Types of Japanese Tea

While you may be familiar with matcha or sencha, Japan produces over 20 distinct types of tea, which are distinguished primarily by their processing after picking. Here, we’ll take a look at Japan’s most famous and popular tea styles, alongside some rare, unique, and newly-developed types.

Outline

 

The first way teas are classified is by their level of oxidation, which roughly separates tea into categories of green, white, oolong, and black, in order of oxidation:

  • Green tea: 0-5%
  • White tea: 5-15%
  • Oolong tea: 5-85%
  • Black tea: 85-100%

(these are very rough averages and many examples can fall outside of these ranges)

Oxidation is often confused with fermentation, which is a different process altogether that involves microbial activity and is responsible for the final two categories of tea: yellow tea and dark tea.

On the other hand, oxidation is the series of natural chemical processes by which the tea leaf slowly turns brown after being picked (in much the same way that an apple slice turns brown over time). During this process, the fresh, vegetal, and often savoury notes of green tea give way to the floral, fruity, and malty tastes and aromas of oolong and black teas. 

To stop oxidation at the desired stage, the tea leaf is either heated to deactivate the primary enzymes at work (such as polyphenol oxidase), or dried out so that all chemical reactions are effectively halted. This heating process is often called ‘fixing’ or ‘kill-green’ in English, and is known as sassei (殺青) in Japanese.

Unoxidised/Green teas (緑茶)

Japanese tea is almost synonymous with green tea, as around 95% of the tea produced in Japan is some variety of green tea. Japanese green tea is characterised by its vibrant colour and fresh taste which is due to it being steamed to stop the oxidation process, unlike Chinese green teas, which are typically pan-fired or baked. 

Sencha (煎茶)

Sencha leaves

Since the earliest form of sencha was developed in 1738 by Nagatani Soen (永谷宗円), it has become by far the most popular type of Japanese tea, comprising around 60% of Japanese tea production.

Sencha is classically made from unshaded first flush leaves, ideally 1 bud and 2-3 leaves, which are immediately steamed to prevent oxidation. Then the leaves progress through three stages of rolling and drying, with the final rolling giving the tea its distinctive needle-like shape. The tea is finished by a final firing/drying (火入 - hi-ire), before any stems, dust, and oversized leaves are sorted out. Though sencha is usually defined as an unshaded tea, it is not uncommon to find sencha that has been shaded briefly, especially in the Kyoto region.

As it is made in practically all tea-growing regions across Japan, sencha can have an enormous variety of flavour, appearance, and aroma, depending on where it is from. Regional climate, soil, terrain, cultivars, and processing styles all have an impact on the final tea. For example, sencha from the mountainous districts of Kawane and Honyama in Shizuoka are known for their crisp, fresh, sometimes floral taste; sencha from the Kyoto region are typically briefly shaded with weak firing yielding a rounder, more umami-heavy tea; whereas sencha from Yame tend to have a darker, nuttier flavour due to stronger firing.

Shincha (新茶 - new tea) refers to sencha that is sold immediately after it is freshly picked and processed, rather than tea that is placed in cold storage to be sold later in the year. It has a distinct vibrant, verdant, and fresh aroma that quickly dissipates and is not found in sencha sold later in the year (even though it was picked and processed at the same time). As such shincha can only be bought and enjoyed during the first flush harvesting months of around March-June. This distinct but ephemeral aroma comes largely from the incredibly unstable compound (Z)-3-hexanal (leaf aldehyde) and the slightly less but still very volatile (Z)-3-hexanol (leaf alcohol). 

Fukamushicha/Fukamushi Sencha (深蒸し煎茶)

While technically a subset of sencha, fukamushi sencha, also called fukamushicha or deep-steamed sencha, it is treated as a separate category in Japan. As its name implies, it is steamed for longer than traditional sencha. Although there is no regulation regarding steaming time and specific times vary per region and producer, they are often generalised into three categories accordingly:

  • Asamushi (浅蒸し - light-steamed): <20 seconds
  • Chuumushi/futsumushi (中蒸し/普通蒸し - medium-/normal-steamed): 20-60 seconds
  • Fukamushi (深蒸し - deep-steamed): >60 seconds

As a result of the longer steaming, the leaf is more moist and fragile, causing it to break apart during the rolling stages. The resulting tea is a mixture of a few intact needles, along with smaller broken pieces. This allows more pectin (soluble fiber) to dissolve when brewing, reducing the perceived astringency and increasing sweetness.

