Information about the tea culture in Japan and the most common Japanese green teas such as gyokuro, sencha, konacha, bancha and houjicha.
Japanese Teaby Yoko Ando
Tea is roughly divided into three categories: Black tea, Olong tea and Green tea. Japanese tea falls into the last one, Green tea. The main differences between them are to which extent they are fermented. Black tea is fully fermented and Olong tea is half fermented before drying. Japanese Green tea is steamed and dried just after harvesting to prevent fermentation so it keeps its fresh green color and medicinal properties such as vitamin C and catechin.
In Japan all of these kinds of tea are popular. What is worthy to note is that they drink these kinds of tea both hot and cold. In Britian, which is famous for its tea culture, they rarely drink tea cold and likewise in China (where tea originated from). With the widespread of canned and bottled tea drinks, cold tea is now being consumed throughout the year. Interestingly, for the Japanese, Olong tea and green tea are never sweetened, but cold black tea is always sweetened when sold in cans and bottles.
Varieties of Green Tea
There are a wide variety of green teas in rank and form.The most common, synonymous with green tea is "Sencha" (infused tea).Sencha tea leaves are green because they aren't fermented or roasted.The first and second flush of green tea leaves are harvested from April to June.To prevent fermentation they are steamed right away then gently rolled and dried.The leaves are then put through a sieve.The major leafy parts become Sencha but the remains will surely not be wasted.Green twigs become "Kukicha" (stem tea), "Mecha" (bud tea) and "Konacha" (powder tea).Konacha is especially served at Sushi restaurants and called "Agari" (the finish) in Sushi-world jargon because it can wash out fishy tastes with its strong flavor.
Sencha is ordinarily served fresh in a cup for tea breaks and after meals.When the first Sencha drinks in a bottle came out (in Japan), few believed it would become popular.But now chilled Sencha in a bottle is hugely popular and widely available.People drink it along with meals or just as a thirst quencher. It is also often used as a base for blended teas like "Genmaicha" (brown rice tea).Its roasted flavor comes from dry-roasted brown rice and rice popcorn that are blended in.
Although not as common as Sencha, the top-class green tea is definitely "Gyokuro" (precious drop).The difference comes from its finer quality of leaves and is covered for several days to control sun exposure to make the taste sweeter and more aromatic.Gyokuro tea is infused in hot water (boiled and then cooled to about 50-60 degrees C).If the water is too hot it will ruin the color and taste.Since Gyokuro tea is more expensive and time consuming to prepare than Sencha, it is not for daily use.
On the contrary, a reasonably priced and good quality tea is "Bancha" (humble tea).It's from the third or fourth flush so it's quality isn't as good as Sencha.Bancha is roasted after it's dried. To prepare Bancha, you boil the leaves in the kettle. (It is particularly popular in Kyoto and is often used for a simple meal called "Bubu-zuke" (bancha-soaked), which is boiled rice with relish soaked in Bancha tea).
Another roasted green tea, which actually comes out brown, is "Houjicha" (roasted tea).Its made from the remains of sifted Bancha.Houjicha is good when served along with meals because of its distinct aroma. Another plus is that it contains no caffeine.
The only green tea that comes in a powder other than Konacha (which is intended for brewing in a teapot and usually comes in a teabag) is "Matcha" (powdered tea).Matcha is notably used for the "Tea Ceremony" and is also served along with Japanese traditional fine sweets at tea houses.Since Matcha is a powder it is not infused in a teapot.It is simply dissolved in hot water and gently whipped with a bamboo whisk.The result is like a beautiful green cappuccino served in a cafe-au-lait bowl like earthenware teacup.To make and sip this tea, you are expected to follow strict tea ceremonial manners, so even Japanese with little or no knowledge of the Tea Ceremony etiquette can be baffled.Matcha powder is also used for cooking and baking; Matcha ice cream and Matcha cakes are beautiful and delicious, Matcha salt is a delightful garnish for Tempura.
Although not actually "green" tea, still worth mentioning is "Mugicha" (Barley tea).Mugicha tea bags are either boiled in a tea kettle or infused in a water jar and stored in the refrigerator after it has cooled down.It's often served as a refreshing cool drink on hot summer days.Since it has no caffeine, Japanese children and even babies often drink it instead of water.