Sushi would not be your first choice for happy hour but your best friend insists the new place around the corner from the office is the BEST! You’re about to say no when she mentions they also serve ramen. Noodles…now she has your inner foodie’s attention.

She orders a cocktail but you decide a nice cup of green tea would make you happier. In a very non-traditional pot, the server brings you a tea that smells delicious but unfamiliar. She says it’s genmaicha…and you’re stumped. You’re about to get your introduction to Japanese green tea.

The most common green teas, like jasmine green, are usually of the Chinese variety. While Chinese green teas are my personal favorites, Japanese green teas are growing on me. While they all come from the same plant the differences in soil and climate impart different flavor qualities into the Japanese grown camellia sinensis plants. Production style is also different in Japan where there is more emphasis on efficiency and consistency. Machine picking and processing as well as the blending of harvests are more common.

A simple guide to Japanese green tea

Let’s keep it simple and focus on the three most common varieties of Japanese green tea: sencha, genmaicha and hojicha. The team at Nanami Tea was kind enough to send me a sample of their organic green teas to taste and guide help guide our discussion.

I’ll start with genmaicha, my personal favorite. As I said, I prefer Chinese teas but I can’t turn down a good genmaicha. Genmaicha is green tea mixed with toasted brown rice. The addition of the brown rice gives this tea a pleasant nutty flavor, a nice alternative to the floral notes often found in green teas (like the aforementioned jasmine.) If you want a richer and bolder green tea , genmaicha would be an excellent choice to start your day or enjoy with a meal.

Genmaicha fun fact! Legend has it that genmaicha was born when a farmer blended rice with tea as a filler so the poor could afford to drink tea.

If you prefer a milder tea, sencha might be a better variety for you. In fact, I used to be turned off by sencha because I thought it too mild. Its grassy tones are lighter on the palate than the more vegetal taste of many Chinese green teas. However, don’t be fooled by its delicate nature! Sencha is actually the highest in caffeine of the three Japanese green teas I’m sharing today. If you need a green tea to give you a boost first thing in the morning or before a workout, sencha might be a nice option for you.

Sencha fun fact! Sencha tea makes up nearly 80% of the tea produced in Japan and is the tea of choice for everyday drinking there.

My least favorite of the teas is hojicha. Hojicha is a roasted green tea with a toasty and slightly sweet taste. I find myself sensitive to sweetness so this may explain why it isn’t at the top of my list. You also might question the green tea classification upon first glance due to the dark color of the leaves. Hojicha’s caramel color comes from a variation in the roasting process. To make hojicha, the tea leaves are roasted over charcoal in a porcelain pot. Despite the color, this is a lower caffeine green tea. It might be just what you need for a post lunch pick me up.

Hojicha fun fact! This tea is great iced or (unlike most green tea) with milk.

How do you brew these teas to get the best cup? According to the guide from Nanami, it’s very simple. 1 tsp for 8 oz of boiling water and steep for no more than 2 minutes. (Longer steeps might make the teas bitter. ) For my own personal taste, I keep the water temperature a little lower (steaming but not yet boiling) and let it steep the full two minutes. Go ahead and experiment and see what time and temperature work best for your tastes.

I know. You’re asking yourself…what about matcha? Isn’t that Japanese?

Yes, it is. And while it does come in the Nanami Tea Zen set, I am saving the complex subject of matcha for a post all its own. You’ll have to stay tuned!

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