Most of you are probably familiar with Japanese green teas, but here’s a breakdown of how we make recommendations in our store.
First off – to get the elephant in the room out of the way – is caffeine. If you’re looking for strong caffeine content, look to shade-grown teas, like gyokuro, kabusecha, and matcha. They’re usually picked in the spring, are, by definition, shade grown, and are usually brewed with a higher concentration of leaf than other Japanese teas. If you’re looking for a little less caffeine, try a fukamushi sencha or a deep-steamed tea. Similar to a CTC or broken-leaf black tea, fukamushi teas brew up with a large number of tea particles in the cup, which translates into more caffeine being ingested. On the other hand, an Asamushi sencha – or lightly steamed tea – gives you just the caffeine that infuses from the leaf into the tea water. Finally, houjicha (roasted green teas) and kukicha (stem teas) give you the least amount of caffeine in your cup. Decaffeinated Japanese-style green teas are available, but regardless of the process used, they’re inferior to unadulterated tea.
Next, strength. This is a tricky word and one that’s used in many ways, but here, I’m talking about body. I’m going to leave matcha out of the conversation since recommending a koicha to someone who walks in off the street isn’t something that we’d normally do. Fukamushi leads the pack here, but make sure that you’re pouring the tea correctly. Since most of the flavor and body of a fukamushi comes from the particles of tea that make their way to your cup, make sure that you stop and swirl the teapot every now and then while you’re pouring. Also, don’t use a filter that is too fine with fukamushi. On the other hand, asamushi, including most gyokuro (I consider umami a separate category), is much lighter in body.
Bitter versus sweet. I’m not sure why everyone shies away from the word “bitter” so much. I always want to use the most precise words to describe a tea, and sometimes bitter works really well. Astringent is good too, but I normally use it for a tea that has a little more bite, and maybe a little tart note to it. Take shincha, for instance. It’s easy to characterize most shincha, or new tea, as being more astringent than its sencha counterparts; however, many of them aren’t too bitter. However, bitterness from a nice fukamushi from Shizuoka would be a great recommendation for someone looking to pair his / her tea with Japanese confectionery. By and large, teas from farther south tend to be a little more sweet than those from Kansai, but there are many factors at play. Our customers tend to like the explanation that sweetness with Japanese green teas is more a result of a lack of bitterness rather than a natural, fruity or floral sweetness like you’d find in a light Taiwanese oolong.
Nutty versus grassy. I know, I know. Japanese green teas are grassy, but hear me out. Most of the teas that I’ve mentioned so far are steamed and tend to be grassy, but don’t forget that there are pan-fried and roasted teas produced in Japan as well. I’ll leave Japanese black teas and oolongs out of the mix, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a Kamairicha, or pan-fried tea, from a local tea purveyor. The Saga prefecture on Kyushu is famous for this style and I think that it’ll be an easy transition for someone coming from Chinese green teas. Although the processing of the tea is similar, they tend to have a different character than their Middle Kingdom brethren. I would tend toward a dried grass or basil description, rather than the avocado or asparagus that I usually use to describe a Chinese green, but they’re definitely on the nutty side of the spectrum. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, a tamaryokucha is steamed, then curled and pan fried, which will start off grassy and end with a nice, round, nutty finish. Tamaryokucha – or balled green tea – is also a nice middle-of-the-road choice between fukamushi and asamushi. At the far side of the nutty spectrum, you find houjicha and kukicha.
Usually by this point, we’ve already busted out the teapots and have started tasting samples, so this should give anyone out there who’s looking for a new twist or interested in narrowing down their selection something to think about.