Both Japanese and Chinese teas are made from the same plant – camellia sinensis. However, even if you are new to tea, you may have noticed that they are very different. Some are more vegetal while the others have light and toasty flavor. Some are shaped like tiny needles, while others have long wiry leaves. Where do these differences come from? Learn about the main differences between Chinese and Japanese tea.
Difference between Chinese and Japanese green tea
Legend says that tea was first discovered almost 5000 years ago by a Chinese emperor Shen Nong, while the first written references appeared a bit more than 2000 years ago. In Japan, tea appreciation started about 800 years ago, when a Zen monk Eisai brought tea plants from China, although tea was already known by that time. Even though they both share the same origin, those two countries adopted different processing methods, the way how tea is enjoyed, and developed their own cultivars.
Chinese vs Japanese tea
Both Japan and China are mostly producing green tea. In Japan, sencha alone counts for almost 60% of all tea production, while the market share of all green teas in China in 2015 was about 50%. China is producing all 6 types of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, black and fermented, while Japan produces only 5 – all except yellow. While white and fermented Japanese teas are still very rare, oolong and blacks are not that uncommon nowadays.
Both Kukicha and Kokeicha are two unique teas made exclusively in Japan. Kukicha or twig tea is a by-product of sencha or gyokuro. Kokeicha is a tea made from by-products of green tea turned into a paste and dried.
Different cultivars give different color and flavor to tea. The most popular Japanese tea cultivar is Yabukita, used for more than 70% of all teas produced in Japan, especially sencha. Some of the most popular Chinese cultivars are Da Hong Pao, commonly used for making Red Robe tea, Long Jing #43, for Dragon Well tea and Tieguanyin cultivar, for Iron Goddess of Mercy.
Japanese green teas are traditionally steamed, while the Chinese ones are pan-fired. Steaming gives a different flavor profile and color. Moreover, steaming or pan-firing influence the amount of EGCG, a catechin abundantly found in green tea. Furthermore, Japanese green teas are generally not withered, which is an important step in producing Chinese teas. Today, only a very little number of Chinese teas are steamed (for example, En Shi Yu Lu) and only one Japanese tea is pan-fired – Kamairicha.
In general, all Japanese green teas can be classified by region, growing and processing type and varietal. There are only about a dozen of green tea types, but each with dozens, if not hundreds and thousands sub-types. On contrary, it’s impossible to know how many Chinese green tea types exist. They are mostly classified by the leaf shape type, cultivar and region. For example, there are different Dragon Well, Silver Needles and Mao Feng teas, same as there are numerous Japanese sencha teas.
Chinese green teas usually have a lighter, sweeter and toasty flavor, while the Japanese ones are often vegetal and brisker, often bitter if over-brewed. Chinese black tea will usually be sweeter, often having chocolate notes, while the rare Japanese blacks are a slightly more astringent and maltier. If you prefer dessert teas with subtler and sweeter notes, Chinese green and black tea might be a good option. For a refreshment and caffeine kick, Japanese greens may do the trick.
Both Japanese and Chinese green teas can reach high prices. In fact, Chinese tea holds more places on the Top 10 Expensive Teas in the World chart. As China is the cradle of tea, the most expensive teas could even be made from mother plants, the first plants ever used to produce a certain type – like Da Hong Pao. Japanese premium teas carry a high price tag too, with Gyokuro being one of the most expensive tea in the world. Expect a price range of $10-$40 for a 4 oz pouch of quality tea with both Japanese and Chinese teas.
If terms of health benefits, it’s impossible to say which type is healthier. Although matcha is often considered the healthiest tea in the world, this is necessarily true. How the tea was grown, processed, brewed and stored are only some factors influencing its benefits and quality. Generally, steamed tea may have more EGCG than pan-fired tea, however, this is not always a rule. To get the most antioxidants, choose stronger green teas, often astringent ones.
Japanese matcha vs Chinese matcha – are they different?
Although Japanese and Chinese matcha may look alike to the untrained eye, they are two different teas. Japanese matcha is often made using special matcha cultivars that give powder with a very intense color and unique flavor. Cultivar is not important in producing regular Chinese matcha. Next, Japanese matcha is made from shaded tea plants, that further influences both flavor profile, color and chemical composition. Then, the leaves are processed and made into tencha, a crude tea without any stalk, stems or veins. Chinese matcha may include all of them. The texture of tea powders will also be different, due to different grounding processes.
Once your try them both, it’s easy to distinguish Chinese from Japanese matcha by the color and texture. Japanese tea will have a very intense green color, more or less vibrant, but almost never with a greyish hue. It will be silkier and smoother, with very little grain size.
 Overview of world tea market – FAO