THE MAIN TYPES of JAPANESE TEA and SOME TERMINOLOGY
CHA - Tea. This is the idiogram and word for tea. The origin is Chinese. A combination of 'grass', 'man' and 'tree'. Due to the Japanese reverence for tea, 'oh' is commonly pronounced before cha. Ocha.
SENCHA - Sencha represents about 80% of all tea produced in Japan. One can find cheap supermarket sencha or super-fine handcrafted sencha. There are essentially four steps in the production of sencha. Leaves grown in full sun are picked during first, second or third harvest, then they undergo a steaming process before being rolled into a needle-like shape and dried. The balance between catechins, or tannins, that lend astringency and the amino acids, such as theanine, that lends the umami taste, is determined by harvest time and cultivation methods, among other variables.
FUKAMUSHI and ASAMUSHI - Variations on sencha processing. Fukamushicha is steamed for a longer time, up to 3 minutes, giving it a deeper green colour and richer taste. This style has become increasingly popular. The increase in steaming time causes the dried leaf to be more brittle, giving it a more powdery, less appealing look. Some of this powder will dissolve when brewed and give the liquor a darker green colour and add more nutrients to your delightful drink. Fukamushicha is easier and more forgiving to brew and less bitter.
Asamushicha is the traditional method of steaming the leaves for a relatively shorter time. It is a more delicate process thus it is typically reserved for higher quality leaves. Asamushi processed tea leaves are like long deep green needles and when brewed they produce a light golden-green liquor with a full-bodied earthy taste and sublime aroma.
BANCHA - Bancha is essentially a sencha that has been made with larger, more mature leaves that are typically harvested during second or third harvest, ie. summer or autumn. The astrigency/umami balance will certainly lean towards the astringent side due to the longer growing time but don't let this dissuade you though. The general mellowness of bancha tea can extremely refreshing. Bancha is usually lower in caffeine, and autumn bancha is the lowest.
GYOKURO - What differentiates gyokuro from sencha are the cultivation and agricultural techniques employed to elevate the amino acid (L-theanine) levels in relation to the catechin levels thus creating a tea with deep umami flavours and little or no astrigency. Typically, first harvest leaves that have been shaded using a Tana canopy or Jikagise row cover are used in the production of gyokuro.
GENMAICHA - If you've been to a Japanese restaurant, you've probably had genmaicha. Usually it's not that great, understandibly. Toasted rice is mixed, about equally, with sencha or bancha. A good genmaicha, made with higher quality sencha or bancha, is truly a joy and makes for an excellent daily tea.
HOJICHA - Hojicha is a roasted Japanese green, notable for its low amounts of caffeine. The major difference between this tea and others is that, instead of being steamed, it has been pan-fried. This pan-frying process reduces the caffeine and tannin content, creating a mild, lower caffeine alternative for children, the elderly and those who are sensitive to caffeine. It gives it a nutty, toasty flavor, and aroma. Unlike most other Japanese teas, the colour of the liquor is brown due to it being toasted.
MATCHA - Traditionally used for the Japanese tea ceremony, matcha is a finely ground powdered green tea made from high quality processed tencha. Unlike other teas that are infusions, matcha powder is blended with water and consumed entirely. The highest quality matcha is hand picked in May, processed by hand and ground with a traditional stone mill. It is very labour intensive, expensive and exquisite.
KABUSECHA - Originally used to increase the volume of a batch of gyokuro or to improve the taste of a batch of sencha, kabusecha has come into it's own and is now cultivated and sold under the name. It is something of a hybrid between sencha and gyokuro, as it is shaded for about two weeks before harvest.
ARACHA - Tea that has been processed through the first few steps up to, and including, the drying stage is said to be 'rough' or 'unrefined'. Aracha is further refined by sorting, removal of leaf stems, and/or blending with other batches to achieve the desired characteristics.