Genmaicha ‘Brown Rice’ Tea

Genmaicha Brown Rice Tea

Genmaicha Japanese Green Tea

We’ve blogged about Japanese teas before, including culture, cultivars, sencha, and gyokuro. We’ve even blogged about the use of a Kyusu for preparing Japanese green teas. This week we wanted to focus on another great Japanese tea, genmaicha. Also known as genmai cha, brown rice tea, or even popcorn tea, genmaicha is very popular in Japan and around the world even if its history isn’t that clear.

Genmaicha History

Unique flavor aside, the stories surrounding genmaicha are lots of fun though there seems to be plenty of fiction surrounding it. Paraphrasing the most colorful story, it is claimed that the tea was created during the 15th century by a Samurai and his servant. The story suggests that the servant was preparing tea for his master, and at the time tea was very expensive. As he poured the tea a few grains of rice fell from his sleeve as he poured the tea. So enraged was the Samurai that his tea would be ruined, that he drew his sword and cut the head off his servant then an there. Yet, instead of pouring out the tea, he sat back down to drink it and discovered that he actually very much enjoyed it.  In honor of his servant, named Genmai, he named this tea Genmai Cha.

Another story suggests that long ago, housewives, eager to serve green tea in their households, yet finding it to be extremely expensive, began mixing cheap brown rice to a smaller amount of green tea, thus enabling common folk to enjoy tea the same as the noble classes.

Infused Genmaicha or Brown Rice Tea Leaf

Infused Genmaicha Leaf

The most likely story of genmaicha seems to be that sometime in the early 1900′s, an inspired tea merchant in Japan sought to stretch expensive green tea a bit further and added brown rice to it. The wonderful nutty flavor of genmaicha has been with us ever since, remaining popular and growing in popularity outside of Japan as well.

Colorful as these stories are, and variations on all three stories abound, there seems to be little historical support for them. They may or may not have grains of truth surrounding the origin of Genmai Cha.  Regardless, Genmai means ‘brown rice’ and so Genmai Cha is literally translated to ‘brown rice tea’.

Genmaicha Ingredients

Genmaicha has historically been made of bancha and brown rice. Being a green tea made from later harvests, bancha was and still is much less expensive than higher grade sencha and gyokuro varieties. The use of bancha contributed to a reputation as a cheap tea in the past. Today, however, genmaicha is made with a variety of Japanese green teas including sencha and gyokuro as well. Additionally, genmaicha can be found infused with matcha to provide both a slightly different flavor and mouth feel.

Matcha Infused Genmaicha Brown Rice Tea

Genmaicha Infused with Matcha Powder

Finally, although genmaicha is sometimes called popcorn tea, it typically does not actually have popcorn. Brown rice, as its heated and toasted, will sometimes pop resulting in something that looks like popcorn yet is really popped rice.

The next time you are looking to have guests and want to serve them something interesting, you might consider telling a colorful story or two about the supposed history of genmaicha while serving them this delightful nutty tea.

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White Tea: Bai Hao vs Bai Mu Dan

In the middle of a cold snap, there  is nothing better than enjoying a warm drink that reminds me of spring. White tea fits that bill beautifully. There are not that many pure white teas on the market, there are plenty of flavored white teas, but a pure white tea from Fuding in the Province of Fujian China number less than five. The two most commonly found here in the states are Bai Hao (Silver Needle) or Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) also known as Bai Mudan. These two teas couldn’t be more different in appearance or taste.

