As many of my social media followers may have noticed, I am a person who has fully fallen under the magic of quality teas.
I’ve found a lot of good things in teas. I love their taste, I use their health benefits when biohacking (which is just a fancy modern name for a healthy lifestyle), and I’m also obsessed with the memetics of making them and obsessively collecting traditional tea pottery; although some traditional pottery is probably the most practical thing you can have for making tea (but more on that in the specific chapter on ryokucha).
However, the whole tea universe is an incredibly broad topic, and considering that many people have no idea what tea actually is (and their only interaction with so-called “green tea” has been a crappy old bag of bitter Matcha from Oxalis; at worst, watered infant tea from a bag), we might as well explain what kinds of teas even exist for an introduction before we talk a bit about Japanese and green ones afterwards. Among other things, this will increase the network effect of the article quite a bit, and The Little Ryokucha Guide will have the potential to serve those who haven’t heard much about tea yet.
A less content-intensive overview of ryokucha can be found at my Ryokucha GitHub.
OK. What is the tea?
First of all, if we are going to talk about tea, we are going to talk about the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis). We will not consider any herbal infusions or anything else to be tea for the purposes of this Little Guide.
By the way, it is not only herbs that have a pretty good status as ‘tea’, but also a drink called maté, but that is not a product of the Chinese tea plant either. Maté is the product of a completely different plant, the so-called caesmina paraguayana (Ilex paraguariensis).
Of course, we won’t doubt the health benefits of maté or herbs (I drink them too), but this blog is exclusively about the Chinese tea plant. So let’s finally take a closer look at it.
Camellia sinensis is a plant in the tea family and is native to Southeast Asia, but today it is grown in the tropics, subtropics, and warm temperate countries all over the world. Various varieties have been bred from this plant, such as Camellia sinensis sinensis, Camellia sinensis assamica or Camellia sinensis cambodi. Most of the teas we come across are of the sinensis and assamica varieties – cambodi is an African strain that is probably not even used for tea (hopefully). And from these varieties hundreds, if not thousands, of different sub-varieties have been bred. And if some fine farmer takes one of these sub-varieties and cultivates it, his product is called a “cultivar”.
To give us a better idea, wine, for example, can serve as a useful analogy. All wine comes from grapes (hopefully), but there are many different varieties. So whether you’re growing Cabernet, Sauvignon or Rioja, it’s all the same wine. But if you take one cultivar and plant it in, say, say, China, and you take the same cultivar and plant it in a completely different place, say, say, say, Japan, the resulting two tea cultivars will be different from each other (and maybe the resulting two vineyard cultivars will be different from each other). And this is exactly why the “terroir” concept is coming to the world of teas as much as it is to the world of wines.
Province, microclimate, production technique, altitude and much more. All of this influences the composition of the tea and its resulting taste. The interesting thing about all this is that the composition and taste of the tea changes a little with each year of harvest. It makes sense, after all, as space changes over time with our laws of physics. However, tea bag makers are non-dynamic and non-progressive minds who don’t like change and so each year they add different cultivars to their inferior blends to keep the taste of their tea consistent over time. True tea connoisseurs, however, just love tea with all its transformations and differences. That is why they seek out single unblended cultivars that carry in their flavour and composition the pure essence of the environment and time in which they grew and from which they took their nutrients.
And what are the types of tea?
In general, there are six basic categories of teas – white, yellow, green, oolong, black and post-fermented. We will talk about each of them separately, but before that we should familiarise ourselves with the main difference between them, which is nothing else but oxidation.
Oxidation is familiar to anyone who took chemistry in primary school, and in the particular case of teas, oxidation is the process by which the tea leaf reacts with oxygen in the air. For example, if you cut an apple in half, you release the juices, which react with the oxygen and turn the apple brown. It is the same with tea. If you tear off a leaf and crush it well, you release the juices that react with the oxygen and colour your leaf dark. There are enzymes in the tea leaf that help this process (the main one being polyphenol oxidase, PPO for short).
The historical tea plot twist came about when mankind figured out that these enzymes could be blocked very easily by high temperature. If you heat the leaf to a temperature of 100 to 120˚C, the enzymes are deactivated and the leaf will therefore stop oxidizing beautifully.
White tea is the least processed tea. The tea maker tears off the buds (and sometimes small leaves) of the tea, taking great care not to crush or break the tea leaves in any way. The leaves are then left to dry in the sun (this is also called ‘solar withering’) and once the tea is completely dry, it is ready.
The reason why white tea is called “white” is because its tea buds still tend to have little white hairs on them. But once the tea is brewed, the leaves take on a beautiful creamy-jade colour.
The tea is very light in flavour, bland and with a subtle hint of nuttiness. Occasionally it tends to have some of that-floral aroma and fruity sweetness.
But beware. No enzyme is killed in the production of white tea. This means that the tea is not unoxidized. It has managed to oxidize to about 5 – 10% in the time since it was made. So there is some of that oxidizing power in it, but it is still very weak and its effects are more like a fine meditative CBD than a coffee shot 🙂
Green tea is made from young buds and leaves (usually the first two). It is an unoxidised tea (!), which means that the process of making it has to be particularly careful and thorough, because as soon as you crush the leaf in every possible and impossible way, it will immediately start to oxidise.
After harvesting, the leaves are briefly dried in the sun and ‘roasted’ to get rid of the oxidising enzymes.
And this, by the way, is exactly the point at which Chinese and Japanese teas differ very rapidly. The Japanese steep the leaves with hot steam, while the Chinese practically roast them in a pan, which results in Japanese green teas having a much fresher and grassier taste and aroma, unlike Chinese green teas.
Despite the amount of bullshit you can find on the internet, green tea has the highest concentration of caffeine of all teas. But the caffeine is perfectly balanced by an ingredient called l-theanine, which gives green tea its characteristic mental effects and which does a lot of nice things – like activating alpha waves in the brain (!) – that we’ll talk about more in the matcha subsection. On the tea-user level, however, the main thing for me is that l-theanine brings a characteristic trip into my mind that I would compare to the vaguest afterglow from classic psychedelics, or to a deep meditative flow. In short, the feeling of a very powerful and actively working, yet absolutely calm mind.
Yellow tea is certainly the least common type of tea. In fact, it accounts for less than half a percent of all tea production in China.
Yellow tea was a kind of ‘imperial tribute’ tea, as it was reserved exclusively for Chinese emperors (who have now been replaced by comrades and officials) and, among other things, yellow was the traditional imperial colour in ancient China. The recipe for it was lost for about a hundred years, but was fortunately rediscovered in the 1970s. Or, more accurately, classified and then declassified.
Yellow tea is made very similarly to green tea. Young buds with one or two leaves are harvested, dried in the sun and roasted to prevent oxidation. Afterwards, however, a plot twist occurs. Unlike green tea leaves, yellow tea leaves are steamed, placed in a pile and covered so that they can ferment a little in a warm and humid environment. The tea literally leaches in its own juices, making it more delicate, losing the classic green tea grassiness and more similar in flavour to white teas.
Oolong is a partially oxidized tea. This means that its leaves are oxidised somewhere between 15% and 85%, so you can expect to encounter a really wide range of flavours and aromas.
The technique for processing oolongs involves picking slightly larger leaves (sometimes two, sometimes three). The leaves are then dried and deliberately shaken or rolled, which creases the edge of the leaf, releasing our beloved enzymes which begin to react with oxygen and oxidise. Once the desired level of oxidation is reached, the leaves are roasted (i.e. stripped of oxidation) and then go through a series of rolling and drying processes that result in two types of oolongs – the so-called ‘ball-rolled’ oolong (oolong rolled and pressed into tiny balls that tend to unfurl nicely when doused with hot water) and the ‘strip’ oolong (a classic leaf folded into a strip shape). Both types can be seen in the two pictures below.
Due to the very different levels of oxidation, the flavours and aromas of the oolongs are very different. Lightly oxidised oolongs tend to be very floral and creamy, whereas dark oolongs tend to be sweeter, fruitier and understandably have a slightly more ‘toasted’ flavour. In addition, most of these oolongs undergo some degree of roasting after the production process to bring out some of the flavours and aromas.
Black tea in China is called “Hong Cha”, which means “red tea”. Strange, but never mind.
Black tea is a fully oxidized tea, although “fully oxidized tea” isn’t exactly the most appropriate term. After all, it is not fully oxidized, but only about 90 to 95% oxidized.
