamboo brush. The tea is ready to drink when the bright green liquid turns foamy. Despite its fame even among non-tea drinkers, matcha is probably the most polarizing tea on this list in terms of personal enjoyment – it has a strong, bitter flavour with only a slightly sweeter aftertaste. However, it comes across as far lighter and sweeter when used in confectionaries, and is a very popular choice of flavour when it comes to things like pocky and Kit Kats, helping to balance out the richer chocolatey taste.
You may not have heard of the name, but if you’ve visited Japan for any length of time then you may well have drunk sencha without knowing it. If there was ever a single ‘standard’ green tea in Japan then it’s this one, produced from the first and second flushes of tea leaves. Like matcha, the leaves are steamed and dried before being brewed with hot water, although the finished product looks yellow-green in colour and the bitter flavour is far milder. Said to make up a whopping 80% of all green tea consumed in Japan, sencha is commonly served in cafés and restaurants – a relatively high-grade yet everyday tea that even some kids are fine with drinking.
Considered the lowest quality of green tea, bancha is made from the same tree as sencha but is plucked later, making it coarser and obviously also cheaper. However, it’s very low caffeine levels and richness in minerals makes it a good green tea for the health-conscious, with a robust but not overly bitter taste. The colour tends to be a little darker than sencha, sometimes a golden or even brownish shade of green, and the tea is commonly served not only in restaurants but also in hospitals, as well as offices and various work stations, all across Japan.
After processing sencha and bancha, the dust, buds, and remains of leaves that are left over can be made into konacha. Though not considered high quality, konacha has quite a bold and distinctive flavour, and is thought to pair very well with certain foods such as sushi (and as such is typically provided for free self-service at conveyer belt sushi restaurants, where it’s called ‘agari’.). Vivid green in colour, the strong taste also makes it a good ingredient in cooking and baking to help add colour and flavour.
When sencha or bancha tea leaves are roasted over charcoal, the result is hojicha; a warm reddish-brown tea with a less astringent taste, low-grade but also both richer and toastier than other forms of green tea. Savory but light, hojicha’s mellow flavour combined with low caffeine levels make it a popular tea to have during or after meals in the evening, or just before bed.
Last on this list but certainly not least, mugicha is an outlier in that it’s made not from tea leaves at all but rather from roasted barley kernels. Because it contains zero caffeine and zero sugar, it’s considered by many to be a perfect alternative to water, particularly when it’s served ice cold against the oppressively muggy heat of Japanese summer. It can also be served hot however, and is regularly consumed by both children and adults alike. The flavour is fairly light – toasty and ever-so-slightly bitter – and although it’s easily found bottled in supermarkets and convenience stores, a lot of people prefer to make their own, since a single mugicha tea bag is sufficient to make around one liter of tea.
Question of the post: Do you have a favourite type of Japanese tea? Are there any kinds (either listed here or not) that you haven’t tried yet but someday want to?