Bai Hao (Silver Needle Tea) White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle

Bai Hao, or Silver Needle White Tea, is the grandfather of white tea. This bud-only tea is believed to have been around since the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) but only appeared in the late 1800′s in European publications. The cultivar Da Bai of Camellia Sinensis is the plant typically used to make Bai Hao as it produces the longest and largest buds. Bai Hao is only picked in early spring, usually in April and consists of the buds from the first flush (first growth) of the season. These buds produce the longest of the silver hairs that appear on the outside of the leaf. The name Silver Needle comes from the appearance of needle shaped buds covered with downy hairs. The buds are typically dried in the sun, some may be dried in a drying room if it is large production or weather prevents drying outside. The tea is usually only 5% oxidized. Brewing this tea requires care as you do not want to put boiling water on it as it will burn the tea. If brought to a boil, the water should be cooled down to 170° Fahrenheit before adding the tea. It only needs to be steeped for 2-3 minutes and will produce a pale yellow drink with a smooth sweet flavor.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Peony

Bai Mu Dan was developed in the 1920s in Fujian as China worked to meet the demand for unique teas from the United States and Europe. Bai Mu Dan is usually a bud and either one or two small open leaves. When you look at the dried leaves they resemble small peony flowers; hence the name White Peony. The bud in Bai Mu Dan is shorter than Bai Hao typically as it is made from different cultivars of Camellia Sinensis. Bai Mu Dan is also dried in the sun. However,it is typically baked after drying resulting in a wide array of colors in the leaves from silver to the dark brown you would expect from a black tea. Still,the tea is only around 5-7% oxidized. This white tea can be brewed just like Bai Hao, however you should experiment with brewing it like an oolong, with a water temperature up to 190° Fahrenheit and 3-5 minutes of steeping. It produces a very different flavor  depending on how it is prepared. Brewed as you would a white tea you get a smooth floral tea. Brewed as you would an oolong (closer to 190°) and you will get strong muscatel flavors with a hint of nuttiness from the very pale yellow liquor. Unlike Bai Hao, this tea is used as the base for most flavored white teas, as it is produced in much larger quantities making it a more cost efficient.

Whether Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) or Bai Hao (Silver Needle), white teas are a smooth and refreshing addition to your tea collection.


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The Art of Preparing Tea for Use

“Tea being an infusion and not a decoction like coffee, it should be brewed not stewed, the chief object being to extract as much of the theine or refreshing principle as possible and as little of the tannin or astringent property as can be at the same time without either boiling or overdrawing it.”

Written by Joseph M. Walsh in 1896, Tea Blending as a Fine Art, provides a number interesting gems which stand out and make us appreciate the history, culture, and even the science behind the beverage. In this case, Walsh is making note that it’s important to revisit the basics now and then to ensure that consumers of tea are preparing it correctly in order to get the most enjoyment. Specifically, brewing or steeping tea is done relatively quickly, with the intention of extracting the various plant compounds which directly impart taste.

Theine (the Refreshing Principle) and Tannin

The theine or refreshing principle referred to by Walsh in 1896 was none other than caffeine and while it was eventually recognized as the same substance as any other caffeine, the extraction of caffeine remains a major objective for many of us who can’t pass a morning without at least one cup. However, tea, like grapes, contain tannin which in significant concentrations will yield a bitter taste. All true tea from the camellia sinensis plant contain both caffeine and tannin though the variety of plant, its growing conditions, and the contents of the soil (or terrior) have an impact on the amount. Additionally, the processing of the tea from a white through to an oolong and black significantly impacts the amount of tannin found in the leaves.

Extracting The Goodness from Tea Leaves

Steeping Tea Leaves Over Time

The Longer You Steep the More Flavor Compounds and Bitter Tannin Emerge – We Seek Balance

Apparently, back in the late 1800′s there were enough people steeping tea incorrectly that Walsh felt it was critical to teach consumers how it was done. First, he notes that “the consumer should purchase only the best tea, it requiring much less of the finer grades to make good tea than of the common kinds, and will prove the most economical in the end.” Walsh goes on to describe misconceptions that the strength of a cup of tea was measured by dark color, leading to practices like adding tea to cold water and bringing to a boil, or stewing tea in boiling water for a prolonged period of time. Both of these provide a dark liquor but also an extremely bitter infusion.

