Navigating the World of Green Tea Cultivars
What is a Cultivar?
The word “cultivar” stands for “cultivated variety”, meaning that cultivars are bred and grown by humans for their specific qualities and traits. The development of green tea cultivars began in Japan in the early 1900s as demands for green tea were rising quickly overseas. Farmers struggled to meet these demands and the Japanese government, seeing the economic possibilities, stepped in and began funding research on the most productive way to grow green tea. It was around this time that the Yabukita cultivar, which comprises about 75% of all Japanese green tea, was developed.
Although the development of cultivars was rooted in practicality, it has opened the door to several new realms of possibilities for Japanese tea makers and enthusiasts. One of the challenges that tea farmers face every year is how to make sure that there is consistency in quality, flavor, and yield for their crop. With each year comes a unique set of trials and obstacles, and farmers utilize the characteristics of each cultivar in the hopes of making lots of delicious tea year after year. Farmers often grow cultivars that are ready to harvest at different times, which helps make the spring harvest more manageable. Additionally, tea farmers in colder regions might grow a larger variety of cold-hardy cultivars. But these attributes don’t just give dedicated tea farmers an edge, they also offer tea drinkers a world of wonderful tea drinking experiences. Master Tea Blenders intimately understand the flavors of each cultivar and use that knowledge to blend high-quality and consistent teas year in and year out.
The emergence of diverse cultivars not only expanded the choices available to tea connoisseurs but also deepened the connection between the consumer and the rich cultural and agricultural heritage of tea production.
Similar to the many cultivated varieties of grapes used to make different kinds of wine, each green tea cultivar has a unique aroma and taste. Single cultivar teas allow us to experience several unique aspects of green tea, such as the sakura aroma of Shizu-7132 or the color changing qualities of Sun Rouge. In this blog, we will delve into the most common Japanese green tea cultivars and their characteristics.
Yabukita, originally selected from a plant grown in Shizuoka, is the quintessential tea cultivar in Japanese green tea production, making up about 75% of all cultivated tea fields nationwide and 90% in Shizuoka. This cultivar is loved by tea drinkers for its flavor – perfectly balancing umami, sweetness, bitterness, and astringency. Beyond its appeal to tea drinkers, Yabukita is also favored by farmers for its resistance to cold weather, ability to take root easily in all different kinds of soil and climates, and its notably high yield. It is also incredibly versatile and suitable for not only sencha, but a variety of different teas. A prime example is our Wakoucha, which is crafted exclusively from the Yabukita cultivar. Yabukita stands as the undisputed champion of Japanese green tea cultivation, embodying a perfect union of flavor and adaptability.
Only 1% of the tea grown in Japan is of the Asatsuyu cultivar. This rare Japanese tea, selected from a plant grown from seed in Uji, is often called a natural “Gyokuro” due to the smooth umami depth of its unique flavor. When brewed it has a striking green color with an almost a blue tone. So little of Asatsuyu is produced in Japan due to its delicate nature and it’s even rarer for this tea to be grown organically. Asatsuyu is vulnerable to frost and has a smaller yield than other cultivars, making its production the domain of only a few dedicated farmers.
Yutaka Midori is the result of a cross between two Asatsuyu plants and was first developed in 1934 at the tea research center located in Makurazaki, Kagoshima. It is known for its dependable, abundant yield and rich, green color. Today it makes up about 30% of all the tea grown in Kagoshima. Yutaka Midori is also the second most widely grown cultivar in Japan, behind Yabukita, at approximately 5% of the country’s yield. As it is commonly found in Kagoshima, this tea is often shaded before harvest, like many other teas grown in the area.
Oku Midori means “Deep Green” and is named so because of its lustrous green leaves. A cross between Yabukita and a tea plant native to Shizuoka, this cultivar is high in the amino acids that make for sweet and umami-rich teas and favored for making matcha and gyokuro. Because it goes well with Yabukita, it is commonly used for blending. In fact, Oku Midori is blended into many of our own matcha products.
Kanaya Midori, a cultivar renowned for its sweet and unique milky aroma, draws its name from Kanaya, the area where this cultivar was developed at one of the most prominent tea research stations in Japan, as well as the hometown of Sugimoto Tea Company. Similar to Oku Midori, this cultivar is also a cross between Yabukita and a separate tea plant native to Shizuoka.
Now that we have gone through some of the most commonly known cultivars in Japanese green tea production, we will now turn to some exceptionally unique cultivars.
Sun Rouge is considered Japan's first purple leaf tea and the result of a cross between Camellia sinensis, the usual species for making tea, and Camellia taliensis, a type of wild tree endemic to Yunnan that is also used to make tea in China. It was originally developed as a functional beverage, as it contains high amounts of anthocyanin. This is the antioxidant and purple pigment found naturally in blueberries, acai, blue corn, and other similarly vibrant foods.The most fascinating feature of this tea is its color-changing properties. Just add a splash of acid, such as lemon juice, and watch its dark purple transform into pink. Given its color-changing properties along with its unorthodox aroma and flavor, we recommend enjoying Sun Rouge cold brewed, as iced tea, in an Arnold Palmer, and in color-changing cocktails.
Benifuuki can be translated to Red Riches and Honors. A cross between an existing Japanese black tea cultivar, Benihomare, and a test cultivar from India’s Darjeeling region, it was originally produced for black tea production. However, when produced as a green tea it was found to help Japanese people with their seasonal allergies due to the presence of o-methylated catechins. While it is still used to make Japanese black tea, it is also commonly processed as a green tea to help soothe the harsh spring allergies in Japan.
Journey Into Single Cultivar Teas
Single cultivars are a great way to step away from your daily tea and treat yourself to something new and special. We recommend that you enjoy your single cultivar teas the same way you would a nice glass of wine. Take your time to enjoy the aroma and take note of each unique scent before taking your first drink. When sipping, pay attention to the initial flavor, body, mouthfeel, and lingering flavors in the finish. In this deliberate and mindful approach, we hope that you will discover a newfound joy in the world of single cultivar teas.