Fukamushicha was first developed in the 1950s as a way to revitalise the Japanese tea industry following WWII, and eventually gained popularity in the 70s due to its ease of brewing, deep umami flavour, vibrant green colour, and lack of astringency. Since then it has become the most popular type of sencha in Japan today. However, due to issues with large-scale mass production and an overemphasis on greenness and umami, a lot of fukamushicha falls short of its promise, lacking character and aroma, and being overly bitter.  Nonetheless, there are some smaller producers who continue to make amazing fukamushicha.

Gyokuro (玉露 - Jade Dew)

One of Japan’s finest teas, gyokuro is produced through much the same process as sencha, but using  leaves that have been shaded for 20-40 days before harvesting. Considered a luxury, it makes up only 0.3% of total tea production in Japan. The processing method was developed over the course of six years before being perfected in 1841 by Eguchi Shigejuro.

Shading the tea plants from the sun forces them to produce more chloroplasts and chlorophyll to harvest more sunlight, causing the leaves to develop a deep, vibrant green colour. These extra chloroplasts  switch from producing bitter-tasting catechins which typically protect the leaves from excessive sun, and instead make sweet and savoury amino acids such as L-theanine along with aromatic compounds such as benzaldehyde which result in the unique ‘shaded aroma’ or ooika (覆い香).

Compared to sencha, gyokuro leaves tend to be much darker, glossier, and greener in colour, with slightly thicker, less tightly rolled needles. Though produced similarly to sencha, gyokuro is brewed quite differently, using a small amount of warm water and a relatively large amount of leaves. The cooler water temperature extracts the amino acids without extracting the more bitter compounds, while the higher leaf to water ratio increases the concentration of these sweet and savoury compounds, producing a decadent, thick, umami rich liquor. 

Today, almost all gyokuro is either grown in Uji, Kyoto, or Yame, Fukuoka, with the two regions fighting annually for the top prize at the national competitions. 

Kabusecha (かぶせ茶 - covered tea)

Kabusecha occupies the space between sencha and gyokuro, and as such is usually shaded for between 1-3 weeks, though the lines between shaded sencha, kabusecha, and gyokuro differ between regions and producers. For example, in the Kyoto region, any tea shaded for less than 14 days is still considered a sencha, but would likely be considered a kabusecha elsewhere in Japan.

Another way kabusecha differs from gyokuro is the type of shadinggyokuro is more commonly shelf-shaded while kabusecha is typically direct shaded. (for more information about the different types of shading, see Matcha)

In terms of flavour, kabusecha has the same shaded aroma or ooika as gyokuro, but is less intense and is typically brewed more like a standard sencha.

Tencha (碾茶)

Rarely sold in loose-leaf format, tencha is the raw material that is ground to produce matcha and comprises around 5% of Japanese tea production. Similar to gyokuro, tencha is grown under the shade for 3-4 weeks before picking. However, tencha is usually picked a little later than gyokuro to allow the leaves to become slightly larger, and the picking is slightly larger too, often a bud and 4-5 leaves. The preference for larger leaves is due to the fact that they will be deveined during processing, and larger leaves have a greater ‘leaf meat’ to stem ratio, and are easier and more efficient to devein. Removing the vein from the leaf makes it easier to grind into matcha.

After harvest, the leaves are lightly steamed before being blown up and down a series of four 5-7m (16-23ft) tall nets in order to cool the leaves down and remove any excess moisture. Then the leaves are mechanically deveined and sorted to remove stems and powder, and finally fired in a final drying. The resulting leaves are small emerald green flakes the size of fish scales. 

When creating blended matcha, potential blends are first tasted as tencha, requiring a skilled and experienced tongue to predict how the blend will taste once ground into matcha. Because it lacks the rolling that gyokuro undergoes which brings the aromatic compounds to the surface of the leaf, brewing loose tencha produces a softer, less intense tea than gyokuro.

