What makes Japanese tea stand out is the variety offered from one kind of leaf. It all comes from the Camellia sinensis plant and yet you get so many different ways of drinking it. It’s a credit to their creativity. Aside from the traditional growing and picking, they perfected the craft of shading and toasting teas. When you shade trees, it increases the development of chlorophyll giving it a brighter color and rich flavor which is how you get the best matcha. From there, many more teas were developed, like Sencha and Gyokuro. In the early 1920s, they wanted to find a way to use the leftover leaves and stems so they began to experiment with toasting leaves. It was so successful that it became a regular practice. Now, not just the leftover leaves and stems are toasted. Some of the highest quality tea is reserved for toasting like first flush Sencha. When it comes to Genmai Cha, they even add some toasted rice to make it more savory. The process for Japanese tea can vary widely depending on the kind of tea they’re producing. It ranges from as little processing as possible and finely grinding it, to oxidizing, and toasting it for a more comforting experience.
Japanese Tea History
Tea was imported from China to Japan in the 8th century and was used for mostly religious reasons for many years. It was first brought back to Japan by monks when they visited China. Soon after they would start to seeds and grow tea plants themselves. Over time the culture would embrace tea in its religious practices like Japanese Tea Ceremony which is where matcha originated. The monk Saisho is credited for being the first to bring tea leaves to Japan from China during the Heian period which lasted from 794 to 1185 BC. Even though he brought tea to Japan, it would take a long time before tea became popular. Tea culture wouldn’t pick up momentum until sometime between 1141-1215 when Eisai the monk brought seeds from a pilgrimage to China. He would plant the seeds around monasteries and the path for the ceremonial practice of drinking tea would be set. Monks would finely grind leaves before pouring hot water over them, if you know Japanese tea, that’s how matcha is enjoyed. Monks would drink tea for its medicinal benefits and believed it helped with meditation. Later, they would plant it closer to Kyoto and in the 16th century began the process of shading trees to increase their color and flavor. As tea grew in popularity, new processes would be added to find new and innovative ways of drinking tea.
Nagatani Soen is known for being the father of green tea in Japan. He was a farmer and was passionate about how to make his tea taste better. At a time when he could not shade his trees, he decided to find a different way to process tea without shading and still showcase all the flavor that tea leaves offer. After many years of experimenting, he perfected the process of rolling and steaming simultaneously and the result of all his work was Sencha. Sencha comes from the small leaf of the tea plant. The processes he perfected for drying and rolling are still used today.
Japan had a period of isolation from 1603 to 1868 where trade and contact with the outside world were limited. During this time, the Japanese became creative about how to use the resources within their country. Maybe that’s why they would take green tea to a whole level and, from one tea leaf produce so many flavors. It forced Japan to separate itself from the way China did things in a more original way. During this time teas like Matcha and Gyokuro grew in popularity. As demand grew, creativity also expanded. It’s important to know about this time in Japan’s history because it became a time of exploring creativity and creating opportunities from within their own people and culture. When they didn’t have much outside influence, they thrived using their own resources.
Japanese Tea At Hackberry
At Hackberry, we decided to try our hand at Japanese tea. We started serving matcha at the Sagebrush Coffee shop and it has become a customer favorite. I’m pretty new to tea in general and even newer to the intricacies of Japanese tea, but it’s been fascinating to learn. Whenever I write about the origin of coffee or tea, I usually think it’s going to be about geography and topography, but so often it ends up being about the people. Growing tea or coffee usually comes from a commitment to excellence and uniqueness which is one of the reasons Japanese tea is so special. It tells a story. It tells the story of the spiritual and human resilience within the Japanese culture. I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the rich history of Japanese and how all the different tea varieties came to be.