A Taste of Japan: Discovering the Diversity of Tea Variations
Nowadays, tea is a widespread product that is consumed in virtually every developed country on Earth. Before modern civilization was even a concept, early cultures consumed tea in relatively unrefined ways. Despite this, tea's spread has never been hindered, and anyone can enjoy a cup that suits their preferences.
Several kinds of tea have different characteristics, flavor profiles, nutritional benefits, and health effects. As a result, picking a favorite can be difficult unless you have a specific goal in mind when adding it to your diet. Unfortunately, many are unaware of tea's storied past and its role in other cultures. While many quickly associate tea with the British, especially given its role in the American Revolution, tea's history goes back much further.
Japan is one of the world's main tea countries, though many quickly overlook this detail. While most people know that tea is common in Japan, few realize how deep the connection goes. The Japanese have an entire subculture surrounding tea and multiple varieties primarily consumed within their borders.
While many Japanese teas can be imported to the United States, they are most significant to Japanese citizens. Tea's diversity within Japan is extraordinary, and there is a lot of information that we do not know. The biggest question is: How diverse is Japanese tea?
What is Japan's History With Tea?
Camellia sinensis, better known as the tea plant, is the source of 5 major tea varieties and a few offshoots of those varieties. Most people do not know that C. sinensis was not native to the United States or the United Kingdom. Instead, it was imported to those countries that went on to cultivate their own once they had the resources.
Originally, C. sinensis was found in Asia and was consumed exclusively by the civilizations there. Insofar as Japan is concerned, tea consumption began as early as the 8th century, making Japan one of the oldest countries to drink tea. It is believed that tea was first introduced to Japanese society during the Nara period after the Japanese sent diplomats to Chang'an (the then-capital of China during the Tang dynasty).
The delegates returned to Japan with knowledge of Chinese culture and practices, including tea. As China was the first nation to consume tea in any form, it makes sense that Japan adopted it from the Chinese.
While the exact history is somewhat conflicted due to the time that has passed, the first reliable reference to tea being served in Japan comes from Kuikū Kokushi, a book that claims a Buddhist abbot served tea to Emperor Saga in 815. While this might have been the earliest example of tea being steeped and served in Japan, the drink was not popularized in Japanese society for another few hundred years.
In 1191, a Zen monk named Eisai (noted for founding the Rinzai school of Buddhism) returned from a trip to China with tea seeds. The seeds Eisai brought back were used to grow tea plants within Japan's borders and allowed more citizens to begin drinking it. Furthermore, the spread of Buddhism as Japan's primary religion saw tea ceremonies rise. These ceremonies focused on making the steeping process something of a ritual that involved slow and deliberate preparation of the tools, leaves, and drink.
As tea rose in popularity among the Japanese, green tea became the staple of their ceremonies and was the most heavily consumed type. Tea consumption even spread to the samurai, considered the noblest of Japan's fighters.
In the thousands of years since tea was introduced to Japanese society, it has thrived and remained a beloved beverage in modern Japan. Unsurprisingly, modern cuisine has allowed the Japanese to use tea as an ingredient in desserts and treats rather than exclusively as a beverage. The most impressive thing is that Japan began altering the growth of its tea plants and changing aspects of its preparation.
As a result, Japan has created a few tea varieties that were once exclusive to their culture. Nowadays, we can import Japan's unique tea varieties so we can enjoy them as they have, but there remains one question: What tea varieties does Japan consume?
As mentioned, green tea was the original tea consumed by Japanese citizens in their early civilization. The main reason for this is that the seeds Eisai brought to Japan from China were from C. sinensis, the source of green tea leaves. That said, C. sinensis leaves can also produce white, black, yellow, and oolong tea, but green is the most common variety. In Japan, green tea was called "ryokucha," which served as the base for most of Japan's later variants.
Green tea remains one of the most commonly consumed teas worldwide, though Japan is not as dedicated to the classic leaves as they used to be. When Japan began experimenting with alternate leaves, traditional ryokucha fell by the wayside as "improved" varieties became more popular.
This trend is not overly surprising since the quality of the later blends increased as they refined the growth process. One of the tea varieties that was discovered by Eisai was brought to Japan and became one of the initial replacements for ryokucha.
The tea that dethroned green tea is a variant of green tea harvested from a C. sinensis plant that grew in the shade. Matcha has become a modern sensation but was originally reserved for tea ceremonies in Japan and Buddhist temples. For a long time, matcha was primarily consumed by Japan's elite rather than the common citizens. China technically developed matcha first but abandoned it during the Yuan dynasty, causing it to evolve under Japan's auspices.
As a result, matcha is typically associated with Japanese culture, and many believe it was invented by Japan outright. Despite this, matcha began spreading from the Japanese elite to the citizenry and later the rest of the world.
However, matcha was not a single variety of tea and had 3 "classes" that varied in purity and quality. These classes were:
- Ceremonial Grade Matcha: The highest quality version of matcha is ceremonial matcha. This variety was exclusively used for tea ceremonies and nearly impossible to acquire unless you were part of the elite.
