Tag Archives: Japanese Tea Culture

Bancha Green Tea

Kaizen & Tea

When it comes to Japanese tea culture, most people tend to think first of elaborate ceremonies, poetry, and all the philosophy typically embodied in chadō. And while these are essential components of the Japanese approach to tea, few realize that beneath the history and aesthetics lies a very pragmatic approach to the production of tea. The careful balance of cutting-edge technology with traditional methods, and an appreciation for efficiency, has done well to make Japanese teas some of the most common in the world.

Modern Japanese tea production owes much to the concept of kaizen, a term that was introduced to the business world in the aftermath of WWII. Kaizen, which roughly translates as “continuous improvement”, was conceived by William Deming and made famous by Toyota as a way of constant small innovation that, in the long-term, will help a business attain perfection.

Using kaizen, Japanese tea production is the ultimate in efficiency: from the harvest of one plant, you can get not only sencha, but also shincha, kukicha, bancha, hojicha, and genmaicha. Let’s take a look at all of these teas.

Sencha: The most common type of Japanese tea, accounting for roughly 80% of the country’s tea production. Sencha ranges in quality from top-end to ready-to-drink dust & fannings, and is produced throughout the growing season. After harvest, it is steamed to stop oxidation, rolled into thin needle shapes, and oven-dried.

Shincha: The very first yield of sencha, shincha is composed of young new leaves that are plucked early in spring before the main harvest begins. Shincha is prized among connoisseurs for its rarity, complex flavors, and freshness.

Bancha: Harvested from mid-June to September after sencha production is finished, bancha utilizes fuller, more mature leaves and sometimes stems to give it its characteristic notes of sweet hay and bold grassiness.

Kukicha: Kukicha is made from stems and leaf cuttings leftover from sencha production. It is more delicately flavored than sencha or bancha, with savory sesame notes.

Hojicha: This unique green tea is made of sencha or bancha leaves, sometimes blended with kukicha, that have been roasted at 200°F for several minutes. Roasting imparts a rich, sweet, and nutty flavor – along with a lower caffeine content that makes it perfect for the evenings.

Genmaicha: Originally a staple of fasting monks and the poor, genmaicha is sencha or bancha that has been blended with toasted brown rice, which gives it a wonderfully mellow quality and full body.

Kaizen approaches in Japanese industry have been a tremendous gift to tea drinkers, allowing aficionados the chance to enjoy the diverse range of flavors that come from a single plant. Have you tried sencha and all the teas derived from it yet? Which is your favorite?

By: Jen Coate

Decorative Uwade Kyusu

The Four Types of Kyusu: Part II

Ceramic Atode no Kyusu

Atode no Kyusu with rear handle.

In Part I, we talked about two of the most common type of Japanese kyusu, or teapot. Kyusu have evolved over many centuries to best suit the needs of the diverse range of Japanese green teas. The two kyusu we introduced last week – yokode kyusu and houhin – trace their origins back to Chinese teapots adopted by the Japanese in the mid-Edo period. The other main types of kyusu, atode and uwade, are likewise the result of years of adaptation and evolution.

Atode no Kyusu

Just like the yokode kyusu, the word “atode” (後手の急須), meaning “on the back”, refers to this teapot’s structural design. Modeled to resemble western-style teapots, this teapot is especially suitable for Chinese and western-style black teas with a high water temperature and longer steep time.

Decorative Uwade Kyusu

Uwade Kysu or Dobin

Uwade Kyusu

“Uwade” (上手の急須), which translates to “on the top”, is also known as a dobin (土瓶) in Japanese tea ceremony terminology. Shaped like a western tea kettle with a long, curving handle over the top of the pot, uwade kyusu are larger than any other type of kyusu and intended for serving many guests at once. The placement of the handle is designed to accommodate the heavy main body of the pot, which would be difficult to pour with a side or back handle. When these teapots are made of cast iron and intended to be hung over the hearth, they are called tetsubin (鉄瓶).

