Japanese Tea Varieties

Learn About the Different Varieties of Japanese Tea

There are many different kinds of Japanese tea, but what makes them all different? For example, how are Japanese green teas different from Chinese green teas? Read on here to learn more about what green tea is, why Japanese green teas are unique, and about the different varieties of Japanese teas.

Guide Contents:

What Is Green Tea

Did you know that all true teas (green, white, oolong, black, and dark) are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant? There is no black tea plant or green tea plant, though often specific varietals of C. sinensis are used to make specific kinds of tea.

It's similar to wine. All wines comes from grapes, but different wines use different varietals of grapes and different methods of production. This is how tea is too.

So what makes green tea different from other teas? The processing.

To be classified as a green tea, the freshly plucked leaves are left unoxidized and undergo a process called "kill-green." If the leaves were oxidized, they would turn brown similar to how apples turn brown when cut and left in the open. To prevent this in tea, the enzymes in the leaves are broken down which leaves the leaves, well, green!

There are two main “kill-green” methods, and this is where the main difference (besides growing region) between Japanese green tea and green teas from other countries comes in.

what makes green tea unique

What Makes Japanese Green Tea Unique

The “kill-green” step in making green tea is achieved by either pan-frying the fresh tea leaves, or by steaming them. Steaming is the method preferred for the vast majority of Japanese green teas. This brings out the natural umami and sweetness in the leaves that we all know and love with Japanese green teas.

Besides how they are made, Japanese tea is also special because of who it is made by. Unlike tea in many other countries, you will never hear about access to restrooms or child labor being an issue in Japanese tea fields. Japan has strict labor safety laws, minimum wage laws, universal healthcare, a great public education system, and the tea farmers usually own their own fields.

Thanks to this, you can always feel comfortable about drinking authentic Japanese tea.

Japanese Green Tea Varieties

The different types of Japanese green teas are determined from a number of factors, including:

  • Pre-harvest tending
  • Post-harvest processing
  • Part of the plant used
  • Season of harvest

The following teas are the main kinds of Japanese green teas. There are a few more that aren’t covered here, but these are the vast majority of what is produced in Japan. 


    What is Matcha?

    Matcha is the oldest type of tea in Japan and was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks from China in the late 12th century. The tradition of powdered tea by and large died out in China shortly after, however it grew ground in Japan, eventually leading to the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

    Matcha is made from leaves that have been shaded for 2 to 3 weeks prior to the first harvest, then are steamed, deveined, destemmed, and dried without rolling before being ground into a fine powder.

    There are two main categories of matcha, ceremonial grade and culinary grade:

    • Ceremonial Matcha refers to the higher grades of matcha which are harvested earlier in the year. The earlier the harvest and better the flavor, the higher the grade of matcha.
      • Ceremonial matcha should always be vibrant green and will have a sweeter, more umami flavor than culinary matcha since it’s the highest in L-theanine.
      • It’s also ground into a much finer powder than culinary grade matcha is, which makes it smooth and suitable for drinking on its own.
    • Culinary Matcha is made from the same bushes as ceremonial grade matcha, but harvested in the summer and early fall.
      • This makes it a less vibrant green (though it should still be bright green, never yellow or grey) and gives it a bolder flavor and lower grades are more likely to have noticeable bitterness.
      • It’s not typically ground as finely as ceremonial grades of matcha, which actually helps with clumping to make it an ideal ingredient for cooking and baking. If you're in the market for a good green tea for recipes like matcha cookies, cake, or ice cream, culinary matcha is the way to go.

    Other Powdered Japanese Green Teas

    • Genmaicha and hojicha are often turned into powdered teas too due to a rise in the popularity of Genmaicha and Hojicha Lattes. These should definitely not be confused with matcha and will have significantly different tastes, characterized by the roasted rice in genmaicha and roasted leaves of hojicha. They both make for great food ingredients.
    • If you read “Powdered green tea” on a product that doesn’t say “matcha,” this usually means the tea is powdered sencha, or some other green tea that never underwent shading and was likely rolled before being dried and ground. These are convenient for cooking, are still high in antioxidants (less so in L-theanine), but lack the smooth umami flavor of matcha and are often bitter when drunk plain.

    What is Sencha?

    Sencha is Japan’s most popular classic steamed green tea and the vast majority of what is produced in Japan.

    The key points about sencha are:

    • Grown in full sun
    • Steamed after harvesting
    • Rolled before drying
    • Has a balance of sweetness, bitterness, and astringency

    Senchas are typically a blend of leaf from different fields and sometimes even cultivars, though the majority of sencha will be from Yabukita. Tea Masters make these blends of leaf material in order to perfect a signature flavor that can be consistent throughout the years. There is also a final roasting step before packaging where Tea Masters can show their skill in creating a delicious tea.

