Japanese tea is often described as ‘green tea’ and limited to the major brands of tea that are fashioned in Japan. These include sencha, kabusecha, gyokuro, matcha, bancha, etc. While it is indeed unique to Japan’s tea manufacturing to steam the freshly picked tea leaf as the first stage of processing of green tea, I believe that putting too much focus on this trait obscures the existence of other equally unique, yet differently produced, Japanese tea types. Therefore I have chosen to take the definition of this term as broad as possible. I prefer to focus on all tea manufactured in Japan, thereby honoring all products of the same tea-bush that have been so meticulously crafted by the most skilled tea producers in this country.
‘Tea’ per definition means the following: 1) Tea, the beverage made by infusing dried and crushed tealeaves, or by mixing pulverized tea leaf in hot water, consuming the leaf in its entirety. 2) The tea leaf obtained from the Camellia Sinensis – an evergreen shrub also known as the tea-plant – of which the youngest buds and leaves are plucked and then heated and rolled/crushed to dry. 3) The act of brewing, serving or consuming tea; ‘to do tea’. Which in extended meaning can also be used to refer to the rite of tea.
In addition, ‘Japanese tea’ is the general term used to refer to tea produced in Japan. In the broad meaning of the term, this concerns all sorts of ‘tea’ (as defined above) that are produced on Japanese soil. This puts them at distance with the variations of tea that are produced outside of Japan in China, India, or elsewhere. But, simultaneously it is inclusive of all tea manufactured in this country.
Chart of tea types produced in Japan
In this article I’d like to take a closer look at some of the more common types of Japanese tea and how they relate to each other. Once we have that framework in place, we can begin our discovery of the complex nature of tea. The chart and individual explanations below should function as a frame of reference to conceptualize the notion of Japanese tea. But it should by any means not be understood as the only true definition of it. There are various ways of grouping tea together in boxes of similar kind. And while it is easier for us to understand the matter when everything is tidily categorized, when we cling on too long to such conceptualizations, it will in the long run only deviate us away from a true understanding of what we speak. The chart presented below can help you now, but should be discarded when you are done with it.
In essence, tea is only what its environment and the processes it has gone through make it. The true subtlety of the product cannot be understood in categories, but should be apprehended for each product individually, and ultimately as each individual cup of tea you savor. The intention of this blog is exactly this: to provide you with the background information and understanding, so that you can see tea for what it is. ‘Seeing’ with your own eyes, based on the knowledge and feeling you have of the product, and not on what the package or common understanding of Japanese tea tells you about what that product was made to resemble. If you apply the understanding presented throughout this blog, and train yourself to with each cup seek for the underlying factors that have brought that tea to existence, you will receive much more information from the tea itself, than anyone will ever be able to tell you about it. The tea tells its own story, and it is our duty to listen to what it has to say. And to do so we must cultivate the ears to listen; we must become able to understand its language; we must ‘see’ that the cup before us is in fact the universe itself.
To illustrate my meaning, I’d like to quote 18th century Zen priest, poet, and tea peddler Baisaō saying “don’t spoil the reality by prattling about “tea.” When a young man commissioned Baisaō to write a calligraphy of the three largest Chinese characters meaning, “Have a cup of tea”, he responded “In your own interest, I have inscribed instead these two lines to caution you against superficial attachments:”
“Attaching fruitlessly to words about tea will get you nowhere,Baisao. 2010. The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto. Translated by Norman Waddell. 1 Tra edition. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. P 198, note 55.
You can’t expect to understand it emulating a parrot’s tricks.”
Chart of Japanese tea types
Green tea Japanese tea types
To produce green tea, the freshly picked tea leaf is immediately heat-treated after harvest. This fixes and halts the activity of the oxidase enzyme – which causes the leaf to oxidize and turn brown. This allows the tealeaves to maintain their fresh green color. This initial heat-treatment is referred to as ‘kill-green’ [殺青; sassei], fixing or de-enzyming. It is commonly conducted by applying either one of two distinct methods. The first method, which is more common in Japan, is the steaming method [蒸し製; mushi-sei]. Hot steam is applied to briefly steam the leaf. Another method is the pan-firing method [釜炒り製; kamairi-sei]. This method is more common in China, Taiwan, and other green tea producing areas outside of Japan. In smaller number the method is used in Japan too. For this method a large iron pan [釜; kama] is used to parch the tea prior to manufacturing.
