Tea plants are native to East Asia and are likely to have originated on the border of what is today north Burma and southwestern China. The history of tea in Japan began at least as far back as the 8th century, when the first known written references to the drink are found in Japanese records. Tea became known to Buddhist monks who visited China and brought the culture of tea drinking back to Japan. Temples still accompany the tea fields in modern Japan. Tea has huge cultural significance in the country.
The leaves of Green tea are fresh and vibrant because they have undergone only minimal oxidation. Just like bananas, tea leaves start to go brown the moment they are plucked off the branch. Black teas are developed by intentionally allowing the process of oxidation (sometimes incorrectly described as ‘fermentation’) to occur. Steaming or roasting tea when it is fresh cuts off the process and keeps the leaves grassy and herbal in character.
There is a rich variety of Japanese teas. A popular sort known as 'Sen Cha' is made by infusing leaves in hot water early in the process ready to be brewed again later. 'Gyokuro Cha' is a premium style of matcha derived from deep-green leaves picked from the shade. 'Kabuse Cha' is made from first-flush leaves that have been covered and cropped with a technique to produce a distinct flavour, while 'Fukamushi Cha' is a deep-steamed tea and offers a bolder, sweeter taste. Then, there are teas-without-tea such as 'Genmai Cha' - a rustic brew derived from brown rice. Around 90,000 tonnes are grown annually.
True 'tea' comes from the Camellia Sinensis, a species of evergreen shrub. Almost all types of tea are harvested from one of two major varieties grown today, C. Sinensis var. sinensis (the variety grown in Japan) or C. s. var. Assamica ('Assam tea' with a broad leaf).
The leaves of green tea are such because they have not undergone the process of oxidation. As the tea is more delicate, it is important never to boil the leaves. A cup ought to be brewed at around 85°C.
Green tea and matcha both come from the same plant but the latter is made using the finest leaf tips, and while normal green tea is brewed using leaves filtered through a bag or pot, matcha is actually fully-infused and dissolved into the heated water. You are very welcome to enjoy it the same way as you would regular tea. In the traditional teahouses of Japan, much ceremony may be involved.
Matcha contains high levels of chlorophyll and amino acids and has a very savoury (“umami”) taste. There are two main sorts, known as "usuicha" and "koicha". Usucha can be translated as to 'thin tea' and is quite common served in cafes and restaurants around Japan. Koicha, then, refers to 'thick tea' and is made with half the amount of water and twice the amount of matcha powder.
Matcha is extremely versatile and today it is often infused in sweets themselves rather than served separately. Being a simple, homogenous, and fine powder, it lends itself very well to all sorts of culinary uses. While it was always the case that tea and wagashi treats would be separate, the modern trend in Japan has very much been toward a fusion of the two. Ceremonial grade matcha is intended to be consumed on its own and whisked, while culinary grade matcha is intended to be added to wagashi, baked cakes or biscuits, and more. No surprise also that matcha has increasingly been finding its way into the pantries of Western chefs.
Prepared by infusing the processed whole tea leaves in hot water, Sencha has a yellowish-green appearance and a mildly grassy and astringent flavour. Producers steam freshly selected leaves to stop oxidation. Sencha is sold in grades from everyday cheap and rustic to premium varieties with more delicate notes. Traditional 'Asamushi' (lightly steamed) sencha is yellowy with a bright and sweet fragrance, whereas ‘Fukamushi’ styler is darker - having been steamed for longer.
Gyokuro is one of the most sought-after Japanese teas available and is often served in luxurious settings. It grows in the shade, causing an increase in the amino acids and nutrients in the leaves, resulting in a deep and distinct flavour. The notes are of umami. Gyokuro is prepared at a lower temperature than other teas.
A tea infused with 'Genmai'. That is: roasted and popped "brown rice" infused with green tea. The ratio varies (many enjoy brown rice tea on its own) but it is generally a cheaper, more rustic alternative, often free at cheap and cheerful restaurants across Japan.
The ritual of the tea ceremony ('Sado') in Japan teaches basic etiquette and hospitality. Utensils are brought into the room and set out in a specific manner. Matcha tea is served to guests who are also offered special Wagashi sweets. Zen Buddhism was a major influence on the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.