The Wonderful World of Japanese Green Tea
All teas - black, green, oolong, pu’erh and white tea - come from the Camellia Sinensis plant, but differ based on where they are grown, how they are harvested and how they are processed. Japan produces much of the world's best green tea, with different varieties and quality to choose from.
Green tea is harvested in early to mid spring in Japan and comes from the first buds of the plant, which are the highest quality leaves. These leaves are steamed soon after being picked in order to avoid the oxidation and fermentation process (a process which leads to black and oolong teas). The types of green tea differ based on how much sunlight the leaves receive and how they are dried, ground and rolled.
You’re probably most familiar with matcha due to its recent prominence as a superfood in the west or as a popular East Asian boba flavor. It even appears in everything from anti-aging skincare products to overly sugary venti matcha lattes, hold the cream.
But there are many green teas to taste and experience in Japan. Let us introduce you to 9 main types:
If you've been served a cup of tea in Japan, it's most likely sencha. Sencha is the most commonly consumed and produced tea in Japan, making up 80% of all tea production in the country. Most green teas are a variation of sencha.
The leaves for sencha are grown in direct sunlight and tend to be harvested in the first or second flush. The leaves of the upper shoots, which are the youngest and of higher quality, are then steamed, dried and rolled into needle-like shapes, which helps to intensify the flavor. Sencha has a delicate sweetness and a mild astringency.
Meaning “jewel dew”, gyokuro green tea is known for its pale green color. The leaves are shaded from the sun for up to 20 days to boost its internal production of the amino acid, theanine, and its alkaline caffeine. Arguably one of the most expensive versions of traditional sencha, it has a sweet taste and low steeping temperature.
Matcha, the famous green tea powder traditionally used in the Japanese tea ceremony, comes from green tea leaves known as tencha. Similar to gyukuro, the leaves are shaded from sunlight three weeks prior to harvest which increases chlorophyll production and results in a brighter green color and sweeter taste. Instead of being rolled like other green teas, the leaves are laid flat so that the stems and veins can be removed before being ground into the fine powder known as matcha. Matcha is usually sold in small quantities and can be quite expensive.
One of the cheaper teas, funmatsucha is often used as a filler for other rarer teas. It comes from lower quality leaves which are ground into a powder. Easy to brew and very bitter, it can also be found in everything from ice cream to medicine for the common cold.
Konacha is also commonly confused with funmatsucha, although konacha is not a powder but rather small bits of leaves. It often consists of leftover and unwanted dust, buds and leaves from the sencha making process and is thought of as "poor man’s tea". When you go to kaitenzushi (回転寿司) (conveyer-belt sushi), you may find a spout at the table and tiny bits of green tea leaves. That is Konacha.
Shincha leaves are harvested earlier than any other in this list which makes it possibly the most sought after. It's plucked from early April to early May, before the first flush, from the youngest leaves. It's prized in Japan for being very expensive and seasonal given its low yield.
Kukicha, known as twig tea, is made from stems, stalks and twigs from the sencha harvesting process. The tea is sweet and bit nutty with an aroma different from other green teas. It's not to be confused with konacha, even though they both use the unwanted parts of the tea plant.
From the same plants as sencha, bancha is harvested as the third or fourth flush during summer and autumn. These older, lower shoot leaves tend to be coarse and less desirable than sencha. It has less caffeine and tends to be less bitter.