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Green Tea Adventure Pt. 2: Japan

Japanese Green Tea

Unlike China, which is known for not only producing more tea than any other country but also growing every variety, Japan is primarily known for its prowess in green tea. Of the relatively small amount of tea Japan produces (they're 8th on the world's list), more than 99 percent is green, and anything else (like our Miyazaki Black Oolong) is exceptionally rare.

As a result, Japanese green teas are fine examples of very specific terroir and production practices—showcasing not only their Japanese origin (weather, soil, cultivars), but also their particular production methods. The three teas the Cultured Cup Tasting Panel will be examining today are a fascinating contrast of the latter. These three green teas from Honshu, Japan's largest island, are each processed to look different, taste different, and be used differently—though each one is technically an unflavored green tea from Japan.

Our Hand-Plucked Sencha and Kukicha are two teas from Shizuoka Prefecture, on the southern coast of central Honshu. These two teas largely differ in their harvesting method, as the hand-plucked consists entirely of carefully selected young leaves, and the kukicha consists of 50 percent stems. Our Matcha Imperial comes from Uji, a small inland region west of Shizuoka, and it is a completely different story. As you may know, matcha is a highly regarded shade grown green tea which has been ground into the finest powder. Its highest grades are termed ceremonial, as this tea is the centerpiece of the famous Japanese tea ceremony.

What connects these teas ultimately, besides their categorical affiliation, is their deep sense of umami. Each one, when brewed, conveys a prominent savory, brothy, delicious flavor that is the hallmark of fine Japanese tea. Let's look a little closer at how we brewed them, and what we tasted:

Appearance & aroma of dry leaves
Because Kukicha is made from equal parts tender stems and tea leaves, the trim sticks are uniform in size (which is ideal for a balanced infusion) but vary in color from pale (stems) to forest green (leaves). Importantly, this higher grade kukicha has no wooden stems, which lead to off, sharp flavors. The tea carries a sweet cooked green vegetable aroma—edamame, green bean, buttered peas. It is aromatic, but not quite as much as the hand-plucked sencha.

Brewing method

Our panel strayed from the suggested brewing instructions in a variety of ways, but found the tea to be extremely forgiving, versatile, and similarly delicious no matter how we brewed it. Using a higher temperature (175) and time (4+ min), unexpected layers of blueberry and berry fruit notes emerge below the dominant vegetal flavors, though the astringency and grassyness may also be more noticeable. At the suggested temperature and time (160, 1 min), we found that if one used more tea (twice the suggested 2 tsp, or roughly 6 grams), the gentle umami and buttered vegetable flavors only seemed more pronounced—with no astringency and only slight grassyness. In short: don't be afraid to brew this tea to your taste. Break the rules!

Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The beautiful chartreuse colored liquor is cloudy because of the fine tea particles that have sifted through the infuser. Something about the stems that compose the tea make it consistently cloudy, and those particles will even make the tea slowly more astringent if let cool, say, for 10 minutes or so. The aroma is slightly grassy, sweet, buttery, even salty. Merely vegetal doesn't quite describe it—there are notes of buttered corn, fresh crushed leaves, water chestnut, grain, and a hint of seaweed.

Light bodied, but juicy, and surprisingly mouthwatering. This tea leaves you with a tiny tingle in the throat—an element of its minerality and astringency. The astringency, which some are more sensitive to than others, gives the tea its backbone.

Flavor & finish
It's hallmark is its huge umami flavor, which is noticeable throughout. There's a hint of seaweed on the attack, generous cooked vegetable (following the aroma), and a long lingering finish of buttered sweet corn. Not considered a very complex tea, it is nonetheless a reliable source of savory depth.


Sencha Japanese Green Tea leaves in a white bowl


Appearance & aroma of dry leaves
The leaves are beautifully uniform leaf size and shape—flat needles, deep dark forest green—they are evidence of careful refinement, which ought to reflect in the tea's balance, quality, and freshness. They carry that rich grassy and umami aroma, reminiscent of sweet buttered green vegetables, and telltale of Japanese greens. Also there's a hint of dried fig and dried flowers, producing an understated florality.

Brewing method
The quality of this tea is so pure and concentrated, it has a potency that kukicha does not, and overbrewing can make it bitter. As such, our panel didn't stray from steeping the tea at 160 degrees for only one minute. However, we did find that using anywhere from 3.25 to 6.5 grams of tea per 8 oz produces a flavorful, delicious cup. The more tea we used, the more flavor subsequent steepings would produce. For this tea, some prefer using a traditional Japanese Kyusu pot (the one with the side handle), but some Kyusu don't have ideal filters for this fine tea. It's important to use a very fine filter for the Hand-Plucked Sencha to enhance its remarkable clarity. At home, if your pot has its filter built into it, you can pour the brewed tea through a finer filter into a pre-heated secondary vessel (a beaker or a second pot), clean the original pot of leaves with hot water, then pour the tea back into their original pot. Your tea will stay warm longer, and remain both clear and unbitter.

Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The infused leaves fatten up substantially, and take on a concentrated cooked squash aroma. The liquor is medium to pale yellow with a green hue, and almost shines with the utmost clarity. On the nose, one finds a captivating bouquet of aromas. Lactones. Wet grass clippings. A prominent sweet floral note—white flowers, baby's breath, and some honeysuckle too. Canned asparagus (if the can is 10 feet away). Nori seaweed and edamame. Cashews. One the second steeping (2 min), the liquor is more intensely yellow, possibly due to the extra steeping time. A bit of astringency has developed for likely the same reason. The dominant aromas on this steeping are of seaweed and nuttiness (maybe cashew and cooked rice), with less floral and vegetal notes. It is still a very good, but very different cup of tea.

The tea is medium-bodied (higher than would be expected given the short extraction time). Heavier on the palate than the kukicha, and smoother. It opens pleasantly, with a buttery mouth feel that transforms into a mild umami brothiness, then rounds off quite dry. The Sencha's tannins create that dry-mouth sensation and draw attention to the tea's astringent edge. For such an apparently 'light' tea, it is incredibly substantial.

Flavor & finish
We often describe our fine teas as complex—and they are, but what we mean may be that some teas simply seem overfull of flavor—they have a lot to say—they have layers upon layers of flavor, and they transform on the palate. This tea, is one of those COMPLEX teas. It has lactones (a creamy, milky sense), vegetal and floral elements (as on the nose), and a slightly toasty, nutty element. Less salty than the Kukicha. Like smelling lightly toasted almonds from a distance. And peach—the peach element subtly interacts with the lactones making it easy to miss, like a very slight hint of peaches & cream.

The flavor blooms in a sort of gradient from a dry floral at the center of my tongue to a wet, sweet, vegetal note at its edges--kind of like the lingering smell of a freshly-mowed lawn on a summer's day, only softer. The tea is balanced, with everything you look for in a sencha: its savory, brothy, umami flavors balance with the astringent sharpness and a light sweetness. Its strong umami flavor makes it a perfect pairing for sushi. As the tea cools, the taste evolves to become even more intense. The finish is equal parts fresh grass and floral, and lengthy. Elegant and tantalizing, this tea will fascinate connoisseurs, but also be inviting for beginners.

Matcha Imperial Japanese Green tea in a bowl next to regular matcha tea in a bowl

Appearance & aroma of dry leaf
Matcha Imperial is vibrant green, almost neon, in the form of a fine powder. It's a delicate substance with a powerful aroma. Though it is noticeably vegetal, this matcha also smells almost tropical—notes of mango, pineapple, juicy green apple, with a gentle background of fresh spinach or greens. Pleasantly sweet.

When Matcha is exposed to oxygen, because it is a powder and exposes infinitely more surface area than typical teas, it oxidizes very rapidly. As a result, the vibrant neon green tea will turn a dull olive, and will make a significantly less exciting brew. Storing the tea in its original container, in a bag, in the freezer can prolong Matcha's vibrancy.

Brewing method
Uniquely, matcha must be prepared by whisking it into a tea suspension, most often using a bamboo whisk and a tea bowl.We recommend about a teaspoon (or a couple of bamboo scoops' worth) of matcha per 3 to 4 ounces of water (155 to 160 degrees). First, sift the matcha to prevent clumping. Then, begin whisking immediately after pouring the water onto the tea/into the bowl, for about a minute, until there is a nice frothy layer atop the tea suspension.

But don't be afraid to, you know, wing it! This is actually one of the easiest teas to brew. Some of us will brew it at higher temperatures (180 degrees), and some of us, in lieu of a bowl and whisk, will just combine the tea with warm water in a thermos, and sort of emulsify it by shaking it, like a salad dressing. Just because one does not have the tools does not mean they shouldn't be able to enjoy this tea. In short: simply add water, whip it into a froth, and enjoy.

Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The liquor, or tea suspension, is far less aromatic, but the same deep green color—still vibrant, noticeably thick/velvety, and totally opaque. Intensely vegetal, with a slight yeastiness. Because Matcha is prepared most often in a bowl, it not only smells brothy, but it looks like one. And the smaller the bubbles in your froth, the more skillful your whisk.

Matcha is uniquely full-bodied, with a velvety texture that coats the mouth. Because you are actually drinking a suspension of tea leaves, there is an inherent thickness to the liquor. It is frothy and almost fuzzy, like juice from a juicer. Despite the substantial smoothness to its mouthfeel, there is also an edge of astringency which gives the brew its structure.

    Flavor & finish
    The flavor starts with buttery edamame and chicken broth, and follows through with a lasting, sweet vegetal essence. The finish lingers quite some time. There are underlying notes of shortbread and brioche, pea, green bean. Substantial umami flavor. When brewed at slightly higher temperatures, the astringency develops a bit more, giving off a more raw vegetal bitterness, and overall sharper expression of these same complexities. Overall, it's a calming and well balanced matcha of superb quality.

    So do you think you could you tell the difference between a Chinese green tea and Japanese tea in a blind tasting? We believe you could. And these five green teas offer a sort of crash course in understanding that difference. Tasting through each one, though we found some similar, sweet vegetative flavors across all five teas, we found some key contrasts as well. For instance, the nutty and toasty elements of the two Chinese green teas are unique to them, and the intense umami and seaweed flavors were specific to the Japanese greens. Even the color and shape of each of these teas give away their origin.

    This first tea adventure is only the tip of the iceberg for the Cultured Cup Tasting Panel, though. We'll be back in a couple of weeks with another exploration into some of the world's best teas. Cheers!



    Interesting information! Thanks. It feels like I’m back at T-Bar.

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