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JAPANESE GREEN TEA

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Japanese Green Tea

When one thinks of Japanese green tea, the first thing that probably jumps to mind are elaborate rituals held in ornately furnished rooms. Centuries old, sadō, (way of tea), the art of tea making, is seen today as a cornerstone of Japanese heritage. Rich in ceremony and incredibly difficult to perform, let alone master, even the most informal of ceremonies require an encyclopedia-like knowledge of etiquette. The tea served during this ceremony, called matcha, has a wonderful rich and smooth taste, and in recent years, its popularity has exploded.

 

Since the first monks brought back seeds from China over a millenia ago, Japan has been a nation of tea drinkers. For centuries green tea has been a staple of daily life in Japan. That being said, not everyone has the time or inclination to wait for hours to prepare a single cup! The most popular tea in Japan is by far and away sencha, a light and refreshing tea by steaming, then roasting freshly picked tea shoots. Many other types exist, from the stately,  refined richness found in gyokuro to the cheerfully bright taste of a cup of genmaicha. Years of cultivation and experimentation coupled with the appreciation for subtlety inherent in Japanese cuisine means that each one of these varieties differs greatly from each other in taste, aroma and color.

 

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Sencha

Sencha

The most well known tea in Japan, noted for its needle like leaves and elegant, glossy green hue.

Color: Transparent with shades of yelllow and pea green

Smell: Cool and refreshing

Taste: Well balanced sweetness and bitterness

For the Japanese, the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of green tea is Sencha, even more so than its cousin, Fukamushi-Sencha. First cultivated in Shizuoka and Kagoshima, its now grown across the country in all tea producing regions. Also called Futsumushi-Sensha to distinguish it from Fukamushi-Sencha. The difference is in the length of time steamed; tea leaves that are steamed for no longer than 30-40 seconds are separated and classified as Futsumushi-Sencha.

 

The leaves themselves are a very deep shade of green. Exceptionally high quality Sencha is marked by the shape and color of the leaves; exceptional Sencha possesses both a strikingly vivid shade of green and sharp, almost needle-like leaves. The taste is also striking, and good quality Sencha is piquant balance of both sweet and bitter elements.

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Fukamushi Sencha

Fukamushi Sencha

A mellow, smooth tea, made from especially soft and narrow tea leaves.

Color: A rich, velvet green, with hints of a more vivid light blue.

Scent: Very deep and rich

Taste: Very smooth with only the faintest hints of astringency

Compared to regular Sencha, the leaves are steamed for two to three times the normal period, hence its name, Fukamushi Sencha (deep roast Sencha).

The longer steaming process suppresses the bitterness found in Sencha, creating a much more smoother tea. It also weakens the leaves, making them more narrow and prone to breaking, meaning there is comparatively more powder than can be found in regular Sencha.

Manufactured primarily in Shizuoka prefecture, Kagoshima prefecture and Mie prefecture, as well as other parts of the country. Approximately 70% of all Sencha is made into Fukamushi Sencha, as it is easier to prepare and serve than regular Sencha, making it popular with younger people. Additionally, there exists a variety of this tea called "Toku Fukamushi-cha" (Toku meaning extra or special), which is steamed for an ever greater period of time.

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Gyokuro

Gyokuro

A bolder, richer taste then Sencha, with a appropriately striking green hue. Prized as the highest grade tea in all Japan.

Color: See-through yellow, at times almost fleetingly so

Smell: So distinctive it has its own name, "Oika". Unique, powerful and rich, it defies categorization. The closest comparison is said to be slight resemblance to Nori (dried seaweed)

Taste: Rich, concentrated and full-bodied with little bitterness

Gyokuro, with its powerful full bodied aroma is highly valued in Japan as the absolute pinnacle of tea. While other teas are drunk to relieve thirst or a parched throat, Gyokuro differs in that is drink first and foremost for its taste, and even then sparingly on account of its value. Savoring just a mouthful allows an exceedingly rich and deep flavor to spread out across the entire palate; a deliciously aromatic taste that is evocative of Nori.

This taste has its own word in Japanese,「覆い香(おおいか)」or Oika, and is a product of Gyokuros painstaking cultivation process. Twenty days before the plants are harvested, they are moved from their mountain plantations to special planters directly beside the tea shop and covered with shades made from straw and reeds. These block out the sun almost entirely, reducing the amount of UV rays the leaves absorb. This stops the breakdown of the compounds that usually induce a bitterness in green tea, and instead preserves the plants natural aroma.