    There are three main types of sencha based on steaming level:

    • Sencha Asamushi (lightly steamed)
    • Sencha Chumushi (medium steamed, also known as futsumushi or normal steamed)
    • And our favorite, Sencha Fukamushi (deep steamed)

    What is Genmaicha?

    Genmaicha is another classic Japanese favorite. It’s created by combining roasted rice and tea leaves. Traditionally, genmaicha is made with bancha leaves, however it is also commonly made with sencha.

    Main features of genmaicha:

    • Combination of roasted rice and green tea
    • Bright and nutty flavor
    • Strong roasted rice aroma
    • Matcha is often added to round out the flavor and create an attractive green hue

    The rice used in genmaicha is typically white rice, often mochi riche in particular, but never brown rice. The brown color comes from the roasting process. This roasting can occasionally pop some of the rice, giving it an appearance similar to popcorn.


    What is Kukicha?

    Also known as “twig tea”, kukicha is a made from the young twigs and stems separated out from the leaves during production. Due to this it is naturally low in caffeine and makes for an enjoyable tea suitable for any time of day.

    Main features of Kukicha:

    • Made from young twigs and stems
    • Naturally low in caffeine
    • Naturally high in L-theanine
    • Mild sweetness and pleasant aroma

    We also offer our own blend that features flavorful kukicha, matcha, and yuzu. It offers the perfect balance of umami, sweetness, and tartness.


    What is Hojicha?

    Despite its color, hojicha is still a green tea since it went through the "kill-green" process and is unoxidized. Its caramel hue just comes from the roasting process. Hojicha is traditionally made from either bancha leaves or kukicha and can be roasted at varying levels depending on the Tea Master’s preference. Instead of tasting grassy like other loose leaf green teas, hojicha has a bold, earthy flavor.

    Main features of Hojicha:

    • Roasted green tea
    • Made from either bancha or kukicha
    • Bold, earthy flavor with natural sweetness
    • Strong roasted aroma

    While most companies use roasted bancha, we use roasted kukicha, which has a natural sweetness that complements the earthiness that comes from roasting.

    Did You Know: You can roast your own hojicha at home! It’s easy to make using a Houroku with either our Kukicha or Bancha and fills the room with an incredible aroma. Many aromatic compounds are lost during storage and transportation, so making hojicha at home is a special way to get an incredible tea experience.


    What is Gyokuro?

    The finest Japanese loose leaf green tea, gyokuro, is shaded for about three weeks before the first harvest similar to matcha. However, post-harvest, it's processed like sencha where the leaves are rolled before being dried. It has an attractive emerald-like hue with an unrivaled umami flavor that's highlighted by sweet overtones.

    Main features of gyokuro:

    • Shaded for ~3 weeks before harvest
    • Dark green leaves and bright green brew
    • Strong umami flavor and aroma
    • Very high in L-theanine similar to matcha

    What is Kabusecha?

    Kabusecha is also a shaded green tea that's similar in flavor and appearance to sencha and gyokuro. It’s shaded for a shorter period of time than gyokuro, typically for only a week or two. This shading gives it a light green color with a complex, buttery flavor.

    Main features of Kabusecha:

    • Shaded for 1-2 weeks before harvest
    • Also has dark green leaves and bright green brew
    • Buttery umami flavor and aroma
    • High in L-theanine compared to sencha

    Did You Know: High quality organic gyokuro is hard to grow due to the prolonged lack of sunlight and supplemental fertilizers, but since kabusecha has a shorter shading time it can still be very delicious when grown organically. This is why we carry an Organic Kabusecha for anyone who prefers certified organic food but still wants to enjoy the buttery umaminess of shaded Japanese green teas.


    What is Bancha?

    Bancha usually refers to sencha that is created from leaves harvested during late summer, which receive the most sunlight. When exposed to the long daylight hours of summer, the leaves develop more catechins, which are antioxidants, and reduce the amount of chlorophyll and L-theanine in the leaves. It has a robust flavor and a yellow hue compared to sencha.

    Main features of bancha:

    • Harvested in the late summer
    • High in antioxidants
    • Brisk flavor and yellow hue
    • Often used to make genmaicha and hojicha

    What is Konacha?

    Konacha comes from small fragments sorted from sencha leaves, and has a very strong flavor compared to sencha. It’s traditionally known as the "tea of sushi restaurants.”

    Main features of Konacha:

    • Made from small fragments of sencha and other teas
    • Commonly served at sushi restaurants in Japan
    • Very strong flavor and dark cloudy green appearance
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