Tea’s Origins: Japan

Japanese tea ceremony
In the Japanese tea ceremony, Matcha is combined with hot water, using a bamboo whisk.
By Bruce Richardson • Photography by Mac Jamieson

America’s thirst for Japanese tea has had a resurgence in recent years largely because of green tea’s healthy reputation, the high visibility of major Japanese tea purveyors such as Ito En in New York City and Lupicia in California, and our growing fascination with the Japanese tea ceremony.

Japan discovered tea in the eighth century after 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 could be found in general stores across the United States.

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

All Japanese growing areas are 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. Most of the teas produced are green. Three harvest times take place in April/May, June, and September/October.

Start your Japanese tea collection with these basic varieties:

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.

This unusually savory tea continues to gain popularity among 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.

This tea, harvested in late summer and early fall, 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.

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

This very fine powdered tea is used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Matcha begins with Tencha, a finely chopped tea made in the same way as Gyokuro, that has the stems removed before it is ground into an emerald green powder. To prepare it for the tea ceremony, the powder is whisked into hot water with a specially crafted bamboo whisk. Today Matcha is also popular blended into fruit smoothies or prepared as a latte.

Bruce Richardson is coauthor of The New Tea Companion. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.

From TeaTime January/February 2011


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