When steeping tea the goal is to use good quality water, at the right temperature, for just the right amount of time to get the best tasting cup of tea possible while minimizing the bitter qualities of tannin. For loose leaf tea this means three important things; using good quality water, keeping the tea in contact with the water for the right amount of time, and using the right temperature water for steeping. Good quality water ideally means soft water, freshly boiled. The water should certainly not be distilled nor should it have been previously boiled water that has been re-boiled.

Forlife Folding Handle Tea Infuser

Folding Handle Infuser

Separating the leaves from the water is also critically important. There are any number of ways to do this of course, using a reusable infuser or strainer or single use paper tea bag. For those more adventurous, a gaiwan, yixing teapot, or kyusu are great ways to steep tea in a more traditional way.

Finally, the right temperature is also very important. While boiling water works well for black tea and many oolongs, its isn’t the best for all types of tea. Using boiling water on green or white teas in particular will extract far too much tannin making your tea very bitter. With many teas, green, white,  and yellow in particular, steeping with cooler water often brings out far more favor.

Steeping Time and Temperature

Below you will find very general steeping times and temperatures when using a single serve tea bag or infuser. These are general guidelines however since, as we noted earlier, the amount of various flavor compounds and tannin can vary significantly from tea to tea based on plant variety, growing conditions, and processing.

  • White Tea – 170° – 185° for 1-3 minutes
  • Green Tea – 170° – 185° for 3-5 minutes
  • Yellow Tea – 160° – 170° for 4-5 minutes
  • Oolong Tea – 185° – 212° for 3-5 minutes
  • Black Tea – 190° – 212° for 3-5 minutes

If you don’t happen to have a thermometer readily available, fear not. Poured into a room temperature mug, boiling water will almost immediately drop the the high 190°’s. If you want to get water for green and white teas just wait 2-5 minutes before adding the infuser. For yellow tea, wait a bit longer, about 5-7 minutes before adding tea. Conversely, since boiling water will almost immediately cool, its best to pre-heat your mug for black and many oolongs by adding boiling water, discarding, and adding fresh water with the infuser already in the cup.

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Lapsang Souchong – Smoky Tea

Lapsang Souchong was developed under Prince Regent Dorgon

Prince Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty, China (Public Domain)

Lapsang Souchong is a smoked tea that originated in Wuyi Mountains in the Fuijan province of China. Today it is made in various tea producing countries. The story of its creation has a few different versions but they generally agree that the tea was created during the early part of the Qing Dynasty out of necessity to either save the tea from impending bad weather or to hide it from invading troops that had entered the region as part of the effort to unify China under Prince Regent Dorgon. Either way, the tea leaves where smoked over pine wood to speed the drying process and then packed in barrels to store in mountain caves. Eventually it was shared with Western tea merchants who bought the tea and found that the Europeans loved it. So the following year, the merchants asked for more of the tea and offered a higher price for it than the traditional teas and a new product was born. Sometimes you will find references to Lapsang Souchong as “Westerner’s Tea” and while that may have been true to begin with, it is also consumed in China.

Lapsang Souchong is often enjoyed on its own but is also found in blends of  Russian Caravan. By the end of the 1600’s Russia had trade agreements with China that included exchanging thousands of pounds of tea for furs. Included in those teas where Pu-erh and Lapsang Souchong, as both teas weathered the thousands of miles of travel on horseback well.

Lapsang Souchong Production

Lapsang Souchong is made from the 4th and 5th tea leaves on the stem, the same ones used in some oolong and pu-erh teas. These are bigger leaves, allowing them to withstand the pine smoke for drying without losing their shape or their tea flavor. Some people suggest that these tea leaves somehow are of lower quality because they are not as delicate in flavor as the bud and first two leaves, but they neglect to give credit to these leaves for having a more consistent brisk flavor and the capability to hold their form under long travel.

The leaves are withered over pine wood fires (cypress is also used but pine is the original wood for this tea). The leaves are then pan fried and rolled. The rolled leaves are then packed into barrels and left to oxidize. Once they have hit the desired oxidation level, they are pulled out of the barrels, pan fried and rolled into long strips. Finally they are put into bamboo baskets and hung over the pine fire to absorb the flavors of the pine smoke.