Kyusu can be a fun way to experience Japanese culture and traditional tea preparation. If you are a fan of Japanese green teas, why not experiment with a kyusu of your own?

By: Jennifer Coate

Matcha Green Tea History

The history of matcha green tea, much like many teas, is affected by cultural and political shifts. Its popularity in Japan and virtual absence in China comes from an interesting intersection of political needs, cultures converging and influencing each other, and a side effect of isolationist policies.

Foundations of Matcha Green Tea and the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Matcha Green Tea from Japan

Cooking Grade Matcha Poweder

All things tea, regardless of current association, start in China. Starting in the Tang Dynasty, somewhere between 690-705C.E., tea became democratized in China at the same time as the golden age of Chinese culture hit its full height. During this period Buddhism thrived along side Daoism in China. Buddhist monasteries were everywhere and multiple religions were allowed to flourish side by side and acknowledged by the Emperors during this dynasty. During this period, tea was still packed into bricks for easier transport in trading. It was consumed by being broken off and pulverized into powder and then whisked into hot water. It was not called matcha by the Chinese, that name would come later in Japan.

Buddhist monks were heavy tea drinkers, as it assisted them in staying alert during long periods of meditation. So it was a natural evolution for the preparation of the tea for meditation become a ritual in-and-of itself. This ritual would be taught to the visiting Japanese monks several centuries later, in 1191 C.E., when the monk Eisai would introduce the Japanese Buddhists to the powdered preparation of tea. The term matcha is a combination of word ma, meaning powder, and cha, which means tea. At this point in Japanese history, Buddhism was making its way from the privileged classes to the common people of Japan. Recent military upheavals in Japan lead to a resurgence in spiritual practice and the establishment of Buddhist schools throughout the country. Eisai headed the Zen Buddhist school, which used meditation to bring forth the inner Buddha in each individual. It is at these schools that the Japanese Tea Ceremony was created and eventually formalized some four hundred years later.

Producing Matcha Green Tea

Matcha typically is made from the Saemidori cultivar of camellia sinensis. These tea plants are grown under shade, which adds additional complexity to flavor as well as to the plucking of the tea. The shade slows down growth, so fewer leaves are produced by the plant and those leaves that are produced got more of their nutrients from the ground than through photosynthesis. This gives the leaves a very complex taste. Tea leaves plucked for Matcha are sorted by size to help in the removal of stems from the leaves. Matcha green tea production is much more labor intensive than the other teas in Japan, which have been heavily automated in past forty years. The tea is plucked, sorted and then sent into steaming for anywhere between 40-80 seconds given the size of the leaves. The leaves are then laid flat to dry, which will cause the leaves to crumble and the stems to be more easily removed. The tea is fully dried and sorted again with the hopes of removing more veins and missed stems. It is then ground down between two large granite stones, much like an old fashion grain mill. The grinding process is heavily monitored and the consistency of the powder is measured. A finer powder, makes for a stronger and more complex tea generally. In the United States, generally there are two types of matcha green tea available, ceremonial and cooking grade. Ceremonial matcha is generally from the first picking and highest quality leaves. Cooking matcha comes from follow up picking and sometimes larger leaves. There is a difference in taste, but that is rarely distinguishable to those of us not growing up drinking it daily. Cooking matcha is generally more vegetal in taste while ceremonial matcha will have a more complex fruit/vegetable flavor. Neither is overly sweet, which is why it is generally served with sweet treats.

Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream (With and Without Mint and Chocolate Chips)

Modern Day Matcha

Matcha green tea is still in high demand in Japan. It has grown in demand in the United States, since it does a great job coloring other foods, like cookies, ice cream, and even salad dressing, green. Matcha has not been embraced by the US as a tea because of its flavor profile and bright green color. What most Americans have not figured out is that they have been drinking matcha in their bottled green teas for some time now (it dissolves beautifully for bottled tea). There are Japanese gardens, museums and Buddhist monasteries where the general public can witness a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and try some of the matcha in its traditional form. I encourage you to give it a try.

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.

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.