Blog

What Is Japanese Black Tea?

by Sugimoto Tea Company
Tea Guides



While green tea may be the more common tea type people associate with Japan, Japanese black tea (“Wakoucha” or 和紅茶) exists, too! Here’s what you need to know about Japanese black tea.

Guide Contents:

What is Japanese Black Tea? | A Beginner’s Guide to Wakoucha

When Did Japan Start Producing Black Tea?

While the Benihomare cultivar, which is the first Japanese black tea cultivar, was discovered in 1908, the roots of black tea in the country can actually be traced further back in the country’s history.

During the 19th century, Japan’s top two exports were silk and green tea. The Americans, particularly, had taken a liking to Japanese green tea. However, black tea still dominated the Western market, so the Japanese government decided to get into the black tea trade in an effort to boost exports.

In 1874, the government invited Chinese tea experts to train Japanese farmers on black tea production. However, the end product proved to be inadequate for the market so it was decided that more comprehensive research was needed.

A year later, government representatives led by Motokichi Tada were sent to China and India to learn more about the different aspects of black tea production, including:

  • Cultivation
  • Processing methods
  • Machinery

By 1877, Tada returned to Japan armed with new knowledge and seeds ideal for black tea cultivation. One of these seeds later spawned the first Japanese black tea cultivar, the Benihomare cultivar.

Why Isn’t Japanese Black Tea as Popular as Green Tea?

While not as popular now, Japanese black tea had its heyday.

  • For most of the 20th century, almost all farms in Kagoshima produced Japanese black tea.
  • When Japan introduced the official cultivar registration list in 1953, 1/3 (5 out of 15) of the first cultivars that were registered were black tea cultivars. This is a testament to how much the Japanese government invested in the research and development of wakoucha.
  • At its peak in 1955, Japan exported 8,500 tons of black tea, which accounted for 2/3 of all tea exports that year.

However, over time, certain factors have contributed to the decline of interest and consumption of Japanese black tea:

  • Growing nationalism — Particularly in the 1920s, Japanese black tea saw increased production but a decrease in consumption domestically as some consumers didn’t see it as Japanese.
  • Costly production — While the Japanese government encouraged the production of black tea, it required costly machinery that a lot of producers just couldn’t afford.
  • Competition with cheaper South Asian black teas — Japanese black tea also struggled to compete with cheaper black teas produced in Sri Lanka and India.
  • 1971 Free Trade Agreement — The death blow to Japanese black tea. This agreement lifted both the tariffs on foreign black teas entering Japan and the requirement that importers of foreign black tea buy equal amounts of Japanese black tea. Thus, Japanese consumers switched to the cheaper, higher-quality black teas from India, Sri Lanka, and China. This created a snowball effect where Japanese black tea producers had to switch to producing green tea to survive.

While Japanese black tea may not be as well-recognized as Japanese green tea, there’s still a steady interest in it. These days, there are producers that are dedicating plantations to producing wakoucha. Additionally, the NPO Japan Tea Instructor Association recognizes Japanese black tea as a separate category when it gives out the “Nihon-cha” (Japanese Tea) Award.

How Is Japanese Black Tea Different From Japanese Green Tea?

Processing

Aside from the visible differences in the brew, one of the biggest factors that distinguish Japanese black tea from Japanese green tea is the way they’re processed.

A common misconception about tea types is that there are different plants that produce a certain type of tea (i.e. one tea plant for green tea and another for black tea.) However, the reality is that all types of tea come from one plant — Camellia sinensisand they’re just processed differently to produce different tea types.

  • Green teas are either pan-fried or steamed (depending on their country of origin, with most Japanese green teas being steamed) to stop oxidation. This allows them to retain their green color.
  • On the other hand, black teas are fully oxidized teas. Leaves meant for black tea are left to wither for at least 16h and rolled to speed up oxidation before they’re dried and stored.

Cultivar

Another factor that differentiates green tea vs black tea are their *cultivars.

*What is a cultivar? Short for “cultivated variety,” a cultivar refers to a plant that has been selected and cultivated by humans. Cultivars can be chosen in many ways, including selecting plants with favorable mutations or creating hybrids of two pants. Most of the original cultivars were just made by cloning particular tea plants grown from seed.

While the cultivar doesn’t dictate tea type (black vs green tea), generally there are certain cultivars that are better suited for each tea type. However, there are exceptions, such as the Yabukita cultivar, which makes wonderful green tea or black tea.