It is made by harvesting the young leaves, which are deliberately rolled (either by hand or mechanically) to completely bruise them. This releases the essential oils and they begin to oxidise, completely changing the chemical composition of the leaves, their taste and also their health benefits. During oxidation, for example, tannins are formed (which, by the way, are very fine polyphenols that bind tightly to proteins, amino acids and alkaloids and precipitate them).
Black tea tastes very robust, earthy and strong (which is why many barbarians mix it with milk). Sometimes there are also hints of dried fruit.
Post-fermented tea is a class of tea that is very different from all other types of tea.
The most prominent example of such a tea is Pu-Erh tea.
Pu-Erh comes from the Yunnan province, which lies in the south-west of China. Well, this province is the real mother of Chinese tea. The soil here is extremely dark and rich in nutrients, which is why it grows semi-wild, old and large-leaved tea trees (and really trees; no tiny tea bushes). The secret to Pu-Erh is to process the leaves of these trees in the same way as green tea – that is, pick them, dry them, roast them (to prevent oxidation) – and then wrap them in cakes and set them aside to sit for a few years. During that time, the micro-organisms that naturally occurred on the tea leaves will start fermenting the tea. And as the leaves ferment, they become darker, more delicate, and their chemical composition and health benefits change as well.
The maturation time of Pu-Erh, or the time it takes to transform from a raw leaf to a fully matured and fully fermented tea, averages twenty to twenty-five years. However, thanks to the fact that the Chinese are very industrious and economically efficient people, a way has been invented to speed up the fermentation time of Pu-Erh. This miraculous speeding-up process consists of harvesting the tea leaves, conditioning them and then piling them in large warehouses in which the temperature and humidity are raised, thus shortening the fermentation time considerably. It is all a very labour-intensive process, during which the producers have to rake through the leaves daily to prevent mould. On the other hand, thanks to this labour-intensive process, the fermentation time has been reduced from almost twenty-five years to two months.
Pu-Erh therefore splits nicely into two strains. There is ‘raw’ Pu-Erh, which has been allowed to age and ferment naturally, and ‘cooked’ Pu-Erh, the fermentation of which has been accelerated.
The taste of Pu-Erh is very earthy, but there are also sweeter and more delicious notes to be found (for this effect, however, I recommend preparing Pu-Erh in a gaiwan rather than the traditional leaching in a teapot). The effects of Pu-Erh are very close to my heart and in many ways remind me of green tea, but Pu-Erh has a bit more of a “grounding” vibe to me, unlike green tea, and the classic l-theanine liberation of the mind is replaced by a kind of strange hyperfocus combined with extreme physical relaxation.
Pu-Erh, by the way, is a great help in terms of health for any person with high cholesterol, because thanks to the fermentation process, it produces natural statins, which, unlike the statins prescribed by your doctor, lower your cholesterol without destroying your mitochondria.
Japanese green teas and the magical linguistic abbreviation “ryokucha”
And now back to Japanese green teas, which are the subject of this guide. In time, I may do a guide to other types of tea, but right now it’s the Japanese green ones that resonate in my body, so I’ll leave some space for them.
First of all, it’s worth saying that every tea has its health benefits, that is, as long as it’s really good quality and well prepared. Whether it’s white, green, black, oolong, or Pu-Erh tea. From my point of view, however, green tea has quite unfairly a very dominant position on the market and the status of some kind of “healthiest tea of all”, and that’s only because everything that is green is considered healthy for some reason. And it sells well. By the way, even Starbucks has its green tea, if you can even call it tea.
But there is no such thing as the healthiest tea. Every tea has its own specifics and to know what makes me want to take tea in the first place I have to know my individual needs, the composition of the tea and my individual response to that particular tea composition. Of course, even Japanese green tea (henceforth referred to as ryokucha, which is literally the Japanese word for “green tea”) may not exactly be the best choice for everyone for a million different reasons.
So let’s talk a little bit about specific types of ryokucha and their specifics. The following breakdown is pretty random, and honestly – it couldn’t be more different. Different types and nomenclatures of tea have all sorts of overlap, different definitions, one variety being made into another, etc. Even so, the taxonomy of tea varieties usually ends up with something that is more well known being considered a variety and something that is less well known being considered a variety variant. Either way, there is no point in any massive division and categorisation. What does matter is first of all how a given type of tea is produced and what it can provide us with.