Matcha (抹茶)

Perhaps Japan’s most iconic tea, matcha is a finely-ground powder produced by grinding tencha in a stone mill called a cha-usu (茶臼). In addition to being Japan’s most famous tea, it is also its oldest, and one of the oldest types of tea production in the world, dating back to Song Dynasty China (960-1279) where tea was steamed, dried, ground, and whisked with hot water into a thick, foamy drink. This practice was brought to Japan along with some tea seeds by Buddhist monks and after the development of shading in the mid-1500s, modern matcha was born. 

Matcha is famously used in the Japanese tea ceremony or Way of Tea, called sadou (茶道) or chanoyu (茶の湯). Traditionally, matcha is prepared in two ways: as usucha (薄茶 - thin tea) which is bright green, foamy and fluid, or as koicha (濃茶 - thick tea) made roughly four times as strong and producing a thick, intense, decadent syrup-like drink.

Matcha gets its intense umami and vibrant colour from being shade-grown for 3-4 weeks before harvest (for more on the biochemical effects of shading, see gyokuro). The tencha used to make matcha can be shaded in roughly three different ways, listed here in increasing order of quality, cost, and labour:

  • Jikakabuse (直冠せ): Direct Shading, 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. Most commonly used for shaded sencha and kabusecha, it is also used occasionally for gyokuro and tencha. 
  • Kanreisha (寒冷紗): Shelf-style with Synthetic Cloth, 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. Many 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.
  • Honzu (本簀): Shelf-style with Reeds and Straw Mats, 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.

Tamaryokucha (玉緑茶 - ball-shaped green tea)

Also called guricha (ぐり茶 - comma-shaped tea), tamaryokucha is a steamed green tea produced in the same way as sencha, except the final rolling and shaping stage is omitted, resulting in a tea that is more curled and less needle-shaped than conventional sencha. The flavour is somewhat lighter and milder than conventional sencha. Originally developed for export to Russia in the 1930s as a competitor to Chinese gunpowder tea, tamaryokucha only comprises around 2.5% of Japanese tea

Confusingly, the term tamaryokucha is also sometimes used to refer to kamairicha, so steamed tamaryokucha specifically is also called mushi-sei tamaryokucha (蒸し製玉緑茶).

Kamairicha (釜炒り茶 - pan-fired tea)

Unlike the vast majority of Japanese green teas, kamairicha is not steamed to stop oxidation. Instead, the leaves are thrown into a large wok-like pan heated to 300-350°C (572-662°F) where they are tossed for a few minutes to deactivate oxidase without burning the leaves. The pan-firing method of fixing was developed in Ming Dynasty China, where loose-leaf tea made in this manner had grown more popular than the powdered and whisked steamed teas of the Song Dynasty. It was then brought to Japan (potentially through Korea) sometime before the 16th century. Now rare in Japan, pan-firing is incredibly common in Chinese green tea production. 

Though steaming as a fixing method predates pan-firing, kamairicha as a style is much older than sencha, dating back over 500 years. Today, however, less than 0.5% of Japanese tea is kamairicha, most of it produced on the southern island of Kyushu in the Kumamoto, and Saga Prefectures. Each region has its own slightly different processing technique.

Like tamaryokucha, kamairicha does not undergo the final rolling and shaping into needles common to most Japanese green teas, so the leaves appear more twisted and curled. 

Compared to sencha, kamairicha is less astringent and has a markedly different aroma, slightly nutty and roasty, but still very green. Despite its Chinese-style, kamairicha tastes quite different from most modern Chinese green teas, remaining distinctly Japanese in character.

A particularly rare subtype of kamairicha is kamanobicha (釜伸び茶 - pan-stretched tea), which is pan-fired just like kamairicha, but does receive the final needle-shaping, thus looking more like a traditional sencha.

