Japanese tea vs. Chinese tea
Japanese tea is renowned the world over, but it competes heavily with Chinese tea for shelf space in global tea markets. Perhaps due to this competition, there are a plethora of articles online debating and comparing the virtues of Japanese and Chinese green tea.
China is a big exporter when it comes to most products, and tea is no different. China produces around 80% of the world's green tea and holds a similar percentage of the export market, whereas Japan produces 7% and exports even less, keeping most of its tea for home consumption.
But does this domination of the market reflect Chinese superiority in terms of quality? The short answer is, no, of course not. There are plenty of wonderful Chinese teas, and there are also plenty of gorgeous Japanese teas. Neither should totally dominate your affections when you're considering a tasty cup of green tea.
However, there are key differences between Chinese and Japanese tea.
The difference between Chinese and Japanese tea: a little bit of history
Tea was brought to Japan from China, but that happened over a thousand years ago – easily long enough for the Japanese and Chinese tea traditions to diverge quite a bit.
During the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907), tea was prepared by roasting and pulverising tea leaves and then adding hot water to the resultant powder. In China, powdered tea fell out of fashion for hundreds of years, but in Japan, powdered tea, or 'Matcha', became an essential ingredient in the Japanese tea ceremony.
Of course, Matcha tea is now enjoying a global resurgence, being used to flavour everything from noodles to ice cream.
Matcha is undeniably the better known side of Japanese tea globally, but it is not the most widely drunk tea in Japan. Sencha, which is made using whole leaf, is less commonly used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but is much more popular than matcha amongst the home crowd.
Both matcha and Sencha are different from conventional Chinese tea in that they are steamed. This is perhaps the most tangible difference between Japanese and Chinese green teas; whereas Japanese tea makers use a traditional steaming process, Chinese tea producers tend to pan-fire tea.
Pan-fired tea and steamed Japanese tea
Both types of cooking process halt the oxidisation of the tea leaf, preventing it from becoming black tea, but they also create remarkably different flavour profiles.
The characteristic flavour profile of steamed Japanese tea makes sense once you consider Japanese cuisine. As is often the case when two products grow up side by side, a fresh, grassy Sencha is perfect for washing down a meal of steamed rice and sashimi.
Japanese food is mostly served fresh, with umami, vegetal flavours, just like Japanese tea. Pan-fired Chinese tea on the other hand, is more robust and nuttier, carrying a roasted flavour that better accompanies typical Chinese foods.
Japanese green teas and beyond
Walk into any Japanese home and it's likely that you'll be offered a cup of Sencha, but it's not a certain bet.
In Japan, there are a variety of whole leaf green Senchas, which vary in quality, from Bancha, to Gyokuro, but there are also teas like Mugicha, which aren't in fact teas at all. Made from roasted barley, Mugicha is caffeine free and is often served over ice during hot, summer months.
Hojicha, which we stock a delicious example of, is a similar idea, but it is made from real tea leaves, with the addition of roasted stems and leaves harvested later in the season. This nuance gives Hojicha a lower caffeine content and a very pleasant nuttiness that makes it a popular meal time drink in Japanese households.
About 99% of Japanese tea is green tea, but there are rare and sort after exceptions. If you somehow tire of our delightful Sencha, we also stock a particularly alluring black tea, which is a pleasant diversion from Japanese tradition.