When it comes to green tea, a lot of people don't recognize "green tea" isn't just one thing: the phrase encompasses an entire category of caffeinated beverage. Like black tea, green tea is a catchall term for a leaf-based beverage with lots of variety. There isn't one "flavor" of green tea, and different green tea blends have different characteristics, based on growing, harvesting, and drying techniques, as well as the other plants and herbs they are blended with.
While green tea originated in China, and the bulk of green tea consumed in the world still comes from there, its Japanese green tea that is perhaps most well known. Japanese green tea differs from other teas due to an additional step after it's been harvested. While most tea leaves go directly from the field to being dried, Japanese green tea leaves are steamed and then dried. This is thought to prevent oxidation, which keeps the color and fragrance fresh, and retain the tea's nutritional value.
Some Japanese green teas are already quite well known. Matcha, of course, has taken on a life of its own, receiving both "superfood" accolades and a hipster stamp of approval. Genmaicha, hojicha, and sencha are familiar names to the tea drinking set. But there are other types of Japanese green tea you should know. Here are some of the most popular types for your next tea time or morning cup.
Translating to "jade dew," gyokuro is one of the most expensive and highest grade Japanese green tea. It's a shaded green tea, which means, in this case, that it's kept out of the sun for about three weeks before harvesting. This causes the theanine—an amino acid present in many tea leaves—to increase, which gives the tea a sweeter, umami-esque flavor. It also typically has a higher caffeine content than other green teas. It's typically made with cooler water than other teas, which brings out a better, truer flavor.
Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan, making up about 80% of tea production. Due to high levels of tannins in comparison to other teas, it's quite astringent, which serves as a good palate cleanser before and after meals. Plus, you'll get to enjoy a good vitamin C boost from this tea. Unlike gyokuro, sencha grows in direct sunlight, and grows plentifully. Shincha and bancha are both sencha teas, too, but shincha is harvested very early, in the first harvest, and bancha is harvested late, in the second.
While most Japanese green teas have that additional steaming step, hojicha is roasted over charcoal instead. This—in combination with choosing broader, older leaves for this particular blend—makes it one of the most delicate Japanese green teas. It has lower tannin and caffeine levels, as the roasting process makes the caffeine less pronounced, making it a better choice for those with sensitive stomachs and lower caffeine tolerances. However, it still has a rich flavor and fragrance and beautiful amber coloring.
Genmaicha is a green tea combined with brown rice, which is roasted alongside the tea leaves. Though now it's enjoyed by everyone, genmaicha was historically consumed by the poor, as the rice served as a filler and made the tea less expensive. The roasted rice adds a sweet, nutty dimension to the typically grassy, bright green tea.
Matcha is the finely ground form of gyokuro tea leaves, so it also has relatively high levels of theanine and caffeine, and lower tannin levels. Used for centuries in Japanese tea ceremonies, matcha is now a popular coffee alternative for many. While loose leaf green teas are simply steeped in water, matcha is combined with liquid and carefully whisked to create a foamy drink.