Japanese tea in the San Jose area.

Japanese tea ceremony. Photo: Stephane D'Alu. Wikimedia Commons.

San Jose’s historic Japanese community retains a cultural presence in the city, most famously in the wonderful historic Japantown neighborhood, the Obon Festival each summer, and the entertaining San Jose Taiko drum ensemble.   This is not only good for diversity, but good for the tea-drinker! The restaurants and Japanese groceries in the Japantown area serve the local tea-lover by providing many types of Japanese tea.

One has only to taste Japanese tea to notice differences in flavor from Chinese and Indian teas.  Processing techniques constitute one major factor in causing the differences in flavor and appearance in tea. There are two main tea processes which result in the two main “styles” of tea: the Chinese and the Japanese. The Chinese style of tea processing involves using dry heat from iron woks, or tossing the tea leaves in baskets over a fire, to stop oxidation, and it is the most widely used technique; the Japanese style uses moist heat, specifically, steam, to do the same thing. While Japan is beginning to produce some white teas, Japanese teas are almost exclusively green teas, and they have a characteristic “fresh”, “green” or “grassy” taste and aroma, similar to the scent of freshly-cut grass.

Traditional Japanese teas also include additions like toasted rice, as well as specific preparations, like matcha, which are produced for particular cultural and social ceremonies. Here is a glossary of the most popular types of Japanese tea; look for them in Japantown and other Asian groceries!

Bancha – this green tea is known for its full, bright, and smooth herbal flavor.

Fukamushi cha/ Deep Steam Tea – this green tea was first developed in Shizuoka and is very popular among Japanese tea connoisseurs. It is steamed longer than traditional Japanese teas and is made of cut tea leaves and small leaf particles. The flavor is characterized as “sweet”, “rich”, and “thick”.

Genmaicha – this is green tea blended with toasted, popped rice kernels. It has a mellow flavor that is very popular in Japan and in the United States.

Gyokuro/Jade Dew – this green tea is made to be used for the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and can be purchased as loose leaf tea, or as is usual in Japan, ground into powder to make Matcha. It is considered the highest grade and quality tea available in Japan. It has a slightly sweet flavor.

Hojicha – this green tea is steamed and dried as is usual for the Japanese style of processing, but then the leaves are slowly roasted until they are brown. It has a toasty, yet fresh flavor.

Ko-kei cha – also known as “spaghetti tea”, this is made of moist ground Gyokuro tea leaves, the byproduct of making Matcha, which has been pressed through a mesh until it forms tiny threads, which are then dried.

Kukicha – this green tea is also known as “twig” tea because it consists of the young, tender stems or “twigs” and some small leaves from the tea plant. It can be found roasted or unroasted.

Sencha or Shencha – this green tea is the standard household loose leaf green tea enjoyed all over Japan and wherever people drink Japanese green tea. It has a refreshing, vegetal flavor and aroma.

Japanese green teas should be infused with simmering, rather than boiling, water, and infused for a maximum of 3 minutes or they can get bitter. Why not go on down to Japantown and try some Japanese tea? You can also buy Japanese tea from Lupicia at Valley Fair mall.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

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Filed under Glossary & Terminology, History, Tea Tasting

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