Tea from Japan can be confusing with the funny names and the odd English translations they produce. In this publication we will give a quick overview of Japanese tea including the general types and grades of tea, growing/processing styles and varietals used. With this guide as a companion anyone should be able to navigate the Japanese tea rhetoric and determine exactly what it is being advertised.
Part One: What was that twig tea called???
There are 8 general kinds of green tea in Japan. They are Aracha, Konacha, Kukicha, Bancha, Hojicha, Sencha, Gyokuro and Tencha, the base of Maccha. You may have heard some or all of these names before, but hopefully this guide will convey a deeper meaning than you have previously understood.
Aracha (literally ‘rough tea’) is the unprocessed and unsorted raw tea product made in Japan. From Aracha the other teas named above are sorted. One batch of Sencha Aracha can produce varying quantities and grades of Konacha, Kukicha, Hojicha and Sencha. Aracha can come in many different grades, so if you find it online the most important distinction to know is whether it is Sencha or Gyokuro Aracha. Sencha being a lower grade and Gyokuro being the higher.
(Aracha pictured is Gyokuro Aracha from Wazuka City near Uji)
Konacha (lit. ‘particulate tea’) can be one of two things. Traditionally it is the dusty byproduct of tea production sorted from Aracha. More recently a market has opened for this style of tea and many Konachas are now produced by taking various grades of sencha and grinding them to a powder. These more modern varieties are often more flavorful than the traditional byproduct.
(Konacha pictured is from Sencha production in Kyoto)
Kukicha (lit. ‘stem tea’) is most often the more delicate stems of the green tea leaf that have been sorted from various Arachas. Any standard grade of Kukicha, sometimes referred to as twig tea, also includes some small amount of leaf which sticks to the stem when it is sorted out. Higher grades of Kukicha can be made from Gyokuro Aracha or even Tencha (the tea base for Maccha). These higher grades can be almost as delicious as the higher grade teas themselves, yet at a fraction of the price. Be wary of any Kukicha that is exclusively stem as it is not a natural Aracha byproduct and is over-processed.
(Kukicha pictured is from a Tencha base)
Bancha (lit. ‘interval tea’) is a tea that is picked out of the normal tea picking period. Bancha is usually picked after all of the tea picking for the spring is complete or just before winter as a method of maintaining the optimal harvesting shape of the tea bush. Bancha is normally very smooth and vegetal in flavor, with practically no bitterness.
(Bancha pictured is picked between First and Second Flush)
Hojicha (lit. ‘roast tea’) is as the name implies. The base tea is usually a coarser grade of Kukicha or Bancha. A good Hojicha is normally not over-roasted, appearing mostly green in the pot, and has at least a 1:1 leaf to stem ratio.
(Hojicha pictured is picked between First and Second Flush)
Sencha (lit. ‘steep tea’) is the main product of Sencha Aracha. It is the tender spring leaf that has been shaped into a pine-needle like form and is a dark-green color. The leaf should not be overly broken or dusty and under close inspection should appear highly glossy. Senchas can range in flavor and quality a great deal, but a good sencha should have a solid balance of bitter, sweet and savory flavor aspects.
(Sencha pictured is shade finished from Wazuka City near Uji)
Gyokuro (lit. ‘Jade Dew’) is the main product of Gyokuro Aracha. Gyokuro (gyoh-coo-roe) has been grown with extensive fertilization of the surrounding field and is shaded from the sun for the last 4-6 weeks before harvest. Gyokuro should also be highly glossy and pine-needle shaped. If you chew a bit of the dry leaf it should be sweet, savory and inoffensive. Though possibly very lightly bitter, Gyokuro’s flavor should focus on sweetness or umami.
(Gyokuro pictured is sorted from the Aracha pictured above)
Tencha (lit. Heaven Tea) is the base tea that is ground into Maccha. All drinkable Tenchas are hand-picked and carefully shade-finished before picking. After picking the leaf is steamed and dried immediately. The product looks like a simple withered leaf, but is a rich, deep green. All of the vein and stem matter is removed by crushing the leaf and using a variety of sorting methods, thus the broken look to the leaf matter. There are various grades, but all of the drinkable grades are essentially the same tea, but grown from different varietals with different fertilizers to enhance certain flavors.
(Tea pictured is a Tencha base for a ceremonial-grade thick-tea Maccha from Aichi Pref.)
Maccha (lit. Paint Tea) is the product of grinding the Tencha above in a traditional stone tea-mill. With none of the vein matter in the mix, the product can be sweet, savory and thick without being too bitter. Higher grade Macchas tend to use Tenchas that were produced with more fertilizers or from varietals that are more difficult or take longer to grow. Lower grades of Maccha are not hand-picked and can be quite bitter with additives like spirulina to enhance the green color. These lower grades are wonderful for cooking or baking as they can have quite pungent flavors that shine when combined with sugar or salt in a cookie or a biscuit.
One additional naming convention that I should mention is Shincha, as this term is often used in the US, as a buzz-word of sorts, to sell tea. Shincha is not a tea, but rather a first picking of a tea for the year. A more easily understood term would be “first-flush”, though it only applies to teas picked and sold during the current Spring. Like Aracha, Shincha comes in Sencha and Gyokuro forms and does not necessarily denote a superior tea, just one picked earlier than later.
This list is not entirely comprehensive, but should cover most teas available for sale in the US. Other teas that may be found are Kawayanagi, Karigane, Sayamacha, Tamaryokucha/Guricha, Kamairicha, etc. I will write the definitions for these and other Japanese teas soon, so please let us know if you find one that you would like to know more about! I have worked in the Japanese tea fields as well as in the steaming and shaping houses and would love to share the knowledge I have accumulated.