From sencha to matcha, Japanese tea is increasingly popular. Take a closer look at the delicious, nutritious drink that’s become the new favourite.
The steeping method is very important for Japanese tea. (right in picture)
Fresh, high-quality green tea appears a beautiful light green colour. (left in picture)
Green tea secrets: Carefully harvested and brewed to perfection
After spending decades in the shadow of coffee culture, tea is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among Canadians. People have discovered that tea is much more than the generic orange pekoe from the grocery store. Instead, high-quality loose tea from Asia has grabbed the spotlight with its superior quality and unique flavours. Even Starbucks has added tea to their menu: the Matcha Latte and Chai Latte proudly go toe-to-toe with their fancy coffee rivals as more people open their minds to the possibilities of tea.
This is nothing new in Japan, where people have been savouring tea for hundreds of years. In fact, tea is deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture. To help you fully appreciate your next cup, let’s take a look at what makes Japanese tea so special.
While there are many varieties to sample, including green tea, black tea, white tea and oolong tea, the leaves for each variety all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. In other words, it’s the way these leaves are processed that transforms them into the many different flavours, colours and aromas you’ll find in a tea shop.
The tea harvest begins in early May. Farmers work around the clock at this time of year, as tea leaves are harvested on average three to four times per season. Shincha, or the first-picked tea, is Japan’s most sought-after brew. Tea made from these leaves has a rich, earthy flavour and high nutritional value that has been collected by the plant over the long winter. Tea leaves plucked in the later harvests are often bigger than the first pick, and the tea made from these leaves is less aromatic and contains less caffeine.
So, your Japanese tea has made its long journey from the ground to your kitchen … now what? First off, it’s important to know that the ideal brewing procedure for green tea is a bit different than for the black tea you might be used to. Boiling hot water can actually kill green tea’s delicate aroma—instead, after you boil the water, pour it into teacups and let it sit for a while before pouring it back into the teapot.
When storing your green tea, keep in mind that it should be kept away from air, heat, moisture and light. And freshness is important to the quality of the tea—so once you open the package, it’s recommended that you finish as quickly as possible. It would be a shame to waste good-quality sencha or gyokuro by letting it sit in your cabinet.
Do you still need a reason to try a cup? Not only is green tea delicious, but it offers you many different health benefits. It can prevent disease, boost your immune system and even relax your mind.
Green tea is an excellent source of antioxidants and vitamins, including Vitamin C and E. It’s also rich in minerals, including magnesium, potassium and calcium. Finally, tea is the only plant that contains a unique amino acid called L-theanine, which stimulates alpha brain waves to relax the mind without causing drowsiness. That’s why a sip of green tea is so soothing.
All these health benefits come packaged in a steaming cup of tea with a beautiful flavour, aroma and colour. No wonder green tea is taking the world by storm!
Exploring the tea regions of Japan
When you talk about Japanese green tea, the region it comes from is very important. Experts can tell where a tea is from based on its taste—and many Japanese people have their own preferences. (This usually has to do with the tea they sipped while growing up!)
Shizuoka is the largest tea-growing region in Japan. Close to 40 per cent of all sencha produced in Japan comes from this region. The second largest tea-growing region is Kagoshima, whose climate—warm air mixed with a cool bay breeze—is ideal for growing tea.
Finally, the historic city of Kyoto is famous for tea gardens that produce Japan’s most exclusive teas. Uji, located on Kyoto’s outskirts, is known for its premium-quality gyokuro, sencha and matcha.
Your guide to the different varieties of Japanese green tea
Serving unique flavours, distinct aromas and rich colours
Sencha is Japan’s most popular green tea. Leaves for sencha are grown in full sunlight, steamed, dried and kneaded, producing a deep, grassy aroma.
Hojicha is roasted green tea with a toasty flavour. The roasting process removes most of the caffeine. It’s an easy-drinking tea that’s perfect for between meals.
Genmaicha is a blend of green tea made with genmai, or roasted brown rice, and is a popular daily drink in Japan. It has a mild, nutty flavour.
Gyokuro is the highest grade of Japanese tea. Its leaves require around 20 days of shade before harvest. Gyokuro is high in caffeine and has a mellow, sweet flavour.
Matcha is the traditional Japanese green tea powder. It is made from high-quality tencha (碾茶), which is grown the same way as gyokuro.
Much ado about matcha: A healthy, tasty boost
There’s been a lot of talk about matcha lately. This green tea powder has had some help into the spotlight recently thanks to the Western-style Matcha Latte, which has introduced it to caffeine aficionados everywhere.
So what’s the fascination? Not only does matcha taste good, but it offers some pretty powerful health benefits that make it a great alternative to that morning cup of coffee.
Rather than the usual tea leaves, which are steeped in water and then removed, matcha’s ground powder completely dissolves in water when it’s brewed. In other words, with matcha, you drink all of the healthy nutrients without leaving anything behind! Loaded with potent antioxidants, matcha helps detoxify your body and brings a number of added bonuses like enhancing your concentration, boosting your energy and helping you relax. As for the taste, high-quality matcha has a distinctive sweetness and a rich and creamy texture.
Matcha has long been a special drink: originally, it was used only for Japanese tea ceremonies. Today, however, matcha has become popular on a more casual basis as a healthy everyday drink. So go ahead and enjoy!
Pairing tea + dessert
A calming cup of green tea is a great way to relax! For ultimate comfort, pair it with a tasty treat.
Hojicha + Hojicha pudding
A decadent duo! The sweet, mellow cream of the pudding goes amazingly well with the roasted flavour of hojicha.
*Hojicha pudding provided by mon K patisserie
Genmaicha + Rice crackers
For a more savoury pairing, nutty roasted genmaicha goes nicely with the toasted crunch of rice crackers.
Sencha + Red bean sweets
Red bean sweets are a traditional confection from Japan. They match well with the slight bitterness of sencha.
Momo Yoshida is a serious tea lover and owner of the Momo Tea (www.momotea.co). She is a certified TAC TEA SOMMELIER TM/SM professional since 2010.