Hakuyoucha (白葉茶 - white-leaf tea)

Not to be confused with white tea, hakuyoucha is a very recently developed style of green tea that gets its name from its pale-yellow leaves. There are two ways of making hakuyoucha:

  1. White Leaf Cultivars

  2. Complete Shading

A handful of tea cultivars, such as Hoshinomidori, Kiraka, and Kogane Midori, produce incredibly pale first flushes in the right conditions, with leaves ranging from golden to pale yellow in colour. When picked and processed as sencha, they become hakuyoucha. A similar phenomenon is responsible for the whitish leaves of the Bai Ye cultivar used to make Anji Bai Cha in China.

The other method of producing white-leaf tea requires shrouding the tea plant in near-complete darkness. Shading for gyokuro and tencha usually peaks at around 95-98%, while to produce hakuyoucha, 99.99% shading is required. To do this, farmers lay 3-4 layers of synthetic cloth directly over the tea bushes. Not only is this very expensive and labour intensive, it also drastically reduces the yield of the bushes by 60-75%,  which is one reason hakuyoucha demands a higher price. The extreme shading also causes the plant to produce thinner leaves that are more difficult to process than regular sencha, and it can also cause excessive damage to the plant. Despite this, the intense shading method can be used on any tea cultivar, allowing tea farms without the aforementioned special cultivars to produce white-leaf tea.

In addition to its unique appearance, hakuyoucha boasts an incredibly sweet, savoury, and full-bodied taste, owing to its incredibly high levels of amino acids, and reduced amount of catechins. In fact, some white-leaf teas have amino acid levels three times that of sencha and twice that of gyokuro. Some of these amino acids, such as asparagine, are rarely found in other teas.

Though most hakuyoucha undergoes the standard sencha processing after harvest, some producers have experimented with processing it as a kamairicha, black tea, white tea, and even in the Chinese Bi Luo Chun style.

Demono-cha

Part of the process that transforms crude tea (荒茶 - aracha) into finished tea (仕上げ茶 - shiagecha) is the sorting out of any unwanted material such as stems, or excessively broken leaves. These parts are collectively known as demono (出物 - sorted out things) and can be made into teas of their own.

Kukicha (茎茶 - stem tea)

Perhaps the most well-known of these demono teas is kukicha, alternatively known as bocha (棒茶 - stick tea), is made from the stems, twigs, and stalks that are sorted out from sencha production. As both catechins and caffeine are concentrated in the leaves of the tea plant rather than the stems, kukicha has a soft, mellow, and sweet taste. The stems are also high in amino acids and the aromatic compound pyrazine, which gives kukicha its distinct aroma. 

When made from shaded teas such as gyokuro and tencha, kukicha is typically called karigane (雁ヶ音 - wild goose call) in the north, or shiraore (白折 - white fold) in the south.

Mecha (芽茶 - bud tea)

On the rarer side of demono teas, mecha is made from the tips of the buds and leaves that have been torn off during sencha processing. Soft and small, these broken tips tend to curl up giving the tea its signature appearance. Though still a byproduct, mecha, especially if made from high-grade tea, can carry a quality flavour at a lower price, but can easily become bitter or astringent if overbrewed.

Konacha (粉茶 - dust tea)

Made entirely of highly broken leaf pieces and dust, konacha is a low-grade tea that brews up almost instantaneously into an opaque, dark green, and strong beverage. Konacha is often associated with sushi restaurants where it was traditionally served. It is now also used as a primary ingredient in Japanese tea bags, and is similar in grade to the fannings used to make tea bags for Indian-style teas.

Dust that is even finer than konacha is not usually sold for consumption, but is used to extract caffeine and other tea compounds.

Bancha (番茶)

Bancha is a confusing term as it can refer to a host of tea categories, all typically seen as being lower quality in some way than standard sencha:

  1. Tea made from non-first flush leaves or older leaves, typically processed like sencha

  2. Reprocessed teas, usually made from the above definition of bancha

  3. Regional or folk teas

Bancha made as per the first definition resembles sencha in appearance, albeit with coarser leaves and a duller colour. As older leaves or leaves from second or third flushes have lower caffeine, amino acids, and catechins, this bancha is a milder, light-bodied tea, with little umami. 

Reprocessed Teas

These are teas that undergo further processing after the initial tea is made.

