You may know that some Japanese teas, such as matcha and gyokuro, are ‘shade-grown’, but what exactly does this entail and how does it affect the taste of tea? In Part 1 of this deep dive into shaded teas, we’ll take a look at the history behind this uniquely Japanese cultivation technique and also break down the types and practices of shading that are used today.
What does ‘shading’ or ‘shade-grown’ mean?
In the realm of Japanese tea, ‘shading’ typically refers to the practice of artificially reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the tea plant by placing various materials over the tea bushes. This differs from ‘natural shading’ which can be provided by mountains, fog, or shade plants (taller plants or trees growing next to/over tea bushes). When tea, especially Japanese tea, is sold as ‘shaded’, it almost always means artificially shaded. Other products that are sold as ‘shade-grown’, such as coffee, are typically shaded with shade plants. While these naturally occurring types of shade produce teas noticeably different from those grown in direct or prolonged sunlight, artificial shading takes it a step further, amplifying shading’s effects considerably.
The History of Artificial Shading
While it had been long known in China that tea grown on shady hillsides or foggy mountains is mellower than tea grown on sunny flatlands, deliberate shading of the tea plants was only developed in Japan, sometime in the 16th century. The exact date of its invention is unknown, though tea shading structures using bamboo and straw had become commonplace in Uji by the mid-to-late 16th century. Portuguese missionary João Rodrigues Tçuzu described seeing covered tea gardens in Uji in 1577 and later wrote about them and Japanese tea culture in his History of the Japanese Church. Though we cannot be certain, it is thought that the earliest shading canopies were originally built to protect the young tea buds and leaves from frost damage, and that the effects produced by shading were a byproduct.
Interestingly, the date of shading’s development coincides with tea ceremony’s ‘golden age’ towards the end of the Sengoku (戦国 - warring states) era, meaning that key players in Japanese tea history, such as Sen no Rikyu and Furuta Oribe, would likely have been drinking shaded matcha, similar to what we have today. Up until shading’s introduction, matcha was a rather bitter drink with whitish foam. It is possible that this major upgrade in the quality of tea was one of the reasons that tea culture exploded in Japan during this time.
What Teas Are Shaded?
Because all tea types come from the same plant, you could technically make any tea from shaded leaves, but for reasons that we’ll explore in Part 2, only certain green teas are made from shaded tea leaves. Collectively, these are called ooicha (覆い茶/おおい茶 - shaded tea). The three main types of shaded tea are matcha (tencha), gyokuro, and kabusecha. Additionally, some senchas undergo brief shading.
A recent discovery is hakuyoucha (白葉茶-white leaf tea) which can be made by blocking out almost all light reaching the plant, turning the leaves a pale whitish-green.
How is Tea Shaded?
There are roughly three main techniques used to shade tea today, listed here in increasing order of quality, cost, and labour:
- Jikakabuse (Direct Shading-直冠せ): the simplest and cheapest shading method. Black synthetic cloth is draped directly over the plants, blocking out around 70% of the sunlight. A second layer can be added to increase the shading to around 95%. Putting the shading material directly on the tea requires that the plants be machine-trimmed to have an even surface. This machine-trimming gives many Japanese tea bushes their distinctive rounded shape. The even surface it creates is perfect for harvesting the tea leaves by machine as well, although they can also be hand-picked. This style of shading is most commonly used for shaded sencha and kabusecha, it is also used occasionally for gyokuro and tencha.
- Kanreisha (Shelf-style with Synthetic Cloth-寒冷紗): the most common shading method. Here, the black fabric is held in a canopy, or shelf, built over the tea bushes. This allows greater air and moisture circulation and also lets the plants grow more freely. Some shelf-shaded teas are grown untrimmed as shizen-shitate (自然仕立て- naturally-tailored) bushes, meaning that the bushes grown naturally and unshaped, which produces higher quality tea, but also makes them unsuitable for machine-harvesting, requiring these teas to be picked by hand. In this diagram the tea bush has a machine rounded shape:
- Honzu (Shelf-style with Reeds and Straw Mats-本簀): the most traditional shading method. Dating back at least over 400 years, the Honzu method uses the same shelf system as kanreisha but uses a screen of reeds as the first layer of shading instead of synthetic fabric. Though considerably more labour intensive and expensive to construct, the reed screen allows for even more air and moisture to circulate around the plants producing higher-quality, more complex teas. Additional layers of shading are added by placing straw mats on top of the reed screen. Most honzu-shaded fields are grown as shizen-shitate as shown below:
When is Tea Shaded?
Shaded tea fields spend most of the year unshaded; it is only in the spring as the new buds begin to grow that shading begins. Deciding when to begin shading varies per farm, but it is usually sometime between the emergence of the new bud and the growth of the first leaf.
The first layer of shading blocks about 70% of sunlight from reaching the tea plant. After a few days, this is enough to produce the brighter colour and deeper flavour seen in shaded senchas. After 7-10 days, a second layer of shading can be added, with the combined layers blocking around 90-95% of sunlight. Additional layers can be added to further reduce the light reaching the plant up to 99.99%, as is used to make hakuyoucha.
Now that you know what shading is and how Japanese teas are shaded, you're ready to immerse yourself in Part 2 - We'll explore the tea plant’s biochemical reactions to shading, and how these reactions generate the characteristic taste, aroma, and appearance of shaded teas.