Here are some examples of wakoucha cultivars:

  • Benihomare — In 1953, Benihomare became the first registered tea cultivar in Japan. Its lineage can be traced back to the seedlings Motokichi Tada brought back from India in 1887. It produces a vibrantly red brew and a rich taste.
  • Benihikari — The Benihikari cultivar comes from a cross between another Japanese black tea cultivar called Benikaori and the Chinese variety Cn1 done at the Makurazaki Black Tea Experiment Station in Kagoshima. The Benihikari is one example of a cultivar that’s better suited for only one type as it’s too bitter if used for green tea.
  • Benifuuki — While originally meant for oolong and black tea, the Benifuuki cultivar started also being used for green tea. It’s been described to have a “mellow taste” and “excellent aroma.” hen processed as a green tea, Benifuuki has a high amount of O-methylated catechins, which is beneficial in suppressing the symptoms of seasonal allergies.


Does Japanese Black Tea Taste Like Black Teas Produced In Other Countries?

In terms of taste, Japanese black teas are typically less astringent and bitter than Indian and Sri Lankan black teas. They also tend to have more floral and honey aroma.

Japanese black teas provide a lighter cup with more delicate flavors and a typically higher level of sweetness. Since they are not as bold in flavor as other black teas, it's recommended to enjoy them without milk.


How Is Japanese Black Tea Produced?

While there are no uniform processes that Japanese black tea manufacturers follow, they employ similar methods to produce wakoucha. Here are some of the common methods.

Step 1: Withering

The first step in wakoucha production is to wither the leaves. There are two typical methods to achieve this:

  • The first method makes use of withering beds with a jute or cloth underside, which allows air to circulate. The leaves rest on these beds outdoors and in the shade for 15 to 20 hours.
  • The second method is an artificial recreation of the first method. This method makes use of indoormonitored withering tanks.

Withering makes the leaf soft enough for kneading, but hardy enough to not easily break.

Additionally, withering also lays the groundwork so the end product will have a fragrant aroma.

Step 2: Initial Kneading

The kneading machine used for wakoucha production is similar to that used for sencha production. In this machine, the leaves are placed in a vat with a lid that pushes the leaves downward as the vat moves in a circular motion.

This process destroys the cell membrane of the leaf and produces small cuts on the surface. These cuts expose the oxidase enzymes, which starts the oxidation process. This will influence some of the most important factors in the end product, such as flavor, aroma, and color.

Step 3: Filtering

Filtering ensures that the leaves aren’t tangled together, which can accelerate the effects of oxidation. The leaves are transferred to a large sieve that shakes up, down and sideways.

The smaller leaves that fall through the sieve will be separated for oxidation. The larger ones will go through the second round of kneading.

Step 4: Second Round of Kneading

The larger leaves return to the kneading machine to further break down their cell walls. From here, they’re combined with the smaller leaves that were filtered out.

Step 5: Oxidation

In this stage, the leaves are left in an oxidation tank for around 2 to 3 hours. During this stage, the leaves will start to take on their characteristic reddish-brown color and develop the signature black tea aroma.

Step 6: Fixing and Drying

In this stage, the leaves are placed inside a drying chest (typically the same used for sencha production) where they’re subjected to hot air. This process significantly reduces the fluid content of the leaves.

Step 7: Selection

This stage focuses on finishing up the appearance of the tea as well as rounding out its flavor and aroma. The raw tea is cut, leaves and twigs separated, and small particles are removed using a sieve.

Step 8: Maturation

Like fine wine, Japanese black tea also gets better with age. Resting the tea in a controlled environment for about 1- 1.5 years can remove the bitterness that comes from young leaves and give the tea a better, more mellowed-out flavor.

Additional Reference:

Sōsen, T. (2019). The Story of Japanese Tea: a broad outline of its cultivation, manufacturing, history and cultural values [Amazon Kindle]. 


Does Sugimoto Tea Company Sell Wakoucha?

Yes, we do, but only for wholesale. Our Wakoucha has been complimentarily described as “the mildest wakoucha ever” by tea blogger Ricardo Caicedo of My Japanese Green Tea. Here’s an excerpt of his review of our Wakoucha:

“I think that the mellow flavor must be due to the combination of the Yabukita cultivar and organic farming.

If you’re looking for a delicate black tea in terms of flavor, this one might suit your taste.”

Want to know more about wakoucha? Reach out to us and we’ll happily answer any questions you may have about Japanese black tea.

READ NEXT: What is Shincha?

    Back to top of page