Houjicha (焙じ茶 - roasted tea)

One of Japan’s most widely loved teas, houjicha is popular for its roasted aroma and smooth body. It is most commonly made from the leaves and stems of second or third flush bancha. Despite its dark brown colour, it is still a green tea. Houjicha made from leaves  has more body and a more vegetal taste, whereas houjicha made primarily from stems, sometimes called kuki-houjicha, is lighter and sweeter. The combination of roasting and being made from later-picked leaves means houjicha has very little caffeine compared to sencha.

The degree of roast also has a large impact on the final taste, with lighter roasts allowing more of the vegetal bancha tastes to remain, whereas darker roasted houjicha is dominated by the toasty and nutty aromas created by pyrazine and the maillard reaction.

Occasionally, houjicha will be made from higher-grade teas such as sencha, karigane, or even tencha, each with their own unique tastes.

Genmaicha (玄米茶 - Roasted-rice tea)

A blend of bancha and roasted rice, genmaicha supposedly began as a way for common folk to ‘dilute’ tea, which was an expensive luxury, with inexpensive rice. However, the more concrete evidence suggests that it may have been developed in the early 1900s by Kyoto tea merchants instead.Though genmai literally means ‘brown rice’ most producers use white rice which is steamed and then roasted so that it puffs up and becomes crispy. 

The taste of genmaicha depends on the tea used as a base and the ratio of tea to rice, which is usually 1:1. The genmai imparts a nutty popcorn-like flavour to the light-bodied and slightly sweet bancha, together forming a warming and easy-drinking tea.

A common variation on genmaicha is matcha-iri genmaicha (抹茶入り玄米茶), also known as genmaimatcha (玄米抹茶), in which genmaicha is dusted with matcha, adding a splash of colour, aroma, and umami to the tea.

Regional Bancha

Regional banchas, also known as folk teas, are the teas that were, and continue to be, traditionally made and enjoyed by the common people across Japan, before teas like sencha and matcha became more affordable for the masses. There are dozens of unique processing and drinking styles, such as the bamboo-whisked botebotecha and batabatacha, and the post-fermented goishicha and awabancha.

Kyobancha (京番茶 - Kyoto bancha)

Also known as iribancha (炒り番茶 - roasted bancha), kyobancha is folk tea traditionally produced in the Kyoto region. After the harvest of gyokuro and tencha for matcha, the tea bushes are trimmed back to encourage new growth for next year’s harvest and it is the large leaves and stems from this trimming that go on to become kyobancha. After picking, the leaves are steamed and dried without rolling, after which they are heavily roasted, giving the tea its signature smoky aroma. Though the aroma is intensely smoky, the taste of kyobancha is often quite mild and light bodied.

Sannen Bancha (三年番茶 - 3 Year bancha)

As its name suggests, sannen bancha is made from tea plants that have been left to grow without being harvested for three years. During this time, more nutrients from the soil are stored within the bush. When it is time to be picked, the farmers will saw off whole branches, using everything from the leaves, to the stems and thick woody branches in the tea. After the branches and leaves have been separated and cut down into manageable sizes, they are steamed, dried, and roasted over a wood fire producing a tea that is low in catechins and caffeine, making it  soft, mellow, and slightly sweet.

Goishicha (碁石茶 - ‘go’ stone tea)

A truly unique and rare regional bancha from Otoyo in Kochi, goishicha gets its name from its resemblance to the black stone playing pieces used in the game Go. Though it is unoxidised like a green tea, it is post-fermented, making it a dark tea or kurocha or kokucha  (黒茶 - dark tea| lit. ‘black tea’, not to be confused with black tea as it is known in the west, which is called red tea in Asia). The most famous style of dark tea is pu-erh from Yunnan in the south of China. Despite sharing a category with pu-erh, goishicha has a completely different taste profile courtesy of its double fermentation.. 

