Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Tea

·8 min read
Matcha Latte
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Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox

As the second-most consumed drink in the world, tea's ability to serve as a soothing ritual and smooth source of caffeine is anything but news. Much like wine, tea leaves can express a region's climate and terroir once brewed, and few growing regions are as varied and intriguing as Japan. Even though all teas are made from the same plant, camellia sinensis, there's surprisingly little that a Sencha shares with a Hojicha or Gyokuro when it comes to flavor profiles, caffeine levels, and brewing times.

Here's everything you need to know about Hojicha, Gyokuro, Sencha, Genmaicha, and Matcha, to make that next brew especially transportive.

What is Hojicha?

Catherine Jue, proprietor of the San Francisco-based Japanese speciality tea shop Tekuno, knows a thing or two about how to handle the most delicate leaves, the nuances that set them apart, and where to find stunning servingware to enhance the ritual.

"Hōjicha is my tea of choice when introducing coffee and oolong or black tea drinkers to Japanese teas — it is potent yet approachable," she says. Amber-hued hōjicha pairs well with sweet as well as savory meals, and is one of the few roasted teas that are produced in Japan.It's important to note that hōjicha is a roasted green tea. In order to make it, producers first craft and finish the tea as a green tea (it could be a sencha, or more commonly a "kukicha," a green tea made from the stems of the tea plant), and then roast that tea over a flame. This process is different from oolong or black tea production, where producers roast the tea leaves while they're still unfinished and hold moisture in their leaves.

How Should You Prepare Hojicha?

Hōjicha is flexible to brew. Most traditional producers will suggest boiling water for one minute, but Jue finds that this can produce a slightly burnt, unwanted taste. For first harvest hōjicha (crafted with leaves from the spring's first harvest of the year), she prefers to brew at a lower temperature, such as 175-180ºF for one minute, as the leaves are more fragrant and less tannic. Still, she says drinkers don't need to worry too much about dialing in specific brew parameters for hojicha in order to produce a sumptuous cup.

What Does Hojicha Taste Like?

Lightly roasted hojicha will express notes of freshly green, marinated olives. Heavily roasted hojicha will taste more woodsy, like smoke and roasted rice.

How Much Caffeine Does Hojicha Have?

This tea is a great option for those looking to avoid the jolt of an afternoon espresso. Hojicha has very low to indiscernible amounts of caffeine.

What is Gyokuro?

Gyokuro is a green tea specific to Japan. "It's more akin to a rich sip of seaweed soup or broth than it is to one's conventional notion of tea," Jue says. "Not everyone will enjoy it, but I always encourage those with an open-minded palate to try it at least once!"Jue notes that in the final three weeks of growth, producers lay large tarps over the leaves (traditionally rice straw, even though nylon is more common today), cutting out almost all sunlight. "In doing so, the tea leaves begin rapidly growing chlorophyll, resulting in deeply green, nutrient-dense tea leaves that have incredible depth and very little bitterness," she says.

Notably, ceremonial matcha tea leaves are grown the same way, which contributes to their jade green color and health benefits. Gyokuro is always hand-picked and made with first harvest leaves. "The main thing to know is that it's super elegant and better for savoring on a weekend than chugging on the subway," says Miyako Watanabe, tea master, matriarch and vice president of Kyoto's 300-year-old, family-owned Ippodo Tea Co.

How Should You Prepare Gyokuro?

Gyokuro likes very low temperatures and long steep times. "The highest quality gyokuro has the structural depth to bring out a texturally rich, fragrant sip reminiscent of a fresh oyster, consomme, or dashi," Jue explains. Generally, the higher the quality, the lower the temperature it can withstand and still produce a complex cup without being bitter: 120 to 140ºF for two to three minutes is a common Gyokuro brewing range.

What Does Gyokuro Taste Like?

This relatively expensive green tea is smooth and umami-rich with a delicate sweetness. Think seaweed soup, miso, chicken broth, sun-dried tomatoes, and pepper.

How Much Caffeine Does Gyokuro Have?

Gyokuro has about 1/3 as much caffeine as a single cup of coffee.

What Is Sencha?

As Japan's most consumed green tea, sencha thrives in full sunlight and is an ideal everyday choice with a bright, vegetal flavor. Its processing style is unique to Japan; After harvest, producers flash steam the leaves at high temperatures, which contributes to sencha's vibrant green color, quick brew extraction, and stewed vegetable profile (in comparison, for example, Chinese green teas are often dry "fried" on a wok without the steaming step).

