Most of us are by now familiar with green tea powder but there is more to Japanese green tea than just matcha.
Like most things in Japan, tea growing is done with careful consideration. An art form that honours tradition and spares no attention to detail.
Types of Japanese green tea
Whilst there are many types of Japanese green tea, they can be sorted into two main categories. Tea that is grown in the shade and tea that is grown in full sun. Matcha may be a powder, but it begins life as all tea does; the green leaves of the tea plant.
Matcha and gyokuro green teas
Matcha belongs to the group of teas that are grown in the shade. As we saw in our article on the different grades of matcha, some green tea in Japan is grown in the shade for around the last month before the harvest. This reduces the rate of photosynthesis, concentrating chlorophyll and increasing levels of theanine. A process that results in sweet mellow flavours, with less bitter undertones, and deep green colour.
Both matcha and gyokuro green teas are grown in this way. After processing, matcha ends up as a fine green powder whereas gyokuro is a leaf tea. The leaves are steamed and dried, then kneaded before sorting. Kneading breaks down the fibres so that flavour and nutrients are more readily extracted during brewing. Gyokuro karigane is a less expensive version of the tea made from the stems rather than the leaves.
Sencha green tea
Other teas are grown in full sunlight right up until harvest. This results in a concentration of catechins rather than theanine and these give tea its characteristic bitter flavour. With less chlorophyll than shade grown tea, the leaves are a golden green colour.
Sencha and genmaicha teas are both grown in full sunlight. The most popular green leaf tea in Japan, sencha is a bright energising everyday tea. It has a mellow and refreshing flavour with a balanced bitterness. There are many different types of sencha available.
Genmaicha is a blend of Japanese green tea made from sencha leaves mixed with toasted brown rice. Originally a cost effective way of making expensive green tea leaves go further, genmaicha is prized for its rich roasted flavour reminiscent of coffee that makes it ideal at breakfast time.
Hojicha is sencha that has been roasted. It is more similar to black tea but has a fresher flavour profile.
The difference between black and green tea
Tea all looks the same when it is harvested. It is the processing that makes the difference between green and black tea.
Once harvested, tea leaves destined to be black tea are left to wither and ferment. The process of fermentation allows the leaves to oxidise, changing the colour from green to brown then black. But it is not just the colour that changes. The deep earthy flavour of black tea is all down to careful control of this oxidation process.
On the other hand, leaves for green tea are exposed to heat as soon as they are picked. Usually steaming, this process halts oxidation and results in not only the green colour but the fresh grassy herbal tones of green tea.
Is matcha different from green tea?
Matcha is just one of many varieties of Japanese green tea, yet it is unique in that it takes the form of a powder. The entire leaf is processed and ground, with the resulting powder brewed and drunk. This is different from most teas, where the leaf is brewed and then thrown away.
Does Japanese green tea contain caffeine?
Japanese green teas are often higher in caffeine due to the gentle steaming process. The caffeine in tea is bound to antioxidants which slow the rate of absorption. This makes for a more gradual caffeine hit with none of the jitters associated with coffee. Gyokuro and matcha, the shade grown teas, have the most caffeine. Hojicha has very little caffeine, whilst sencha comes somewhere in between.
Making Japanese green tea
The subtle nuances of Japanese green tea can be lost if not brewed with consideration. Temperature and brew time are both of importance.
To brew sencha tea, boil water and let it stand for a few minutes to come down to 80C. Brew for 1 minute before lifting out the leaves.
Matcha tea is whisked into water of between 70 and 85C.
Genmaicha tea is brewed in freshly boiled water for 1 minute.
Hojicha tea is brewed in freshly boiled water for 30 seconds.
Health benefits matcha vs green tea
Matcha and other varieties of green tea share potent antioxidant benefits but it is thought that matcha is more beneficial to health as the whole leaf is ingested.