But before we look at specific teas, let me remind you that for making ryokucha (with the exception of matcha), the best utensil is the traditional teapot called a kyusu. It really is a rewarding investment. No fancy snobbery of masturbators over eastern culture (although, I must admit, handling a kyusu teapot shows my hidden hipster needs considerably), but a truly practical thing. The kyusu really is the best shape for the best possible distribution and leaching of ryokuche tea leaves, and it usually has a built-in metal strainer in it too, so you don’t have to stress about tea straining. I recommend the handmade teapots from the Tokoname workshop, whose products you can see in the picture below.
Sencha is the most common type of tea in Japan and can be found in a huge variety of different forms. If you’ve heard of a type of ryokucha, it’s very likely that it’s either sencha or that it originated from sencha.
70% of all sencha from Japan comes from the Yabukita cultivar, which offers a wide range of flavours from classically grassy, to sweet, to umami. If the word Yabukita doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll be happy to know that Yabukita is a cultivar that produces very tough leaves. And this is very important precisely because Japanese winters can be very harsh, and of all the teas there, only the really tough, old and soggy Yabukita leaves can be frost resistant. However, if a grower wants to produce a lighter or sweeter tea, he will most likely reach for a more unique cultivar, such as Saemidori or Okumidori. These cultivars require a little more care and their yield may be slightly less than Yabukita.
Before the tea leaves are harvested, however, the farmer must decide whether or not to cover the tea leaves.
Sencha, however, is generally regarded as a tea that does not cover itself. But There’s a catch. Kabusecha is a type of Sencha that is shaded.
And if anyone has no idea what kind of covering up we’re talking about, no panic. Covering is a common practice of tea growers where a special net is stretched over the tea bushes (in the case of kabusecha, the net is originally called kabuse). A particular kabusecha is covered with netting usually for a period of one week.
As a result of the shade, the tea plant starts to increase its chlorophyll content and prevents the formation of bitter catechins from amino acids, which include, for example, l-theanine (about which we will talk a little more in the matcha subsection).
Let’s start with three basic points:
These three terms literally mean ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ tea, which is nothing more than the order of the tea harvest during the year. As unnecessarily complicated as it sounds, you will come across these names quite often in ryokucha terminology.
And to make things even more convoluted, the term ‘shincha’ is synonymous with ‘ichibancha’, each of which is used in different contexts. But that may not be of interest to us Europeans. The bottom line is that shincha is actually the first sencha harvest of the year.
For better clarification, we also have a table here:
|Harvest order||Name of the tea||The beginning of teh harvest|
|1||Shincha/Ichibancha||beginning of april|
|2||Nibancha||beginning of june|
|3||Sanbancha||beginning of july|
Despite being unshaded, Shincha contains quite a bit of caffeine and catechins – and quite a bit of l-theanine.
According to Japanese tradition, whoever drinks shincha on the 88th day after the harvest will enjoy good luck and good health :))
The definition of bancha is a bit variable. Bancha translates to something like ‘late tea’, as its harvest takes place after ichibanchi and sanbancha. However, bancha also means something like “everyday tea” as it is relatively lowcost compared to other Japanese teas.
To make it even more difficult, bancha is also sold in Europe as a so-called ‘macrobiotic tea’. In Japan, for example, bancha is usually recommended to be consumed after a meal, as it is said to help with digestion.
Whatever the definition of bancha may be, the bottom line is that bancha leaves are of lower quality than shincha leaves, as they are a product of a later harvest (which is reflected in the lower price). They are larger, harder and more veined.
Bancha is quite low in caffeine (often drunk by even small children) and has quite a lot of fluoride in it, so it’s surprisingly good for your teeth :))
Goishicha is actually a fermented bancha that originally comes from China. The fermentation of the tea takes place in a total of two processes – first with an aerobic fungus and then with an anaerobic bacterium.
Matcha probably needs no special introduction. It’s that powdery tea ground in a traditional stone grinder. What most people don’t know, however, is that this stone-grinder method of processing tea is not some kind of specialty of Japanese connoisseurs. In fact, it was the traditional way of preparing almost every tea in ancient China, but it has only survived in Japanese tea culture today.
But of course, not every ground green tea can be called matcha.
Most matcha comes from the Yabukita cultivar, but even in this country it’s not hard to come across the matcha cultivars Okumidori, Saemidori, or Asahi. Of course, the territory in which matcha grows is also very important. The best green-tea-producing prefectures in Japan, such as Kyoto, Aichi and Shizuoka, produce matcha.
