Sencha FukamidoriJapanese tea is not as scary as it sounds.  It’s also delicious, and its strong flavor can appeal to people used to getting their jolts from coffee and soda. The Japanese consume huge amounts of it, but luckily for us foreigners, they produce a little bit more than they drink, so we can have some too.

Tea was first introduced to Japan in the sixth century, brought from China along with Buddhism, and usually by the same people. Buddhist priests brought it back in powdered form, like modern matcha, and were the first fans. Like many other Chinese imports, it quickly caught on with the upper class as well. It spread more slowly to the rest of society, and was used as a medicine at first, but these days there’s plenty of tea for everyone in Japan and a fair amount for export, too.

Tea is grown in the majority of Japan, although the northernmost parts are too cold for it. The tea plant is an evergreen, and will grow into a tree on its own, but is kept a waist-high bush for agricultural purposes. The most exciting harvest is in late spring, and the result is called “shincha” or “ichibancha,” intensely flavored and high quality stuff that sends Japanese tea fans into an absolute tizzy. Shincha is best steeped in cooler water for less time than normal (more specifics later), because this drink will beat you up and take your lunch money if you let it get too strong.

High grade Japanese teas are from bushes that only get harvested once a year in the spring. The fanciest types, including the matcha used in the famed tea ceremony, are from bushes that are kept in the shade during the end of growing season, to make the tea sweeter and less astringent, and turning the leaves an especially bright, deep green.

Only the fanciest Japanese tea is picked by hand; most is harvested by machine. It’s hard to tell, because the Japanese roll their tea, which causes the distinctive fine texture of the leaf that can defeat tea strainers that aren’t made of fine mesh. Another peculiarity of Japanese tea is that when they heat it to stop the enzyme reaction that, left running, turns green tea leaves into black tea, they steam it instead of frying it. There’s even an extra-steamed variety, fukamushi, if you totally love that deep, astringent flavor of Japanese tea. Steaming is the only critical part of the process that makes it Japanese, and other steps get played around with or added to get various kinds of tea. Tea can be rolled, powdered, or charcoal roasted, or even mixed in with rice, which was originally done to stretch supplies but is now popular mostly for being tasty.

Once the tea leaves are finished and shipped out to you, the customer, the producers probably heave a sigh of relief, because freshness is seriously valued in Japanese tea. It’s the only tea that should be stored in the refrigerator. Just wrap up the bulk of your purchase and shove it in the back of the fridge, though; what you’re using on a daily basis should stay in a normal tea caddy in your pantry. Keep out about as much as you drink in a month. The reason for this is that if you expose the tea leaves to the air while they’re cold, then the moisture in the air condenses on them, like it does on the sides of a glass of ice water. Pretty on water glasses, but not so nice on tea! So let your refrigerated tea warm up inside its nice, sealed bag, not out of it.

Brewing Japanese tea makes a lot of people nervous, so if you’re one of them, I promise you’re in good company. I also promise that you can relax. As long as you get the leaves out of the water within two minutes, you’re usually okay. For those shinchas I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to aim for one minute rather than two. Cooler water also takes the edge off, although boiling water is a bad idea for pretty much all green teas, so this isn’t a unique aspect. Try taking the kettle off the heat when it’s rumbling but not yet whistling, or mixing one part cold water with three parts boiling. Anywhere from one to three teaspoons of leaf will make you a good cup of tea, so experiment and see what you like best.

Matcha Miyabi1

For matcha, the descendant of the first powdered teas that came to Japan which is the star of the tea ceremony, there’s a different set of rules. The other teas don’t absolutely require particular equipment, although pretty little side-handled kyusu and interesting yunomi cups are a lot of fun, but matcha really needs a few central elements of the tea ceremony. First, the chawan, a wide bowl that is used instead of a cup, because matcha is whisked up into a froth with a special little whisk which is our other piece of critical matcha equipment, and is called a chasen. The wide mouth and large size of the bowl are necessary so you have room to whisk and froth up your matcha. That’s all there is to brewing matcha. There’s a lot more to the tea ceremony, of course, but you don’t have to know anything about the rest of it to make yourself a bowl of tasty matcha.

There are plenty of refinements to be made. If you like the precise, chemisty-experiment approach to tea, then you can keep yourself busy for a very long time with a thermometer, a sensitive scale, and a steady supply of Japanese tea. If you want a cup of tea, put about a teaspoon of tea per cup into a teapot with some less-than-boiling water for less-than-two minutes. You can even switch off days, if you like. Tea is forgiving like that, which is probably why I find it to be so much fun.

Elizabeth Deacon, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff