In Japan, over 70% of people drink green tea daily, and 90% of people drink green tea more than once a week. As a result, the vast majority of tea produced in Japan are forms of green tea, with sencha being the most popular.
Within Japanese green tea, the subcultures distinguish themselves by region, terroir, cultivar, and processing methodology. Traditional Japanese tea continues to be produced in major tea growing regions such as Shizuoka, Fukuoka, Uji, and Mie; however, the growth of bottled tea—as well as an aging industry—threatens this breadth and volume of tea production. In particular, the rise of bottled tea has increased demand for high yield, low cost teas, meaning a decline in small, family-owned farms and unique cultivars.
Tea and Cultural History
Tea in Japan began as early as the 9th century. Tea was introduced from China by Buddhist monks, who established the practice of drinking matcha—powdered green tea whisked into a foam—as a means of staying awake during long meditation sessions. Thus began the long, rich history of the Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese tea rooms. Japanese tea ceremonies, or chadō, are considered one of the three classical arts, along with kōdō for incense appreciation and kadō for flower arrangement.
Sencha, the Most Popular Japanese Tea
The invention of sencha tea in the 18th century catalyzed the growth in Japanese tea production that exists today. To create sencha, tea leaves are first steamed, then hand-rolled and dried. This delicate process preserves the green, grassy, and vegetal flavors of the tea plant. High quality sencha leaves are shaped like thin, straight needles and have a vibrant green color. The distinctive shape of sencha leaves is the result of skilled and meticulous rolling, which helps the components of the tea to be readily dissolved into hot water.
List of Tea Types
Below please find a comprehensive—though by no means exhaustive—list of types of Japanese teas:
- Aracha・あらちゃ・荒茶: literally translates to "coarse tea." Aracha leaves are tea leaves that have been made into green tea but not yet sorted (a process where the most best looking, evenly sized leaves are separated from dust and stems).
- Asamushicha・あさむしちゃ・浅蒸し茶 : Usually referring to a sencha that is lightly steamed for about 30 seconds. This process keeps the leaves' shapes intact.
- Awabancha・あわばんちゃ・阿波番茶: Lightly fermented bancha tea from Tokushima. It contains lactic acid, which gives the tea a slight pungency.
- Bancha・ばんちゃ・番茶: literally translates to "ordinary tea." Usually made with second or third harvest later in the year, which have more exposure to sunlight and will taste more earthy or bitter. The leaves are known to grow very large during these harvests.
- Batabatacha・バタバタちゃ・バタバタ茶: A style similar to matcha, where the tea is made by whisking. Batabata refers to the sound of whisking tea. Commonly found in Toyama Prefecture.
- Botebotecha・ボテボテちゃ・ボテボテ茶: Similar to matcha, where the tea is made by whisking. In botebotecha, the tea is whisked, and various pieces of food are added to the bowl, like a soup.
- Boucha・ぼうちゃ・棒茶: Another name for kukicha. Bou means "stick," referring to kukicha's leaf stems.
- Bukubukucha・ぶくぶくちゃ・ぶくぶく茶: An Okinawan tradition of whisking bancha or sanpincha and drinking with rice and adzuki beans.
- Cha・ちゃ・茶: Generally means "tea." Most often refers to matcha, reflecting matcha's rich history in Japanese culture.
- Chumushicha・ちゅむしちゃ・中蒸し茶: Literally translates to "mid-steamed tea." Chumushicha is steamed longer than asamushicha but shorter than fukamushiacha.
- Fukamushiacha・ふかむしちゃ・深蒸し茶: Literally translates to "deep steamed tea." Typically, fukamushicha is steamed for 1-3 minutes. The long steaming time breaks down the tea leaf, resulting in smaller, darker green tea leaves and more umami.
- Futsumushi・ふつむし・普通蒸し: Refers to chumushicha.
- Genmaicha・玄米茶: Green tea with rice. Typically made with sencha or bancha leaves and toasted rice.
- Goishicha・ごいしちゃ・碁石茶: The only form of fermented tea produced in Japan. Produced in Koichi Prefecture. Goishicha typically has a sour taste.
- Guricha・ぐりちゃ・ぐり茶: Refers to tamaryokucha.
- Gyokuro・ぎょくろ・玉露: A loose leaf green tea that is grown under the shade for ~20 days before harvest, which creates a rich umami flavor similar to matcha. Most commonly produced in Kyoto. Gyokuro is highly prized as a special occasion tea and there are many tea competitions each year.
- Tamacha・たまちゃ・玉茶: Literally translates to "round tea." Rather than rolling the leaves into needle-like shapes, as most Japanese teas are, Tamacha are rolled into balls.
- Hojicha・ほうじちゃ・焙じ茶: Roasted green tea. Can be made with the leaves or stems.
- Ishizuchi Kurocha・いしずちくろちゃ・石鎚黒茶: A style of fermented tea in Ehime Prefecture, where the entire tea branches are steamed and fermented in a barrel over the course of 4 weeks.
- Kamairicha・かまいりちゃ・釜炒り茶: Green tea made by pan-frying, rather than steaming. Pan frying green teas are most common in China.
- Kancha・かんちゃ・寒茶: Literally translates to "cold tea." Made from leaves grown from December to February. Precise processing differs by region.
- Karigane・かりがね: Refers to kukicha made from gyokuro or high grade sencha.
- Kabusecha・かぶせちゃ・被せ茶: A green tea that is shaded less than gyokuro—typically a week or less. Kabusecha will have more umami than a sencha but is still considered a very economical tea.
- Koicha・濃茶・濃茶: Refers to thick matcha tea in Japanese tea ceremony. Usually contains double the amount of tea as usucha and half the water. Rather than whisking, the preparer uses their whisk to knead the water and leaves together. Has a paste-like texture.
- Konacha・こなちゃ・粉茶: Literally translates to "powdered tea," referring to the powdered bits left over after sorting sencha or gyokuro. Often made into tea bags.
- Kukicha・くきちゃ・茎茶: Literally translates to "stem tea." Crafted by blending the stems of sencha and gyokuro.
- Kuradashicha・くらだしちゃ・蔵出し茶: A shincha that then is aged in storage. The result is an umami-rich shincha with full body.
- Kyobancha・きょばんちゃ・京番茶: A bancha produced in Kyoto. Typically has a smoky flavor and no caffeine. The leaves are steam, dried, and roasted.
- Matcha・まっちゃ・抹茶: Powdered green tea that is typically whisked into a froth. To be considered matcha in Japan, the leaves must be grown under shade for approximately 20 days before harvest. The most famous regions for matcha production are near Kyoto.
- Mecha・めちゃ・芽茶: A tea made from the tips of the leaves or small tea leaf buds that are sorted from larger leaves. Brews a deeply green, umami-rich tea.
- Mimasaka Bancha・みまさかばんちゃ・美作番茶: A style of lightly fermented tea. The leaves and stems are boiled in an iron pan, then let out to dry on a straw mat. From Okayama Prefecture.
- Nihoncha・にほんちゃ・日本茶: Refers to Japanese tea. Non-green teas, like Japanese oolongs and black teas, are usually excluded from this distinction.
- Ryokucha・りょくちゃ・緑茶: Literally translates to "green tea" but is only used when one wants to refer to lower quality tea, such as leaves for bottled green tea or tea bags.
- Sanpincha・さんぴんちゃ・さんぴん茶: Typically found in Okinawa and crafted from Chinese oolong tea and jasmine flowers.
- Sencha・せんちゃ・煎茶: The most commonly drunk tea in Japan. The leaves are immediately steamed, rolled, dried, and sorted after harvest. Grown unshaded.
- Shira-ore・しらおれ: Refers to kukicha made from high grade sencha leaves or gyokuro.
- Shincha・しんちゃ・新茶: Literally translates to "new tea," this is the "first flush" crop of the year. Will be made with the earliest tea buds and is celebrated each spring. Producers rush to release their shincha and only make it available for a few months.
- Tamaryokucha・たまりょくちゃ・玉緑茶: A style of sencha that is rolled into curls as a final step, rather than shaped into a needle. More commonly found in Kyushu.
- Temomicha・てもみちゃ・手揉み茶: Any kind of tea that is hand-rolled, rather than rolled by a machine. Not commonly found anymore outside of exhibitions.
- Tencha・てんちゃ・碾茶: The tea leaves before being ground into matcha. Harvest and growing-wise, tencha is the same as gyokuro. Since the leaves will be ground, they are left flat, rather than be rolled into gyokuro.
- Toubancha・とうばんちゃ・糖番茶: A style of green tea simultaneously rolls and dries the leaves in the same step, instead of steaming or pan frying first.
- Tosa Bancha・とさばんちゃ・土佐番茶: A specific style of bancha from Tosa.
- Usucha・うすちゃ・薄茶: Refers to thin matcha tea. Usucha is a casual form of matcha tea ceremony made by whisking 2 scoops of matcha and ~70ml of water in a bowl.
- Wakoucha・わこうちゃ・和紅茶: Refers to Japanese black teas. Japanese black tea are not especially common but have gained some popularity over the past 20 years.