This fixing process is the most important feature of green tea production. When the leaf is processed without fixing, oxidation will cause the leaf to transform and discolor. This leads to a tea that is more distinct of features that are common to oolong when the oxidation is halted during disfiguration, or to black tea when the leaf is left to transform fully instead.
Green tea [緑茶; ryoku-cha] is the largest of three major categories of tea produced in Japan. The reason this category may seem extensive, is because Japan’s tea manufacturing is, and has mostly been centered on the production of green tea. In essence, all green tea product variations are modifications on either the steaming method or pan-firing method. What in addition differentiates the Japanese tea types included in this group is the way the bushes are cultivated and whether or not, and for how long, they have been shaded. Other classes are either a reprocessing of the same product, a recycling of waste obtained during the manufacturing of the two major groups, or a variation on the whole. Nevertheless, the discrimination on what is major, and what is minor depends mainly on which products are consumed most and are being produced in greatest number.
Sencha [煎茶] is conventionally grown without shades. Recently however, manufacturers have begun to apply shading practices to sencha as well in order to enhance the product’s umami flavor. Therefore the distinction between ‘roadside (un-shaded) sencha’ [露地煎茶, roji sencha] and ‘shaded sencha’ [被せ煎茶; kabuse sencha] is made. Cultivating the bushes under the bright sky enables sunlight to cause photosynthesis to occur within the leaf. This produces more catechin and thus renders the tea leaf bitterer with a clearer finish. Harvest is commonly conducted with mechanized equipment. Processing involves the steaming process, resulting in a varying product in accordance with the length of the steaming interval employed. Several rolling and kneading stages produce a long thin needle-shaped final product.
Minimal shading during the tea bush’s cultivation restricts the amount of photosynthesis that can occur with kabusecha [被せ茶]. In turn, a sweeter flavor in the tea can be maintained. Direct application of the shades on top of the bushes imbues the final product with a unique ‘blanketing-aura’ [被せ香; kabuse’ka] reminiscent of sweet humid earth. Harvest and manufacturing is similar to the processes employed for sencha.
Gyokuro [玉露] is also shaded to enhance the tea’s sweetness, but for a longer period than kabusecha. In most cases the bushes are not blanketed immediately but covered with shades that are expanded on a canopy-like structure. This shading method imbues the tea with strong sweetness and umami flavor in addition to a ‘shading-aura’ [覆い香, o’oi-ka] suggestive of dried ‘nori’ seaweed. Harvest is often conducted by hand to ensure only the softest leaf is obtained. This safeguards an even stronger umami flavor. Manufacturing is similar to sencha and kabusecha.
Tea leaf for the manufacturing of tencha [碾茶] is obtained in a similar way to the methods employed for the cultivation of gyokuro. Manual harvest is common for average to high-quality products. The tea leaf is steamed, but not rolled. It is dried in an oven and filtered in preparation for grinding the tencha leaf into matcha powder [抹茶]. Before grinding the tencha, the tea leaf is blended and branded by a wholesaler manufacturer. Through grinding it receives an additionally enhanced aroma from the heat of the mortar.
Tea leaf for kamairi-cha [釜炒り茶] is cultivated in the same way as roadside sencha, growing in abundant sunlight. Harvest is commonly done by machine. The raw tea leaf obtained after harvest is not steamed, but parched in a frying-pan, imbuing the tea with a distinct ‘cauldron-aura’ [釜香; kamaka]. Processing and drying is done through rolling and kneading, but the leaf is not shaped as sencha, maintaining a curly ‘comma-like’ [勾玉状; magatama-jō] appearance.
Fermented or oxidized Japanese tea types
Semi-fermented tea [微発酵茶; bihakkō-cha] goes hand in hand with the group of fermented tea [発酵茶; hakkō-cha]. The difference is the amount of withering and oxidation or fermentation the Japanese tea types classified here have endured. Among semi-fermented teas produced in Japan are, although in small numbers, oolong and white tea listed. In difference to the methods used to process green tea, these types are not steamed when the leaf is fixed. They are commonly heated in a frying pan similar to kamairi-cha and Chinese/Taiwanese processing methods.