"New tea," shincha is first flush sencha, meaning it's made with the very first leaves of camellia sinensis plants grown in full sunlight. "The tea has a refreshing astringency that comes from tannins, and since the freshness is considered precious, it's best to blow through a stash quickly," Watanabe notes.

How Should You Prepare Sencha?

Sencha, like most green teas, does best in warm (but not hot) water for a short steep time. "When dialing in each year's harvest, we first brew each sencha at 175ºF for one minute, adjusting parameters from there," Jue notes. For example, brew at a lower temperature — such as 165ºF — if the tea is coming out bitter or increase the brew time to 1.5 minutes if it tastes under-extracted. "A few degrees and seconds in brew time can make a difference for sencha!" she adds.

What Does Sencha Taste Like?

Sencha is wide-ranging in flavor — producer, growing region and production style play large roles in determining its profile. Jue says that on the lighter side, one might taste notes of fresh grass, white floral notes, and dried hay, while a richer sencha will taste closer to a gyokuro with notes of dried nori, razor clams, or forest moss.

How Much Caffeine Does Sencha Have?

Sencha has as much caffeine as roughly 1/4 of a cup of coffee.

What Is Genmaicha?

Jue calls genmaicha a "friendly green tea" that is "light in flavor, slightly sweet, with a round texture thanks to its blend of popped rice and green tea." genmaicha is often crafted from summer and fall harvest tea leaves or leftover tea from the season's more elevated teas. These tea leaves are mixed with rice which gives it a slightly toasted profile.

How Should You Prepare Genmaicha?

Like hojicha, genmaicha is quite flexible to brew. Jue recommends starting with off-boiling water (190 to 200ºF) and brewing it for one minute, adjusting temperature or brew time to your preference as noted above.

What Does Genmaicha Taste Like?

Genmaicha's profile can be directly correlated to its ingredients –– the popped rice adds a bit of warmth and grain to whichever tea blend the producer mixed it with. Notes of dry popcorn, barley, dried nori, stewed vegetables are common, and Watanabe says genmaicha is especially enjoyable when served iced.

How Much Caffeine Does Genmaicha Have?

Genmaicha has about half as much caffeine as sencha, since genmaicha often has a 1:1 ratio of tea leaves to rice.

What Is Matcha?

Like gyokuro, matcha is made from shaded leaves, but the stems are removed before the steamed, dried leaves are stone ground to a fine powder. The antioxidants are higher in matcha because you literally drink the entire leaf when you whisk the powder into hot water.

A well-made bowl of ceremonial matcha should have a freshly sweet aroma, creamy mouthfeel, and a smooth, even layer of foam on top. Always look for matcha that is stone-ground and hand-picked — if you've ever had matcha that was too bitter to drink on its own or even tasted "dirty," it was likely not ceremonial grade matcha or not produced in Japan.

How Should You Prepare Matcha?

Jue explains that there are two types of traditional preparation rooted in chadō, the Japanese tea ceremony. Known as usucha and koicha, these styles of preparation have long, cultural histories with Zen Buddhism and social gatherings. Koicha ("thick tea") is brewed using the very best of ceremonial matcha teas on the market, and the double matcha-to-water ratio results in a seriously umami flavor and syrupy texture. Most American drinkers (and fans of iced and hot matcha tea lattes) are more familiar with usucha ("thin tea"), a lighter preparation that leads to a smooth, mellow flavor.

"The austere, and potentially intimidating tea ceremony one experiences in Japan is actually a convivial act of hospitality between host and guest, where both are familiar with the ritual and take time to appreciate each others' company," she says. "Ceremonial matcha is traditionally consumed with a sweet snack to counterbalance any bitterness, such as a piece of candy, cake, or mochi!"

How to Prepare Usucha 

1. Heat filtered water to ~180ºF (precise temperatures don't matter as much as they do for brewing loose leaf green teas; off-boiling works just fine)

2. Rinse a chawan (tea bowl or small rice bowl) and your bamboo whisk with warm water.

3. Sift 2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) matcha into your bowl and add ~1/4 cup of water.

4. Whisk in a W or M-shape for approximately 45 seconds to aerate the matcha and create froth.

5. Enjoy immediately, as matcha settles and separates from the water quickly.

What Does Matcha Taste Like?

According to Jue, well-crafted matcha will have notes of raw nuts like almonds and walnuts, and cotton candy sweetness. Drinkers can also expect to encounter a balance of umami (think dashi and seaweed) and earthy bitterness.