- Premium Grade Matcha: The 2nd best matcha that retains much of ceremonial matcha's purity and is more widely accessible.
- Culinary Grade Matcha: The lowest quality matcha, culinary matcha was never used to make tea and instead repurposed as an ingredient for other products.
Modern society has enabled us to acquire ceremonial matcha via online shopping, but its original status as a luxury for the Japanese elite makes it highly desirable. That said, the biggest accomplishment insofar as Japanese tea is concerned is something else entirely.
Perhaps the most impressive development for Japanese tea was the creation of sencha, which has become the country's signature tea. While matcha still plays a major role in Japanese culture, sencha was the first tea variety the country developed entirely on its own. That said, sencha is a ryokucha variant and is prepared differently from its progenitor. Sencha is prepared through infusion, which is much different than the traditional method of steeping tea.
The infusion process requires whole tea leaves to be steeped in hot water, and the leaves remain a separate entity within the final beverage. Essentially, any time you see tea where the leaves can still be seen at the bottom of the cup, you know it was made via infusion. When steeped properly, sencha tea has a greenish-gold color, and the flavor changes depending on the temperature at which it is prepared.
Despite being so different from the tea ancient Japanese society used to drink, sencha remains the #1 tea in Japan. This popularity is increased by the fact that several variants of sencha exist and are prepared differently from the original. The main sencha variants are:
- Shincha: Shincha, which translates to "new tea," is so named because it is the first month's harvest of sencha leaves. Shincha is known for its aroma and sweet flavor and has cultural significance since it is the first tea of the season.
- Kabusecha: Kabusecha is a type of sencha grown in different conditions to alter the leaves' nutrient concentration. Kabusencha is grown in the shade, allowing the concentration of amino acids like theanine to grow. This change alters kabusecha's flavor profile compared to standard sencha and is milder.
- Gyokuro: Gyokuro is essentially the same thing as kabusecha. The main difference is that gyokuro leaves are allowed to stay in the shade longer than kabusecha leaves. Gyokuro remains in the shade for approximately 20 days, allowing the amino acid concentration to grow further. Otherwise, gyokuro only has mild differences compared to kabusecha.
Despite being a green tea variant, sencha is one of Japan's most versatile tea varieties. As impressive as this is, it does not mark the end of Japan's innovation with tea. There is another variant worth mentioning that changes the way tea is prepared.
Kukicha is an interesting take on tea that was developed in Japan to take advantage of tea plants in a more sustainable way. Typically, the plant's leaves are harvested and used to make tea (in bags or loose-leaf), while the rest of the plant is ignored. The plant is usually allowed to resume growing so new leaves can form and be re-harvested. Other times, the plant cannot yield another harvest and is replaced with a new seedling to create an entirely new plant.
However, kukicha was Japan's answer to taking advantage of everything their tea plants offered, even when no leaves remained. Kukicha is made from the stems, stalks, and twigs that form on a tea plant, earning it the nickname "twig tea." For the most part, kukicha is just like green tea but can be oxidized to alter the flavor. The interesting part is that the parts of the plant that are used to make kukicha give it a distinct aroma and flavor profile that distinguishes it from sencha, matcha, and ryokucha.
The plants used to make kukicha are the same ones used to harvest sencha and matcha (C. sinensis), which makes this divergence a more interesting phenomenon. The problem is that kukicha is much more sensitive than the other varieties and must be steeped carefully to avoid destroying the flavor.
While all green teas could develop an overly bitter taste if steeped too long or in water that is too hot, kukicha has a lower threshold. Anyone who wants to make kukicha tea should steep it in water between 70 and 80° Celsius (158 to 176° Fahrenheit). Additionally, kukicha tea is best steeped for 3 or 4 infusions instead of 1 or 2.
As you can see, tea varieties in Japan are fairly extensive, especially since the drink was adopted from China. Despite everything we have discussed, there are several other tea varieties native to Japan that are equally interesting (but that is a topic for another day). In the meantime, getting a little taste of Japan from an American vendor is more than possible. The trick is finding the vendor.
Finding the Right Blend
Japan's contribution to tea is extraordinary, rivaling even China's efforts. Unfortunately, many of the tea varieties native to Japan are hard to come across in America or any country outside Asia. There are plenty of shops that do offer sencha or kukicha, but most charge exorbitant prices. Fortunately, there is one variety that is easier to get your hands on.
We at Teami love tea and are eternally grateful for everything Japan has done to expedite its evolution. That is why we have a catalog full of tea blends that combine different tea plants to offer amazing tastes and benefits. Insofar as Japan is concerned, our slice of Japanese tea culture comes in the form of our Matcha Powder Tins, which contain pure ceremonial grade matcha. We encourage you to visit our website and try our matcha tins (which use organic Japanese green tea powder). After all, finding the right blend is a Teami effort.
Subscribe to our Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and get 10% off your first purchase