Steeping Lapsang Souchong

Lapsang Souchong Infused Leaf

Infused Leaf of Lapsang Souchong

Steep this tea just like a black tea. It should be steeped for 4-5 minutes in boiling water. If the taste is a little strong for you, cut back on the initial steeping time by a minute or so. This tea produces a reddish brown liquor with a smoky smell and smooth full mouth feel. Due to the strong smoky taste, it can be steeped anywhere from 3-6 times before becoming weak.

While Lapsang Souchong tea has a tendency to produce very strong responses of either love or hate from tea drinkers (I love it, but David is not a fan), it is worth acknowledging its place in tea culture and giving it a try.

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Pu-erh Tea and an Introduction to Dark Teas

Pu-erh Tea is truly fermented unlike other teas.

Pu-erh Tea (tuo cha) – Fermented tea formed into cakes and producing a very dark infusion.

If you’ve been exploring tea for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard a bit about pu-erh (aka puerh), or fermented tea, though you may not yet given it a try. If you consider yourself a regular tea drinker then pu-erh and dark teas really are a must for your tea ‘bucket list’. Originally from China, pu-erh and dark teas offer a very different experience. Smooth and earthy, this class of tea is produced using a very different process from other teas and offers a different taste profile which may even serve a as a great entry for coffee drinkers looking to add tea to their repertoire.

Unlike white, green, black, and other varieties of tea which are oxidized and heated or fired to stop oxidation, pu-erh tea is truly fermented. It develops, usually in the form of compressed tea cakes over years, developing flavor and becoming smoother the longer it ages. Unlike other teas, pu-erh is produced by partially heating tea leaves to stop most oxidation. Then they are rolled and bruised slightly before being processed into compressed forms. The compressed forms such as bricks, discs or cakes, and small birds nest shaped, called tuo cha, are then either artificially aged or left to age naturally, sometimes for decades.

Pu-erh Tea History

The development of pu-erh teas dates back many thousands of years to Yunnan province in China. The necessity of trade led to packaging of tea in compressed discs which could be more easily transported along the tea horse road and other trade corridors. At the time tea was traded for war horses and other goods and often traveled hundreds of miles over long periods of time. During the this time, in hot and humid conditions, the tea naturally fermented and turned into dark tea by the time it reached its destination.

Pu-erh and Dark Tea

Its often stated that the types of tea include white, yellow, green, black, oolong, and pu-erh tea. However, this isn’t really accurate. Pu-erh is actually one variety of dark tea, albeit the most famous one. In 2008, China recognized dark tea from Yunnan as being geographically protected meaning this is the only dark tea that can be called pu-erh despite the fact that a number of other provinces produce fermented dark teas using much the same process and tea plant varieties.

Steeping Pu-erh Tea

Steeping your pu-erh tea is relatively straight forward but is slightly different than other teas. While you should steep with boiling water like a black tea, you will likely be able to steep pu-erh at least four to six times if not upwards of 10-15 times depending on the variety. Wake up the tea initially with enough boiling water to cover the leaf and quickly pour off the liquor. If you are steeping in a pot or mug with infuser then use 3 grams of pu-erh or dark tea and steep 3-4 minutes and re-steep another 2-4 times. If you are using a gaiwan, use a bit more tea, about 5 grams, and steep the first time for 2o to 25 seconds. For each additional steeping at about 5 seconds more steeping until it becomes thin.

Although dark and pu-erh teas are unfamiliar to many western tea drinkers they can be a real treat. Unlike the other teas in your collection, if stored properly, with fresh circulating air, away from other smells and aromas, these will keep and mature for many years to come. And for those looking to make a switch from coffee, you may find both the color and flavor to be a logical first step.

There is much to explore with tea, and pu-erh as well. This was only an introduction to the world of dark and pu-erh tea. In the future we will explore more to include the world of counterfeit pu-erh, other regions producing dark teas, and more so stay tuned…

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