Exploring Tea’s Origins: Japan

Japanese men taking tea in Yokohama. circa 1870

Japan opened its doors to world trade just three years before the American Civil War and by 1890, forty percent of our tea imports came from that country—and it was all green. 

America’s thirst for Japanese tea has had a resurgence in recent years, thanks in large part to green tea’s healthy reputation, the high visibility of major Japanese tea purveyors—such as Ito En and Lupicia—and our growing fascination with the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Japan discovered tea in the eighth century as a result of contact with Buddhist priests in China. It soon became the favorite beverage of monks who found it helped them stay awake during long periods of meditation. When Japan opened its ports to western trade in the 1860s, tea became a popular commodity and it wasn’t long before Japanese tea was found in general stores across the United States.

Weighing green tea leaves.

In the early days of tea cultivation in Japan, tea was hand plucked. Today, almost all Japanese teas are harvested by gas-powered clippers or self-propelled mowing and collection machines. The modern manufacturing facility is highly mechanized as the fresh green leaves make their way through the steaming, drying, rolling and grading processes.

The Japanese growing areas are all located in hilly parts of the country close to rivers, streams, and lakes where the climate is misty and damp and the amount of hot sunshine is tempered by cool hazy mornings and soft light. Three harvest times take place in May/April, June, and September/October. The majority of teas produced are green.
Start your Japanese tea collection with these basic varieties:

Sencha  The most-consumed green tea in Japan, this spring tea has an emerald green, flat,  polished leaf that produces a light golden-yellow infusion. The delicately sweet aroma and flavor are reminiscent of freshly-mown grass and sea breezes. Sencha also makes a terrific base ingredient for blends and flavored teas.

Bancha  This late summer and early fall harvested tea contains coarser leaves and stems than the more delicate spring teas. The resulting infusion is a deeper golden-yellow than sencha while the taste is more astringent and the aroma less fragrant.

Gyokuro  Japan’s most expensive and highest quality tea is grown, picked and harvested with great care and skill. The bushes are kept under 90 per cent shade for about 20 days prior to harvest. This technique forces the bush to concentrate more chlorophyll in the leaves. The infusion, steeped at a cool 140° F, is pale yellow with a sweet and very smooth flavor. 

Matcha  This very fine powdered tea is used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It begins with tencha, a finely chopped tea made in the same way as gyokuro, that has all the stem removed before it is ground into an emerald green powder.  To prepare if for the Tea Ceremony, the powder is whisked into hot water with a specially crafted bamboo whisk. Matcha is also popular today blended with into fruit smoothies or prepared as a matcha latte.

Genmaicha   This unusually savory tea continues to gain popularity with young tea drinkers. Some consumers refer to it as “popcorn tea” because it contains toasted and puffed rice that resembles popcorn. The unusual mixture of tea and grains gives a bright golden liquor that has a nutty aroma. 
Text and photos Copyrighted 2012 by Bruce Richardson. This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine.

Read more about tea’s origins in The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. 
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