With all the information out there regarding the health benefits and correct preparation of green tea, rarely is a distinction made between Japanese green tea and Chinese green tea. In reality, the two are processed in two very different ways, and have completely distinct flavor profiles.
Like Chinese green tea, Japanese green tea is considered un-oxidized. This means the tea leaves are given as little interaction with oxygen as possible, preventing their enzymes from reacting chemically and changing the characteristics of the leaves. To prevent oxidation, Japanese tea leaves are steamed very soon after plucking. The heat of the steam kills the enzymes of the tea leaves and arrests any chance of oxidation. The steaming also allows the leaves to keep their deep green coloration.
Next, Japanese green tea undergoes drying and rolling. The drying process occurs at lower heat than steaming, and the rolling breaks the leaves’ cell walls to release the flavors so they come out easily during steeping. Some people believe that Japanese green teas get their needle-like shape and sometimes broken appearance because they are chopped, but in fact this appearance is due to repeated kneading. Traditionally, the teas were hand-kneaded, but modern rolling technology allows considerably more tea to be processed. Today, a small number of premium hand-kneaded teas are still produced, but they are generally extremely expensive and rarely leave Japan. Depending on the region, Japanese teas are harvested as many as seven times per year, although premium teas are produced only once or twice per year.
Japan produces a surprisingly large number of different tea types, but the most famous are Genmaicha, Sencha, and Gyokuro. Genmaicha is produced by combining Summer-harvested tea called Bancha with toasted and popped rice. The taste combines the classic grassy flavor of Japanese green tea with a savory, toasty flavor that pairs extremely well with food. Sencha is the most popular green tea in Japan and is characterized by sweet, grassy flavor, full body and slight pleasant bitterness. Since Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan and harvesting occurs several times throughout the year, quality can vary from premium to everyday grades. Gyokuro is the most premium Japanese green tea produced. The leaves are grown in shade, which produces a tea with an extreme sweetness, delicate flavor and minimal bitterness.
Join me for the sequel to this article, in which I’ll discuss the processing of Chinese green tea.
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