Due to its meticulous process, this tea is cultivated sparsely, with Uji city in Kyoto and Yame city in Fukuoka being the most famous growing regions.

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Genmaicha

Genmaicha

A unique light brown blend of roasted coarse rice and green tea leaves

Color: Predominantly yellowish-green, but varies according to roasting and blending

Smell: Sweet and fragrant, with the distinctive aroma of toasted rice

Taste: Refreshingly simple and light, very easy to drink

Genmaicha is an approximate 1:1 blend of green tea leaves and roasted rice, and its appeal lies in the signature herbal aroma and taste it gains as a result of this fusion. By adjusting the ratio of rice grains to tea leaves, it is possible to subtlety alter the base flavor, allowing for a surprising variety of tastes. Although Genmaicha is usually made using coarser green tea, some versions use Sencha or Fukamushi Sencha as a base, while others add in Matcha. Genmaicha originally gets its name from the Japanese word for coarse rice, genmai; however, as with the base tea leaves, using other varieties of rice, such as toasted white rice or even mochi, is quite common.

Of further note are the white, popcorn like clusters found in the brew; these are pieces of rice that have burst open during the toasting process. Although they have no effect on either the taste or scent, they are left in as a decoration.

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Kamairi-Cha

Kamairi-cha

An aromatic tea, distinct for its unique scent, known as "Kamagaori" (kettle-scent)

Color: an almost transparent amber

Smell: A sweet, aromatic scent, characteristic of the production method used

Taste: A exceptionally light tea with no aftertaste

Kamairi-cha is tea made from leaves that have been roasted in a large kettle rather than steamed, halting the fermentation process. This method is believed to have originated from 16th century China. During the production of green tea, a complicated process that utilizes heat and pressure know as "Seijyutsu" is used to perfect the shape and form of the tea leaves. However, the stage is omitted when producing Kabuse-cha, causing the leaves to curl up into a unique comma-like shape. This tea is also known as "Kamairi-style Ryokucha".

The most standout characteristic of this type of tea is undoubtedly its scent. By roasting the leaves instead of boiling them, the grassy, fermented taste vanishes, leaving a sweet, refreshing tea that is easy to drink. This tea is mainly grown in Kyushu, with the Takachiho region in Miyagi prefecture and the Ureshino region in Saga prefecture being especially famous producers.

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Kabuse-Cha

Kabuse-cha

A tea that combines the gentle astringency of Sencha and the richness of Gyokuro

Color: yellow-green with hints of azure

Taste

Kabuse-cha is a variety of green tea that is allowed to mature without being exposed to direct sunlight before it is harvested. While the plants used to make Gyokuro are kept out of direct sunlight for 20 days prior to harvest, the tea plants used for Kabuse-cha are kept indoors for only a week to ten days. This creates a tea that keeps the light, astringent notes of Sencha and fuses them with the more complex richness of Gyokuro.

If tepid water is used to make this tea, the result is a superior, mild richness quite similar to Gyokuro. If hot water is used in brewing this tea, the result is a invigorating, astringent tea, similar to Sencha. Quite simply, this tea is two kinds in one. The area most commonly associated with this tea is Mie perfecture, and is also the number one producer.

 

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Mushisei Tamaryoku-Cha

"Mushisei Tamaryoku-cha"

A mild Japanese tea blend, with distictive curly leaves

Color: A somewhat transparent shade of pea green

Smell: A subtle, yet fresh, scent

Taste: Well rounded with a touch of bitterness

A blend of Japanese tea notable for its distinctive curved leaves, which are steamed and then dry roasted. Also known as "Guri-cha". It was first produced towards the end of the Taisho period, circa. 1920, to compete with the popular "Kamairi-cha" that was being exported to Russia. Japanese tea producers at the time were highly specialized, focusing on "Sencha" green tea for domestic consumption. Lacking the specialized equipment to produce their own "Kamairi-cha", the had no choice but to use their machines to produce their own version, and the result was "Tamaryoku-cha".

Like "Kamairi-cha", the production process omits the "Seijyutsu" phase, and as a result the leaves take on the same distinctive "comma" like shape. However, as the process utilizes many of the same techniques used in Sencha production, the result is a more milder, well bodied tea with some bitter notes. Presently, this tea is manufactured mainly in Kyushu and parts of Shizuoka prefecture.

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