We love when friends and customers are surprised to learn that there's a whole variety of Japanese green tea beyond matcha and genmaicha. There's so much to explore and here we'll provide an overview of the most common types of Japanese tea.
There are several ways to categorize Japanese green teas, but we like to start in the field and break tea into two groups: shade grown and sun grown. After harvest, the processing decisions (steaming, blending, grinding) also determine the final tea type.
Sun Grown Tea
Sencha | 煎茶
Sencha is the "foundation" tea—the classic green tea that many people are familiar with. It's grown under full sun and harvested 2-3 times throughout the year, with the best quality sencha being harvested in the spring.
Japanese tea is characterized by the use of steam to stop oxidation of the leaf, while in China the leaf is mainly pan fired. If oxidization of the tea leaf is not stopped, it will eventually become a black tea. The length of time a leaf is steamed also affects the final flavor and visual of the leaf. Most sencha receives a normal steam (futsumushi), which is anywhere from 10-40 seconds, and some tea is deep-steamed (fukamushi), which is 80 seconds or longer. The longer steaming breaks down the leaf structure and makes it brittle but produces a sweeter more mild tea.
Shade Grown Tea
Gyokuro | 玉露
Literally translated as "Jade Dew," gyokuro is considered one of the most premium types of Japanese tea. Before harvest, the tea plants are shaded for 3-4 weeks (minimum of 21 days) under a canopy that can block out as much sun as the farmer wishes. This shading increases the level of amino acids, which give the tea its umami flavor.
The flavor of gyokuro is characterized by its richness and broth-like mouthfeel. When brewing gyokuro, less water and cooler water is used than with sencha and the steeping time is considerably longer.
Matcha (Tencha) | 抹茶
Before matcha is ground, the full leaf is called tencha. It's grown and shaded the same as gyokuro and the processing is similar to gyokuro, but tencha is ground with granite stone mills instead of being rolled.
Traditionally there are two ways to prepare matcha, koicha (thick) and usucha (thin). The only difference between these two styles of preparation are the amount of matcha vs the amount of water.
Kabusecha | かぶせ茶
Kabusecha comes from sencha that's shaded for 1-2 weeks before harvest. Similar to gyokuro, the shading increases the amino acid levels and brings out more umami flavors. The umami flavor of kabusecha is not as strong as gyokuro, but is usually richer than standard sencha.
Genmaicha | 玄米茶
Genmaicha is sencha that's mixed with toasted brown or white rice. The sencha used in genmaicha is processed in the standard way and the toasted rice is blended after the tea has been through full processing. Any tea can be used in genmaicha but sencha is the most common.
Hojicha | ほうじ茶
Hojicha is sencha that's roasted after final processing. During roasting, the caffeine present in the leaf breaks down (at 178 C) and the final product is a low caffeine tea with notes of molasses and cacao.
Kukicha | 茎茶
Kukicha is made from the stems of gyokuro (often called karigane), kabusecha, and sencha. Kukicha is naturally low in caffeine because the majority of the leaf is not processed into this tea.