Traditionally, goishicha is harvested from yamacha (山茶 - mountain tea), which are tea plants that are not part of a tea farm or field, but are rather ‘wild’ bushes that are left to grow with little human interference (note that there is no true ‘wild tea’ in Japan as the tea plant is not native to Japan). Similar to sannen bancha, the whole branch is harvested, not just the young leaves. The harvested branches are then placed in a wooden barrel and steamed by firewood for two hours. After this, the leaves are separated from the branches and piled and covered for a few days in the first fermentation: aerobic fermentation. During this time, mold begins breaking down the leaves releasing a sweet aroma. The next step is a form of pickling in which the leaves are stacked in a barrel, covered with juices taken from when they were steamed, and weighed down to compress them. Left like this for a few weeks, the leaves undergo lactic acid anaerobic fermentation. The compressed blocks of leaves are then taken out of the barrel, cut into squares, and left in the sun to dry. 

The result is a unique tasting tea that has a strong acidity from the anaerobic fermentation. Although goishicha was originally used as an ingredient in chagayu (茶粥), a type of rice porridge that dates back to the 8th century, today it is so rare that it is most commonly consumed straight, in order to enjoy its unique flavour and various health benefits. 

Ishizuchi Kurocha and Awabancha are similar post-fermented banchas, but each has their own distinct taste and appearance.

Partially-oxidised teas (半発酵茶)

Teas that are allowed to oxidise somewhat before undergoing a ‘fixing’ or ‘kill-green’ procedure of some sort are called partially- or semi-oxidised teas. As domestic consumption of green tea continues to fall, some producers are experimenting with partially-oxidised and fully-oxidised teas to reinvigorate the Japanese tea industry. Still, the production of these teas is incredibly small, less than 0.1% of all tea grown in Japan, even less common than black teas. As these styles have no history in Japan, many are modelled after processing techniques used in other tea producing countries, such as China, Taiwan, and India.

White Tea (白茶)

White tea is a minimally processed tea, made by withering and drying freshly picked tea leaves, preferably under the sun. While there is no ‘fixing’ process, oxidation slows and virtually stops as the leaves dry out.  After which, higher-grade white teas will undergo a subtle low temperature charcoal roasting to round out the flavour and texture. Despite this simple processing, good white tea is difficult to make, as the oxidation and flavour of the finished tea is determined only by the rate of the wither and drying. Heat, humidity, sunlight, and the arrangement of the leaves on the drying mats all have an impact on this and knowing how to manipulate them (if possible) is part of the skill of white tea making.

 As white tea is not traditionally made in Japan, it is usually modeled after the original Chinese methods (or occasionally the similar Taiwanese methods). In China, white teas are classified by harvest time and picking:

  1. Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle): Just the buds, earliest picking

  2. Bai Mudan (White Peony): Bud and 1-2 leaves, picked a little later than yinzhen

  3. Gong Mei - Thinner buds and many leaves, later picking

  4. Shou Mei - mostly leaves with a few buds, latest picking

To achieve the fine pickings that define them, Yinzhen and Mudan are always hand-picked.

Japanese white tea is an incredible recent development limited to only a handful of farmers. The labour-intensive manual picking and production mean that very little is made. What Japanese white that does exist varies drastically in taste, some are sweet and fresh, others more nutty and creamy. A few taste similar to Chinese white teas while most taste distinctly Japanese.

Bihakkocha (微発酵茶 - micro-oxidised tea)

Another recent development, bihakkocha is a term used to describe a few newly developed Japanese teas. Most commonly, it refers to very lightly oxidised oolongs produced in the style of Taiwanese Baozhong oolong (sometimes called Paochung). While still very green, these would typically be classified as oolongs outside of Japan. 

Less commonly, it refers to green teas that were allowed to wither slightly before being steamed or pan-fired. This slight wither can often give these teas a more floral aroma. This style of green tea is also called ichoucha (萎凋茶 - withered tea), or ichou-sencha for a withered sencha. Withering is a standard practice in green tea production outside of Japan, but is incredibly rare to find in Japanese tea, which is why it deserves its own category.

Oolong Tea (烏龍茶 - lit. black dragon tea)

Also written as ウーロン, a transliteration of ‘oolong’, in Japanese, Oolong teas come in a vast range of oxidation levels and processing styles, yielding teas with even more variety in flavour and aroma. Most oolong styles were developed in China and Taiwan. Generally speaking, oolong teas are withered, then tossed or shaken to bruise the leaves in order to break down the cell walls and create new aromatic compounds and accelerate oxidation. Then the leaves are fixed at the desired level of oxidation, after which they are then rolled and shaped. Lastly, they are dried and sometimes roasted.  Oolongs with lighter oxidation tend to be more floral and creamy in aroma and flavour, whereas darker oolongs can often be fruity.

