Sencha, gyokuro, bancha or kokeicha? Shincha, aracha or mecha? All these words represent the names of Japanese teas. Although it may seem difficult to learn them all, the good new is, once you learn them, you will never feel lost when choosing the right tea again. In fact, the world of Japanese tea is incredibly organised, and easy to navigate.
Types of Japanese teas
Japan is one o the top ten tea producing countries in the world. Although it’s famous for its extraordinary green teas, Japan produces other tea types too – all except yellow. The most popular types of tea are green. Green tea counts for at least 90% of the total tea production. Black and oolong are second favorite types, while the white and fermented dark tea are very rare, and only made by a couple of tea farms.
There are many differences between Japanese and teas from other countries:
- Japanese tea is very easy to classify
- It’s possible to classify all tea cultivars too
- Japanese tea is steamed, rather than pan-fired
- Some Japanese tea are shaded
Japanese green tea
Green tea is the most popular tea in Japan. All Japanese green teas are made from Camelia sinensis var sinensis. There are currently more than 100 tea cultivars used for making Japanese tea. Tea cultivars are special groups of Camellia sinensis tea plant with unique set of characteristics. Each cultivar will give a different flavor, a different color, and has different characteristics. The most popular one is Yabukita, which counts for up to 74% of the total green tea production. Some cultivars are region-specific, or for example, used for making specific tea types such as Uji hikari for matcha.
Sencha – grown in sunlight, younger leaves
Sencha is the most popular type of tea in Japan. It’s grown in a direct sunlight, but some tea farmers may experiment with shading the leaves for a couple of days before harvesting them. Sencha is a steamed tea, which gives it unique grassy and vegetal flavor. Steaming is the process that stops oxidation and makes green tea different from black or oolong. This process can be short, for only 10 seconds, or long, more than 2 minutes. These teas are called:
- Asamushicha– lightly steamed tea with lighter flavor and color
- Chuumushicha– medium steamed tea
- Fukamushicha– deep-steamed tea with intense green color and stronger flavor
Bancha – grown in sunlight; mature leaves
Bancha is made from the same tea plants used for sencha green tea, but from older more mature leaves. Mature leaves have more robust flavor, less freshness and less caffeine. Bancha can be roasted too. It’s harvested later than sencha.
Kabusecha – grown in shade, but only for shorted time
Kabusecha is a semi-shaded type of green tea, somewhere between sencha and gyokuro. The flavor is similar to sencha, with just a bit more sweetness.
Gyokuro – grown in shade
Gyokuro is one of the most expensive Japanese teas in the world. It’s often made from special cultivars and always shaded for around 3 weeks before harvesting. It has a deep rich green color and a unique sweet and umami flavor.
Tencha – grown in shade, but doesn’t include any stalks, veins or stems
Today, tencha is considered a tea type on its own. In the past, it was only a step in producing matcha tea. Tencha looks like little green flakes and contains no stems or stalks. It’s very light and more difficult to brew, because the small flakes often float on the surface.
Matcha – grown in shade, powdered
Matcha is a Japanese tea powder made from tencha. It’s very silky and made from pure leaves, after removing all stems, veins and stalks. What makes it different from other tea powders is that the tea plant was growing under a shade, rather than in a direct light. Leaves are shaded for about 3-4 weeks before harvesting. Matcha is available in different grades – ceremonial grade matcha, industrial grade and culinary/latte grade.
Hojicha – roasted
Hojicha is a roasted green tea. It’s unlike any other green tea in the world. It has less caffeine than other types, and it’s great for making iced tea. Hojicha can have deep roasted or lighter fresh flavor, depending on the type and roasting level.
Tamaryokucha – the only tea with curly leaves
Tamaryokucha is the unique Japanese tea that visually looks closer to Chinese than other Japanese teas. Unlike other teas, the leaves of tamaryokucha are not rolled into needle-like shapes. Skipping the typical rolling step gives them a curly appearance. Tamaryokucha can be steamed or pan-fried.
Guricha is a steamed tamaryokucha. It’s similar to other Japanese green teas, with less sharp and more sweet taste.
Kamairicha is pan-fried, rather than steamed, which makes it more nutty and less vegetal. It’s the only Japanese pan-fired tea.
Kukicha – stalks and stems or tea leaves
Kukicha is a popular tea choice in macrobiotics. It’s often considered a by-product of tea production, and has a delicious, refreshing taste with less caffeine than other green teas. Kukicha contains stems and stalks, and sometimes little leaf parts.
Kokeicha – tea paste made into leaves
This by-product of a tea production is unlike any other tea in the world. It’s made from small tea leaf particles, grounded, made into a paste and then shaped into small uniformed tea leaves.
