For a while, green tea was green tea for me. Then I tried some gyokuro, a high-grade Japanese green tea, and it was like seeing a whole new universe. I didn’t know green tea could have such a strong, oceanic flavor to it. Since then I’ve been hooked on Japanese green teas.
Why do Japanese green teas taste different from Chinese greens? It’s mainly due to the production. The Chinese method of tea production often involves drying the leaves in a wok. This gives the tea a nuttier, sometimes toasty or smoky flavor. The Japanese generally steam their tea leaves, which gives it a fresher vegetal taste. Both varieties are good for different moods or tastes.
I decided to pull out and profile the three Japanese teas currently in my collection. They’re all very distinct from each other. Let us compare and contrast!
I brewed up a cup each of kukicha, hojicha, and genmaicha, three unique Japanese teas. Let’s take a look at each one:
Kukicha translates to “twig tea.” It’s made up of the stems, stalks and twigs, and it usually comes from the production of sencha or matcha. At first this might sound like it’s the haggis of tea world, using the thrown-off parts of the tea plant out of sheer pragmatism. But actually, it’s really delicious and good for several steeps! It’s also unique in that it has very little caffeine in it. I’m presuming this is because the leaf isn’t involved in kukicha.
The Tasting: I got my kukicha from one of the few physical Adagio tea shops when I was in Chicago. I had only heard of it before, but the smell was too good to pass up. Pre-steeped kukicha has a bright, vegetal aroma to it. My immediate thought was, “It’s like gyokuro’s kooky cousin.” (Get it? Kooky-cha? I’ll stop now.)
Before steeping it looks almost like lemongrass, since, like that plant, it’s mostly twigs and stems. When steeped, the liquor is a clear yellow. I love its bright, refreshing taste. It’s one of those teas that you can guzzle right up because it’s so refreshing, and you don’t get any of that tannin mouthfeel on your tongue or teeth. I read somewhere that the Japanese sometimes mix kukicha in with fruit juice to make a drink for kids. I will have to experiment with that this summer–I think the bright, vegetal notes would go really well with some sweet fruit notes. YUM.
Fun to say and fun to drink! Hojicha is a bancha tea. Bancha is produced in the late summer-early fall harvest. To make hojicha, the bancha leaves are roasted for a few minutes. This strips the leaves of a lot of their health properties, but it gives the leaves a honeyed taste, sort of like hazelnuts. It also turns the leaves a brassy color, making it a rather unusual looking and tasting green tea.
The Tasting: This hojicha is another Adagio tea–I nabbed a free sample of it with another tea purchase, and I’m glad I did. You can definitely smell the toasted quality before you steep hojicha. When steeped, the liquor is amber with almost a pinkish tinge to it. I like the light toastiness in the flavor and its rounder, sweeter taste. You get a little bit of that vegetal taste from the green tea in there as well, but it’s completely different from a straight up Japanese green tea.
Genmaicha was the first Japanese tea I had that wasn’t just a “plain” green tea. It was originally a peasant’s tea. Poor Japanese tea drinkers would add toasted brown rice to their tea leaves to make the tea last longer. And as it turns out, toasted rice and green tea is a pretty delicious combination. Now it’s one of the most established teas of Japan, made with either sencha or bancha leaf.
The Tasting: I got my genmaicha from the bulk section at my local co-op grocery, so it’s not particularly high-grade, but it was still pretty tasty. Genmaicha has this really savory aroma from the rice. When you steep it, the result of this combo is a clean-tasting tea with a hint of toasty nuttiness from the rice. It’s an strange tea, and it might not be up everyone’s alley, but I’m a huge fan. It has the unusual distinction of being both really refreshing and really warming and comforting. The liquor of genmaicha is a clear olive-green, and as you drink the steamed rice smell hits your nose and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a warm kitchen with stir fry on the stove.
Out of the three of these, do I have a favorite? Tough call. They are all tasty and have different merits depending on what you’re in the mood for. So, I recommend to you:
- Have a cup of kukicha when you want something bright and refreshing. Try it iced on a summer day for a tasty way of hydrating.
- Make some hojicha when you want a comforting, toasty drink. Wrap your hands around a mug of it as you pull a blanket around you and read a book.
- Brew up some genmaicha if you want a satisfying, clean-tasting companion to your savory or sweet food.