Some Thoughts on Chinese vs. Japanese Teas

tea-leaves-051Tea has been cultivated in China for over 5,000 years (recent archaeological evidence suggests quite a bit longer) and in Japan only since around 1100 A.D. (a little over 900 years), yet Japan has become quite known for its teas which are gaining a larger share of the tea market year after year. While I was looking into these teas a bit, I kept noticing some key similarities (along with the commonly mentioned differences) and so began jotting them down to share with you all here.

First, a bit of a disclaimer: my personal focus has been on Chinese teas, so this is not presented as any great authoritative essay. I bow to those out there who are authorities and thank them for their knowledge.

Surprise! Yes, this tea is from Japan. Goishicha (碁石茶) – aka Kurocha, an aged tea.

Surprise! Yes, this tea is from Japan. Goishicha (碁石茶) – aka Kurocha, an aged tea.

Brick Tea, Powdered Tea

Japanese brick tea is called Dancha where the tea leaves are steamed, mold-pressed into brick-like shapes, then dried. It is fairly uncommon and considered lower grade. There is also a powdered tea or two (not to be confused with the finely stone ground matcha), such as Funmatsucha (“tokeru ocha”, “tea that melts”, 粉末茶), which is prepared like you would instant coffee (a spoonful or two in a cup of very hot water); can be rather bitter and astringent (unlike matcha), does not have the higher L-theanine content, and has more EGCG (an antioxidant) and so is considered a more healthy choice.

Grading

Tencha tea garden shaded with a tana (canopy covering).

Tencha tea garden shaded with a tana (canopy covering).

Like in China, the part of the leaf and stem that are used can determine the grade of Japanese teas, but also like in China, that is certainly not the only factor. In Japan, some tea bushes are shaded for awhile before harvesting. Tea leaves that were shaded for a few days or even weeks before harvest are considered the best, containing higher levels of L-theanine amino acid and lower levels of catechins that can cause bitterness. They are used for making gyokuro-style teas and matchas. But even within these two tea styles there are several grades, depending on the leaf quality and how processed. Shading tea plants in China is not a common practice. Other grading factors, as in China, are when the tea leaves are harvested, if they are full leaves or tender buds, if stems are included or not, and how far down the stem they are plucked. While hand-plucked and processed teas such as Temomicha (手揉み茶) are considered the very best, they are fairly rare in Japan due to very high labor costs, so this tends not to be a grading factor or most of their teas, which are harvested and/or processed by machine, would be graded low.

Processing

Unlike China where pu-erhs and oolongs are more common, Japan is focused on green tea (and as far as I can tell oolong is not processed there but imported in small quantities from Taiwan and China). Most Japanese teas are steamed for that “kill green” step that halts oxidation, but there are exceptions such as pan-fried Guricha (ぐり茶), which is a type of Tamaryokucha (“curly tea”, “ball green tea”, 玉緑茶). Most of these teas also have needle-like leaves after the processing is done. There are some true black (fully oxidized) teas such as Jikocha and Wakoucha (Wakocha, 和紅茶). The latter is a light-bodied tea said to complement Japanese cuisine and is usually made from leaves of the benifuuki tea plant cultivar, but also with cultivars meant for sencha such as Yabukita.

Aged/Fermented/Pickled Tea

Yes there is a Japanese “pu-erh” (I use the term loosely here, since China had established it as an official geographic designation). It is called Batabatacha (バタバタ茶) and is from the coast of the Sea of Japan. The locals serve it at weddings and similar events but also enjoy it as a daily tea.

An aged tea is Kuradashi (Kuradashicha, Jukuseicha, 蔵出し茶 / 熟成茶) which is aged for 3 months to several years. Awabancha (aka Kamikatsucho, 阿波番茶), from Tokushima in Shikoku Prefecture, is made of Summer harvested leaves that are harvested, boiled, rubbed, fermented in a barrel, and spread out in the sun to dry (similar to pickled teas from Thailand and Myanmar); they can be infused or eaten or both. Another is Goishicha (Kurocha,碁石茶), which varies in description and source according to the various tea experts; they all seem to agree that it is considered a low grade tea, and some say it is Japan’s only true aged tea.

None of these teas compares, though, to the Yunnan province pu-erhs of China. The Chinese pu-erhs are smooth, not sour as some of the Japanese are, and not stale in aroma as the Awabancha is.

Single Estate

Gyokuro should be fairly intact, bright and dark green needle-shaped leaves.

Gyokuro should be fairly intact, bright and dark green needle-shaped leaves.

The trend to single estate teas over blended teas has been on the rise for a decade or more. Darjeeling tea estates sell more and more of their teas under their estate name instead of to brokers who sell to blenders. (A true tea blend is one that has only tea leaves in it, not where other items such as spices and fruits have been added.) China has been trending toward selling by tea factory (especially for pu-erhs) and even by tea master for even longer, especially to foreign markets. Japanese tea farmers are catching on to that trend and reserving some or all of their harvest to sell, at higher prices for them but often at a savings to the consumer, under their own label (garden ownership is a complex business and economic issue in Japan with their limited land space, so tea processors and farmers often partner).

Flavored and Infusions

As in China and most of Asia as well as Europe, North America and elsewhere, teas with flavorings added and infusions from other plants being called “tea” are fairly popular. Many of you are no doubt familiar with genmaicha (basically sencha with toasted rice added), but the flavored teas go beyond this one. A few examples:

  • Bushicha – tea leaves and bonito flakes; bonito flakes, aka Katsuobushi (鰹節 or かつおぶし) or Okaka (おかか), are dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna or, in cheaper versions, young bonito fish.
  • Shogacha – tea leaves mixed with ginger.
  • Umeboshicha – tea leaves mixed with picked plum.
  • Yuzucha – Tea mixed with yuzu (a citrus fruit from East Asia).
  • Kobucha (Kombucha, Konbucha, (昆布茶) – no tea leaves; made from soaking konbu (seaweed kelp) in hot water.
  • Mugicha (麦茶) – no tea leaves; an infusion of roasted barley and corn. Quite popular in Japanese restaurants, especially as a cold beverage in Summer. Called “boricha” in Korean.
  • Sobacha – roasted buckwheat; caffeine-free with a nutty, roasted fragrance and taste.

Just a few thoughts. The whole area of Japanese teas is so complex that I would hardly even care to get into studying it in the depth that those experts have. For me, Chinese teas are preferred, but as always, I say, “You like what you like.” Enjoy, my tea friends!

Repeating the disclaimer: this information is simply my gathered impressions based on my readings and experiences with Japanese teas; however, every effort has been made to be factually accurate.

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
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