Japanese Sencha Tea

Sencha leaves are known to be flat needle shape and dark green in color.

Dry Sencha Tea Leaves and Liquor

One cannot talk about Sencha tea without talking about the history of tea in Japan.  Sencha is the most consumed beverage in Japan, whose beginnings date back several centuries. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century via a cultural exchange with monks although it did not really take hold until the 12th century when Emperor Saga encouraged tea plant growth.  This allowed tea to expand from religious use to upper class consumption.  At the same time Japan adopted an isolationist policy, stopping communication with China, which left Japan to develop its own distinct way of manufacturing tea. Whereas most Chinese teas are pan fried to stop oxidation, most of Japanese green teas are steamed to stop oxidation.  This gives the tea part of its distinctive flavor and bright green color found with the first forms of Sencha.

Japan, more than other tea drinking countries, has mechanized most of tea making process.  This mechanization, along with local demand for tea, has lead the industry to focus heavily on cultivars that work well with the harvesting machines while still maintaining the flavor characteristics expected from a Sencha.  The main cultivars used for Sencha are yabukita and okuhikari.

Due to the geography of the Japanese islands, no tea field is more than 75 miles from the ocean, regardless of the prefecture where it is grown (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).  Most of the Sencha grown in Japan comes from Shizuoka prefecture.  The Kagoshima, Nara, and Mie prefectures also grow Sencha.   The terroir of this tea gives it a marine flavor on top of the natural grassy notes of a green tea. Not surprisingly, there are many types of Sencha, few of which make it to the US for consumption given the high local demand.  Below is table describing the more unique types of Sencha:

Name Description
Shincha or Ichibancha This is the first month’s harvest of Sencha.  This Sencha is very hard to come by outside of Japan since it is highly prized.  It typically comes to market in late April through May.
Kabuse Sencha or Kabusecha This is Sencha that has been grown in the shade about a week before harvesting.  This is a milder Sencha in flavor.
Asamushi This is a Sencha steamed for less than the traditional 15 to 20 seconds to stop oxidation.
Chumushi This is a Sencha steamed for 30-90 seconds.
Fukamushi or fukamushicha This is a Sencha steamed for 60-120 seconds.
Photo of Japanese Sencha Tea after it has been infused.

Infused Sencha Tea Leaf

As defined by the North American Tea Championship, a Sencha will have flat green needle shaped dry leafs with a grassy smell.  The wet leaves will have a rich green color and fresh aroma.  The liquor will have a light green to bright gold color with possible particulate and the taste will have grassy and briny notes with a medium to full-body feel.  For the rest of us, to get that taste, we need to steep the Sencha between 175° to 180° Fahrenheit.  Should you choose to try it at the boiling point of 212°, most of the complex flavor will be lost to the heavy astringency and with some Senchas it tastes more like a mouth full of briny ocean water than anything else.  In fact, it is mistakenly brewing Sencha and other green teas with boiling water that often turns people off to green teas entirely.

If you are new to Japanese green tea, Sencha is a great starting point.  If this is a tea you consume regularly, try cold brewing it for summer (unlike black teas, green teas often do not brew well with conventional iced tea machines).  It is a very refreshing way to enjoy this tea on a hot summer day.

 

Works Cited

Kevin Gascoyne, F. M. (2011). Tea: History Terroirs Varieties. In K. Gascoyne, F. Marchand, J. Desharnais, & H. Americi, Tea: History Terroirs Varieties (pp. 98-99). Firefly Books Ltd.

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Green Tea and the Japanese Kyusu

Green tea is often made with a kyusu in Japan.

Japanese Yokode Kyusu

Just as we love to explore the history, culture, and various types of tea, we also are fascinated by the variety available in tea accessories. There are of course many different shapes and sizes of teapots available in western cultures but these are so, well… familiar. We love exploring tea and stories of tea from all sides. If you enjoy green tea then an experience not to be missed is that of the Japanese Kyusu. This small, by Western standards, teapot is excellent for steeping your favorite green tea. It provides an experience of multiple rapid steepings and is ideal for sharing green tea with several friends or guests at once. Correctly steeping green tea in a kyusu will yield a fresh umami (subtle savory taste) flavor without the overwhelming grassy flavor or bitterness often associated with green tea.

About the Japanese Kyusu

Teapots themselves are believed to have originated in China out of necessity for brewing the camellia sinensis (tea) leaf and evolved from there. As tea was brought to Japan by monks, teapots naturally followed. Over time the Japanese experimented and developed their own teapots, producing them from kilns that have been in operation since approximately 1100 CE. In Japan, the sencha style of tea has developed over hundreds of years. Unlike Chinese green tea which is pan fired to stop oxidation, sencha is a steamed product, with some varieties being light steamed (asamushi sencha) and some deep steamed (fukamushi sencha). Sencha is normally steeped at cooler temperatures and has less uniformity in leaf size with many smaller particles coming from the slight leaf breakdown that comes with steaming.In any case, Japanese teapots have evolved over time to support brewing this style of green tea.

Green Tea in a Yokode Kyusu

Geen Tea in a Yokode Kyusu

The term kyusu literally means teapot in Japanese and generally refers to a small clay teapot used for brewing green tea. While the kyusu is generally considered to be a teapot with a large conical handle attached to the side it turns out this is actually a yokode kuysu. There are also ushirode kyusu that looks like a traditional western teapot with the handle attached to the back, uwade kyusu which has a handle on the top, and houhin kyusu which doesn’t feature a handle at all. The yokode kyusu is the most distinctive to westerners though all can be considered works of art. Indeed, if you appreciate the artistry of the kyusu you will find any number of colors and styles available from skilled craftsmen.

 

Green Tea Steeped with a Yokode Kyusu

Holding the Japanese yokode kyusu.

Hold the yokode kyusu with your thumb on top of the lid.

Preparing Japanese green tea with a kyusu is simple though it is a bit different than brewing with single use teabags or hard infusers.  To get started it is best to have some kind of cooling pitcher since we want the water to be around 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit. Pouring hot water from a teapot or kettle into a cooling vessel will quickly allow the water to cool to the desired range after only a couple minutes or so.

Add 6-8 grams or about a tablespoon and a half of Japanese green tea.  Although this style teapot is normally associated with Japanese sencha green tea it can be used with most other varieties including bancha and gyokuro. For what should be obvious reasons this teapot isn’t a good choice for matcha.

Steeping with a kyusu is intended for multiple rapid steepings, so add the water to your kyusu and steep for 25 to 30 seconds.  When pouring a little gentle rocking of the pot will ensure the contents are well mixed and balanced throughout. Pour a little into each cup and then return to add a bit more so that each cup ultimately gets an even balance of flavor and umami.

Green tea poured from a Japanese  yokode kyusu.

Pouring green tea from a yokode kyusu.

Be sure to pour out all the liquid so the leaves don’t sit in hot water.  When ready, infuse a second and even third time.

Finally, be sure to remove all the tea leaves and rinse out your kyusu with cold water.  Do not use soap to wash your kyusu or use it to make other kinds of tea as the clay absorbs and retains a little bit of the green tea with each steeping, flavoring the teapot as its used.

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