As it is still an emerging, experimental, and incredibly rare style in Japan, oolongs produced here vary wildly in their production style, some emulating certain Chinese or Taiwanese teas, and others unique in their processing. All, however,  are uniquely Japanese in flavour. On the whole, Japanese oolongs are generally lighter in oxidation, making good use of Japanese tea cultivars which are bred to produce good green teas rather than heavily-oxidised teas. Curiously none to our knowledge are made in the ball-rolled style commonly seen in Tie Guan Yin oolong from China and many Taiwanese oolongs.

Fully-oxidised/Black tea (紅茶)

The only type of tea in this category is black tea, known as koucha (紅茶 - lit. red tea) in Japanese. Technically speaking, most black teas fall short of being 100% oxidised, but they are defined as not undergoing a ‘fixing’ or ‘kill green’ process, and are allowed to oxidise significantly during withering and rolling before being shaped and dried. 

Black tea can be roughly split into Chinese-style and Indian-style production:

Chinese black teas are usually made from hand-picked first flush leaves, and are more delicate and complex in flavour, with many well-known regional styles. The more delicate and aromatic nature of these teas partly stems from the fact that the tea plants grown in most of China are the small-leaved Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis subspecies, which is the same subspecies that most Japanese cultivars belong to.
Originally developed by the British in order to compete with Chinese teas for the western market, Indian black teas, apart from those from Darjeeling, are typically made from second-flush pickings of the native Camellia Sinensis var. assamica tea subspecies. Commonly known as Assamica in contrast to the Chinese Sinensis, this subspecies grows better in the Indian climate and produces a more tannic, astringent, full-bodied tea that better suits the western palette and practice of adding milk and sugar. The British heavily industrialised and standardised their tea production process, prioritising yield and consistency over diversity and complexity.

Wakoucha - (和紅茶 - Japanese Black Tea)

Though there is more black tea being made in Japan than all of the oolong, bihakkocha, and white tea combined, it still is only around 0.13% of Japanese tea production. However, it was once much higher.

Japanese black tea was first produced around 1875 in an effort to increase tea exports to the west, in competition with Chinese and British-Indian black teas. Originally, wakoucha was made with guidance from Chinese black tea producers, but soon afterwards, with introduction of Assamica plants and subsequent Assamica/Sinensis hybrids, the Indian production style quickly became the standard, making use of the generally unwanted second-flush leaves. Second-flush leaves, called nibancha (二番茶) in Japanese, make low-quality green tea (see Bancha), but generally produce bold and brisk black teas, ideal for export. Export peaked at around 5,000 tonnes in 1954. In fact, that same year, the first Japanese tea cultivar ever registered, Benihomare, was developed as a Sinensis/Assamica hybrid explicitly for black tea production As the Japanese economy grew however, prices rose and quality could not rise to meet it and Japanese black tea lost its competitiveness in both the global and domestic markets and sales fell, along with production.

Recently, however, a few Japanese tea farmers have returned to producing black tea, pursuing quality and originality over yield and profits, often making use of the prized first-flush ichibancha (一番茶) that were previously reserved for sencha. After being rebranded as wakoucha in the early 2000s, Japanese black has seen a rise in quality and popularity. Like Japanese oolongs, there is no standardised production model, so wakoucha enjoys a wide variety of tastes and styles, from the delicate and fruity to the bold and brisk. Generally speaking, wakoucha made from cultivars with Assamica heritage, such as Benifuki have a bolder taste, whereas those made from purely Sinensis cultivars, such as Yabukita or Koushun, have a more delicate taste, but there are many exceptions. Some producers have travelled to Taiwan, China, and India to study black tea production before returning to Japan to focus all their efforts on creating a unique and high-quality Japanese black tea. Wakoucha is one of the rising stars of Japanese tea.

 

 

We hope you learned a lot about the main types of Japanese tea, along with some rarer and experimental varieties. To learn more about how to brew some of these teas, check out our tea guides.