Oxidation in tea can occur in various stages. Depending on the degree of oxidation the following types can be derived: lightly oxidized or semi-oxidized, as is common for various types of oolong tea; fully oxidized or fermented, as is the case with black tea; and post-fermented tea, which is often defined as a type of bancha. The final class is processed again after initial treatment by means of fermentation through added bacteria. Here I will focus on the first two types, and turn my attention briefly to post-fermented tea in a later post when I touch on the subject of bancha.
Semi-oxidized tea / Oolong tea
Tea bushes for oolong tea are cultivated in the same way as those for kamairi-cha and sencha. Harvest is often conducted later since a larger, coarser leaf is considered suitable for its manufacturing. Withering initiates the extraction of an oolong tea’s delightful ‘floral-aura’ [花香; hana-ka], also referred to as ‘withering-aura’ [萎凋香; ichō-ka].
Oolong tea and white tea fall under this category. Semi-oxidized tea [微発酵茶; bihakkō-cha] is not green tea in the way that the tea leaf used to produce the tea has had the opportunity to oxidize before this reaction is halted. In addition, it is not oxidized fully, since the oxidation has been halted somewhere during the oxidation process. The results are varied. Some semi-oxidized teas have been only left to wither briefly before being fixed. Others may have turned to a color similar to black tea by the time the leaf was heat processed. Such variation has given birth to many renowned oolong tea products in China and Taiwan, each in their own way distinguished by factors including the degree of oxidation.
In Japan, such standards have yet to develop, and although a handful of manufacturers are experimenting with wilting and oxidation practices, the general preference tends to go to the lightest amount of withering. This is just sufficient to imbue the tea with the fragrance of flowers, but simultaneously maintains those favorable traits of green tea. In China, oolong tea is classified as ‘blue tea’ [青茶; aocha]; a classifier used to group teas that have been heat-treated while the oxidation or fermentation process is taking place in order to halt the reaction and fix the leaf. The color of the liquor of a brew from this tea is often golden-brown.
Many oolong, or semi-oxidized teas, have obtained a distinctive flowery or fruity fragrance through light withering and oxidization prior to fixing. Fixing is by default managed in an iron frying pan, similar to those employed in the manufacturers of kamairi-cha. Hence the reason why most oolong teas produced in Japan can be retrieved from the hands of the nation’s kamairi-cha manufacturers. The timing for fixing must be decided carefully since it is the key factor to a delicious aroma. Because the leaf during oxidation has discolored and turned brown, so too will the color of the brew’s liquor appear yellow-brown to the eye.
Fully oxidized tea / Black tea
No particular treatment is needed for the cultivation and harvesting of tea leaf for black tea. This is done the same way as all none-shaded Japanese tea types mentioned above. Through withering and thorough fermentation (as a result of oxidation), the black tea receives its distinct crimson-hue, and deep fragrant balm.
Fully-oxidized tea [発酵茶; hakkō-cha] is most distinctively used to refer to black tea. The Japanese term ‘hakkō-cha’ in fact translates as ‘fermented tea’; a term I feel may present the wrong image about the actual process that occurs within the tea during this stage of fermentation. Although the fermentation is sped up during the manufacturing of black tea by raising the temperature of the fermentation chamber, the fermentation process is in fact exclusively initiated by the penetration of oxygen into the leaf through the wounds on its surface. ‘Fermented tea’ also includes post-fermented tea [後発酵茶; gohakkō-cha], for which the addition of external bacteria is permitted to simmer the tea, creating a type of ‘pickled’ tea.
Black tea is generally said to have oxidized to the final stage where there is no further possibility for oxidation, and the leaf has turned brown 100%. This discoloration results in a deep reddish-brown liquor, adding a fragrant fruity aroma to the brew. The black tea manufactured in Japan, termed wakōcha [和紅茶], however, tends to heel over to a lighter degree of oxidation – in similarity to the oolong produced here – especially when the tea has been manufactured employing native green tea cultivars; a trait believed to better suit the terroir of a Japanese produced black tea.