The 5 Japanese Teas I Love To Drink...And You Probably Do Too
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Japanese tea has exploded in popularity, with many praising it as the secret to longevity, weight loss, and all sorts of miraculous benefits. With some merits holding more true than others, I was always drawn to Japanese tea for its clean yet wholesome taste. There is a wide variety of teas in the category that is nihoncha, but a majority of us have come to associate Japanese tea as merely green tea. And I wouldn't fault us for doing so, for almost all tea produced and consumed in Japan is green tea. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, for the world of Japanese green tea is vast, complex, and quite fascinating.
Late last year I was invited by the Japan Tea Trade Association and Secai Marche of Japan and Malaysia to a crash course on sencha, the most frequent and well-known Japanese green tea, via a zoom meeting. It was quite enlightening, and I'd love to share what I learned with you, dear reader, along with some of my other favourite teas.
Here are my five favourite Japanese teas.
1) Sencha – The Default
Sencha, a loose leaf green tea which translates to simmered tea, is the most common Japanese tea consumed, making up around 75% of all Japanese tea production and usually coming from Shizuoka and Kagoshima prefecture. You know those green OSK brand boxes of green tea you see at the supermarket and in basically everywhere in Malaysia? Yup, that's sencha. Think of this tea as the default Japanese green tea, and there's nothing wrong with that, it's crisp and clean.
Green tea is green because it does not go through any oxidization process, unlike black tea which is highly oxidized. Instead, sencha is steamed and rolled, which helps retain its fresh flavour for a more vegetal and slightly earthy taste. When brewed at the right temperature, which is imperative to eliciting the tea's full flavours without damaging it due to its delicate nature, sencha can be incredibly uplifting. It is advised that sencha is brewed with soft water, which contains fewer minerals. Sencha has a gentleness to it that is best enjoyed unsweetened and either hot or iced.
Side note: reverse osmosis can turn hard water into soft water through its process.
How to brew sencha with a kyusu (traditional Japanese teapot made of clay pictured above)
Place one or two tablespoons (about 3 grams) of sencha into the Kyusu.
Pour 200ml of hot water into two teacups to allow the water to cool to 80 degrees Celsius (around 1.5 to 2 minutes).
Pour the warm water back into the Kyusu and wait for approximately 60 seconds for optimum brewing time.
After the wait, pour the tea into each teacup alternately to ensure that the quantity and taste are equal in each cup. Ensure you pour all of the tea out from the kyusu until the last drop, or it may negatively affect the second brew.
Refrain from brewing the tea leaves in the kyusu more than three times and with each additional brew after the first cut the brewing time down by 10 seconds for the best taste.
2) Fukamushi Sencha – Deep Steamy Goodness
Fukamushi sencha (deep steamed) is steamed two to four times as long as regular sencha, which produces a stronger tasting tea with finer, yellow in colour leaves. Due to the steaming process, the tea loses its grassy odour and bitterness, making for a delicious and robust yet elegant brew with umami notes similar to that of seaweed. Each sip reveals a full-bodied tea and a butter-like after mouth feel, making for a truly unique tea with a savoury aspect that goes surprising well with sweeter snacks. For me, at least.
How to brew fukamushi sencha with a kyusu
Follow the same brewing technique as mentioned above, but only brew fukamushi sencha for 40 seconds for optimum taste.
3) Matcha – The People's Choice
The frontman of the Japanese tea world, matcha is an extremely popular stone-grounded tencha (a type of tea cultivated similar to gyokuro in that it's shelter grown) that can be either consumed with hot water or used in confectionary and some savoury dishes. The bright, fresh, and smooth taste of matcha, which can vary in terms of bitterness, makes it easy to like and enjoy. Because it's grounded into powder, we can drink the whole leaf to enjoy the tea's health benefits, of which there are many.
Matcha is also used in Japanese ceremonies and there's ceremony-grade matcha that is bright green. The lower the vibrancy of matcha, the lower the grade.
I love matcha and usually come back from Japan with a pack or two that I get from my fiancée's mom, which may last me a month or two per pack. Matcha is a great pick me up after a heavy, oily meal.
How to prepare matcha
Bon Appétit features a fantastic step-by-step photo guide on how to prepare matcha.
4) Gyokuro – High-Grade Territory
My first experience with gyokuro (jade dew) was life-changing. I had it as a starter at the launch of modern French Japanese restaurant béni in Genting Highlands. What looked like only a handful of tea leaves was placed in a glass cup with a narrow mouth and was served with a dash of hot water. I waited for under a minute, sipped on the tea, and ate the remaining leaves. Boom! What I experienced at that moment was anything unlike I’ve had with tea ever in my life. The tea was immensely flavourful yet incredibly refined, with a specific hard to describe elegance that hit at the back of the palate and revealed a mix of grassy and oceanic notes (evoking the umami quality of oysters). It was genuinely mind-blowing; this is something you want to take your time to enjoy.
Gyokuro production begins very much like sencha but differs in that the plants are sheltered from sunlight for 20 days before harvesting. This drives production costs up and inhibits the plants from producing catechin (responsible for green tea’s astringency) due to less photosynthesis. Gyokuro is a luxury tea and should be appropriately brewed to fully enjoy its flavour.
How to brew gyokuro
Sazen Tea's guide explains a lot better than I can because of gyokuro's more delicate and methodical approach.
5) Hōjicha – Toasty Tanginess
Houjicha is sencha (or another variety) that has been first steamed to stop oxidation and then slowly pan-roasted at around 200 Celsius. It is then cooled, cutting the tea's caffeine content and making houjicha less bitter with a lovely toasted tang. You can find houjicha in either loose-leaf or fine powdered form. When brewed, hōjicha gives off a pleasing smoky and slightly earthy aroma and goes tremendous either hot or iced. Thanks to its pleasing toastiness, houjicha also goes great in lattes, ice creams and other confectionaries.
How to prepare houjicha
Hojicha Co. features all the different methods you can enjoy houjicha. You're welcome!