The tea leaves for matcha production are usually harvested from early to mid-May. Twenty days before they are harvested, however, the tea bushes are covered with either straw or the slightly less traditional plastic polymer. During these twenty days, layers of blanket are gradually added to the tea bushes to reduce the amount of light falling on them. And as we mentioned above, this process will make the tea plant panic. It will start to produce more chlorophyll and likewise high levels of l-theanine, which would easily be broken down in the light into other substances such as tannins and catechins, will remain in the tea plant.
These l-theanine- and chlorophyll-loaded leaves are then steamed for 15 to 20 seconds to prevent oxidation, and finally dried. At this point, the tea leaves are called Aracha, which is actually just a cool name for some midpoint of matcha production. Next, the producers take the Aracha and remove all of the stems and veins, leaving only the clean fleshy and leafy parts. These pieces are then dried and at this point they are called Tencha. The tea master comes on the scene and tastes the tencha from different plantations and mixes several variations of it for the greatest flavor complexity. Once the tea master manages to blend the right flavours, the tencha is then ground into matcha.
Grinding matcha in a stone grinder is quite a complex process. The resulting powder particles should be no more than 10 micrometers in size, and the entire grinding process must be done cold so as not to accidentally denature any nutrients in the tea. Among other things, it’s also a pretty slow process – it takes about one hour to grind 30 grams of matcha.
So, once we have the matcha ready, we should know something about its qualities. There are generally three types of matcha – standard, ceremonial and so-called ‘brewing’ matcha.
The production of matcha requires a lot of detailed processes, and if the producer does not pay enough attention to any of them, he will produce matcha of lower quality. For example, if the matcha was not really shaded, or if the veins and stems of the aracha were not removed in sufficient detail, or if the tea leaves were picked from the second harvest and not the first, or if the leaves were not ground long enough and in a real stone grinder, etc.
Such lower quality matcha, i.e. matcha suitable for cooking, is therefore a thingy that is only suitable for use in the kitchen.
Standard matcha is actually just fine matcha made from tencha, and finally there is ceremonial matcha, which must be shaded for at least 15 days, must be carefully de-veined, must be ground in a low-temperature grinder, and its particles must be extremely small. In short, the best of the best.
Usucha, Koicha and traditional matcha brewing
In this section I don’t want to dwell too much on some of the ceremonial aspects of the matcha. If you’re interested in something similar, there are plenty of videos on YouTube to satisfy your needs. What I would like to do here is to cover some practical matters more suited to the general user who is concerned with the proper preparation of matcha and not with nice looking rituals.
First of all, when preparing matcha, it is extremely important not to pour water hotter than 80˚C. Cold is always better than warm. While matcha can theoretically be doused with ice water, you really can’t go wrong with a temperature of around 70 to 80 degrees Celsius.
To prepare matcha, a classic bamboo chashaku scoop (roughly half a teaspoon in volume), a chawan bowl and a whisk are usually used to whisk the matcha in the bowl. We’ll talk more about what of this is really necessary and unnecessary. But first, let’s look at the ways in which matcha is prepared.
Matcha has basically two ways of preparation (unless you count shaking it in ice water) and those are Usucha and Koicha. In the following sections we will explain exactly how they differ.
Koicha means something like “thick tea” and as the name suggests, it’s a matcha shot that is really strong and viscous.
Koicha is made by placing four chashaku (or about two teaspoons) of matcha in a bowl (no, you really don’t need to use a chawan; any bowl will work) and pouring 40 ml of water at the desired temperature over it. Thus, a simple relationship applies to the preparation of Koicha – 10 ml of water to one chashaku of matcha.
However, what you need for this time is definitely a traditional bamboo whisk. The Koicha is only to be mixed gently in a circular motion and not whisked. The desired effect would be impossible to achieve with a conventional coffee shop electric milk whipper. Koicha is not supposed to have any bubbles and no foam. It is supposed to be, in short, a thick and unprocessed shot.
And something like this has to be drunk very carefully. Koicha is really strong.
Usucha is a slightly less extreme and slightly more usual way of preparing matcha. It is the usucha that is the classic frothed matcha, which has a delicious mild flavour and a smooth crema. To prepare it, you usually put 2 chashaku per 50 to 60 ml of water in a bowl (no, you won’t need a chawan in this case either), or 25 to 30 ml of water per one chashaku of matcha.
