"Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one's life more full and complete" 'Kissa Yojoki', 'Book of Tea' written by Zen priest Eisai in 1191
The title of this post could well be 'A Beginner's Guide to Better Tea' but that may prove too lumpy for one blog post so, I'll focus on Japanese green tea. A very accessible doorway into the world of tea.
My own introduction to tea happened during a trip to Prague in 2001 where I had the chance to meet up with a friend of my sister who was living there at the time. If you find yourself in Prague, make sure to visit Dobra Cajovna. Certainly the setting added greatly to my experience but it was truly the tea that captivated me. It gave me a moment for pause and enticed me with profound flavours.
So here you are. You're obviously interested in tea and you've probably tried some specialty teas from some franchise tea shops that all taste a little artificial. But you're looking to open the door a little wider to discover something new. Well then, let's look at Japanese tea.
What is green tea? Green tea is a type of tea produced from Camellia sinensis leaves that have not undergone the same withering and oxidation process as used for black and oolong teas. Many familiar black teas that are produced in India are from the Camellia sinensis var. Assamica bush whereas green teas are derived from several varieties bred especially for the production of green tea. Benifuuki, Fushun, Kanayamidori, Meiryoku, Saemidori, Okumidori and Yabukita. These are a few of the hundreds of varietals just in Japan. Wikipedia has much more to say about Camellia sinensis.
What about the history of tea? It's safe to say that tea is here to stay. Chinese legend dates the first use of tea by Shennong in the year 2737 BC and the earliest known evidence was discovered in the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han, indicating Camellia leaf tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC. Studies show that Camellia sinensis likely originated in an area including the northern part of Burma and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. It is believed people in Sichuan boiled tea leaves without the addition of other herbs for use as a bitter yet stimulating drink.
The earliest known references to tea in Japan were written by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century. The religious class adopted tea after envoys sent to China to learn about its culture brought back tea, likely in pressed brick form. Seeds were first brought in 805 by a priest named Saicho and the following year by Kukai. It soon became the drink of the royal class when Emperor Saga encouraged the cultivation of tea.
What kinds of green tea are there? Lots. But I'll stick to the main ones produced in Japan. Gyokuro, the emperor of green teas, Matcha, the empress, Sencha, Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, Bancha and less common types such as, Konacha, Kamairicha, Kuradashicha, Kabusecha, Mecha, Batabatacha, Goishicha, Mimasakacha, etc. Some of these types are quite rare, only produced regionally. You can read more about the main types on the Yannoko tea school page.
How do I brew tea? Simply put...Grandpa style or Senchado or Gongfu Style. No, not the martial art. Grandpa or western style uses a small amount of tea leaves, one or two teaspoon perhaps, and a larger amount of water, about 300 - 400ml. This is how I often make tea when I simply want a cup or pot of tea. A couple teaspoons of Hojicha, fill the pot with slightly cooled boiled water and let steep until the pot is done. So satisfying! When I'm wanting a more meditative tea session, something to bring my attention, it is time for Senchado (Japan) or Gongfu (China). Here are some basic guidelines for preparing green tea Senchado style:
- Any teapot with a fine handheld strainer will do at first but with time, you'll probably want to assemble a tea ware collection consisting of a small kyusu or shiboridashi, a yuzamashi or small vessel in which to let the water cool and a teacup that feels right to you.
- Typically, water is boiled then let to cool to about 80C but the temperature depends on the type of tea and the quality. Water as low as 40C is used for the finest Gyokuros in order to tease out the sweetness without any bitterness.
- Hojicha: 95C Kukicha: 85C Genmaicha: 85C Sencha standard: 80C premium:70C Gyokuro: 40-60C. These temperatures are guidelines for you to follow but with time you will develop a sense of what individual tea requires.
- A general rule with gyokuro and sencha is longer steep times will bring out more bitterness. Finding the balance between bitterness and sweetness that works for you is part of the journey.
Emperors seems to like it but why should I? Perhaps the most relevant question really and one, I suspect, that only you will be able to answer. An answer that will likely reveal itself to you slowly, over time, as you become more familiar with the character of the countless varieties. Why do I like it? There are countless claims and assertions to the medical benefits of the camellia leaf, and some may be true, but what I find answers that question is how it makes me feel. Tea makes me feel grounded, balanced and at ease. It makes me feel invigorated yet calm while I wonder at the vast range of taste and sensation it offers.
Tea makes me feel good.