Genmaicha – tea with roasted brown rice
Genmaicha is a type of green tea blended with roasted brown rice. It can be made from bancha, sencha or gyokuro. Sometimes, matcha may be added into the blend too. This tea will then be called Matcha-iri Genmaicha. Genmaicha made from bancha, or sencha will simply be called Genmaicha. The one made with gyokuro will be called Gyokuro Genmaicha. The ratio of roasted and puffed brown rice and pure tea is often 50:50.
Shincha – new tea
The word shincha means “new tea“ and it’s used for first spring harvest of sencha, kabusecha, gyokuro and tamaryokucha. Bancha will never be shincha because it’s harvested later than other green teas.
Konacha – tea dust and particles
Konacha is a by-product of sencha, kabusecha and gyokuro production. It includes tea dust, small leaf particles including small stalks and buds. Although a by-product, konacha can be of a very high quality, especially if made from gyokuro dust. This tea is very popular in sushi restaurants.
Mecha – tea tips and buds
Mecha is another by-product of tea production, made from rolled tea leaf tips and buds. It’s usually made from higher quality teas.
Aracha – unrefined tea
Aracha or a crude tea is an unrefined tea. This word is used for tea that hasn’t gone through sorting or blending with different leaves to achieve a desirable, more refined flavor. Leaves of aracha tea often look messy, because they will contain not only the uniformed leaves, but all other leaf parts too.
Benifuki tea – special cultivar
Another unique tea type is benifuki, made from a special benifuki tea cultivar. This type of tea is basically a sencha, but with special health benefits. Specific catechins in this tea may help reduce symptoms of hay fever.
Japanese black tea
Japanese black teas are still quite rare. They are made from different cultivars than Indian or Chinese tea, so the flavor will be different as well. Expect lighter infusion, bright orange to red color, a bit of astringency and sweetness, or even smoked flavor.
Japanese oolong tea
Oolong tea is a rare category in the world of Japanese tea too. Oolong tea or “uuroncha” is quite popular as iced tea and is often on the more oxidized side.
Japanese dark tea
There are only a couple of dark fermented Japanese teas available today, and they are different from the Chinese pu’erh. Fermentation in tea changes the chemical composition and potentially adds a whole new set of health benefits to tea leaves.
Japanese herbal tea
Mugicha is a roasted barley tea. Because of its refreshing flavor, mugicha is mostly drank in summer. It’s caffeine free, so it’s suitable for all age groups. However, mugicha contains gluten, so pay attention if you are gluten-sensitive. It’s thought that this tea may aid in digestion, but there is no scientific evidence to support the claim.
Japanese konbucha is a sea kelp tea, and doesn’t have anything common with the drink made of yeast and bacteria, sugar and tea called Kombucha. Konbucha is salty and made with sea kelp, and sometimes blended with other ingredients to create the best flavor.
Choosing the best Japanese Tea
When choosing Japanese tea it’s good to know what kind of flavor you prefer. Japanese teas are often described by:
The highest quality teas will often have less astringency and more umami and sweetness.
Umami is the fifth taste, along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Although umami is very specific, it’s still difficult to describe. It’s somewhere between savory and salty, brothy, rich and unique. The unique taste mostly comes from the amino acid glutamate. It’s the most pronounced in gyokuro, and best extracted with cooler water (around 104°F-140°F). If brewed with boiling water, gyokuro will have a very bitter taste without umami.
Astringency is different from regular bitterness, that is mostly unwelcomed in green tea and is mostly caused by catechins, while the bitterness comes from caffeine.
Sweetness comes from natural sugars found in tea. Other amino acids also contribute to some sweetness, such as -theanine.
Loose leaf vs tea powder
Many Japanese teas are available in powdered form. Powdered teas are different from matcha powdered tea, because they are mostly not shaded, and include stalks, stems and veins too. Except for matcha that is frothy and smooth, powders will often give a murky cup of tea. However, the flavor of high quality tea powders will always be delicious.
Which tea to choose?
Shaded teas: kabusecha, gyokuro, tencha, matcha
Nutty flavor: hojicha, kamairicha, bancha, genmaicha, muhicha
The most intense flavor: gyokuro, matcha, fukamushi sencha, konacha
The least caffeine: kukicha, hojicha, genmaicha
By-products: kukicha, kokeicha, konacha, mecha
Fresh flavor: kabusecha, sencha, kokeicha
Sweet flavor: gyokuro, tencha, matcha
Umami flavor: gyokuro, high grade sencha, konbucha
For the most catechins: gyokuro, middle grade sencha, matcha
Powdered tea: hojicha, sencha, matcha
Roasted tea: hojicha, some bancha, mugicha, genmaicha