(I especially point out the correct ratio of matcha to water; both in the case of Koicha and Usucha. This is because many tea beginners, in order to make a weaker and more delicate tea, dilute the matcha in huge amounts of water, and the result is a watery, disgusting brew. If you want a forcefully weaker tea, use less water and less matcha, and especially keep the ratio!)
At this point, however, comes a significant difference from Koicha. This is because the Usucha is supposed to be whisked, and a regular electric milk churn will do the trick. Some tea masters may be able to do it quite nicely with a bamboo whipper, but for the average person, the desired froth without mechanics is a great utopia. After all, Usucha is not about following some thousand-year-old tradition, but about getting the desired consistency and quality of tea. And truly, nothing is as efficient these days as an electric beater.
Usucha tastes very pleasantly creamy, but it’s certainly not as highly viscous and strong as Koicha.
So whatever way you prepare your matcha, remember that it’s especially important to drink it straight from the bowl. This is because many people complain that matcha tea has an unpleasantly bitter taste. And so if these people didn’t happen to consume some old recycled powder from the Oxalis tea fastfood, but prepared good quality matcha the way it was really meant to be prepared, then most of the time the bitter taste is due to the fact that they didn’t drink it from a bowl, but from a cup or glass. And why is that? Because matcha has a huge variety of flavour profiles that can transform and complement each other over time after drinking a sip of the tea. In order to capture as many of the tea’s flavours as possible, it is highly advisable to spill the tea all over your tongue, which is exactly what the bowl is perfect for. If a person enjoys their matcha from a mug or cup, they will only come into contact with it at the tip and middle of their tongue, which is a great and unnecessary waste of the taste experience.
Why matcha is so good or an ode to l-theanine
And why is matcha so special? First of all, when we drink matcha, we get 100% of the nutrients from the leaves because we consume the leaves whole. If you pour water over matcha tea, you’ll get a maximum of 35 to 40% of the nutrients out of it. And that means that about all the health benefits of all possible teas are concentrated into one product in the case of matcha.
And as far as antioxidants are concerned – if you compare a shot of matcha with a good quality hot green tea, you will find that on average there are ten to twenty times more antioxidants in matcha. And that’s quite a bit. So in terms of antioxidants, it’s much more economical to have a shot matcha than to have ten to twenty cups of green tea!
(However, there are some poofy vendors who claim that matcha has 137 times more antioxidants than regular green tea. And indeed, they are right. What such vendors don’t tell you, however, is that they took their data from a study that compared matcha to Starbucks green tea. In the first place, I don’t know what good such a study ever did, and in the second place, it may be obvious to anyone that such a comparison is a bit unfair.)
However, we’ve noted more than once above that it was in the match subsection that we’d mention something more about l-theanine. And that time has just come.
If there is to be “something more” mentioned about l-theanine, it should be right at the matcha. Matcha has the most l-theanine of any tea. Although I have already mentioned that I like l-theanine very much and it does quite a nice trip in our brains, but what exactly is l-theanine and how does it work?
L-theanine is truly a miracle amino acid. First of all, it affects the taste of tea and gives it a characteristic vegetal umami touch, which sometimes tends to transform into a subtle sweetness. And of course, it has unique health benefits.
L-theanine is found in nature only in the Chinese tea plant and in a mushroom called Xerocomus badius, which nobody knows much about (honestly, I don’t know if this mushroom is even edible). So if you don’t feel like eating gelatin capsules and weird mushrooms, the only way to get l-theanine into you on this planet is just by drinking tea.
L-theanine is funny in that it can cross the blood-brain barrier (like C8 MCT oil), so it directly affects our brain chemistry. It enhances mental “well-being” and reduces stress by increasing the amount of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. And anyone who doesn’t happen to know GABA should know that it is a kind of natural brain calming agent that, in addition to mental relaxation, promotes a bunch of things like improving the sleep cycle, increasing sleep quality and stimulating the production of growth hormone (HGH); which increases energy levels during the day, positively affects metabolism and fat loss, as well as muscle growth and recovery.
However, increasing GABA is far from everything. L-theanine, among others, is structurally similar to the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and accordingly binds to glutamate receptors, although with a much lower affinity in comparison. In addition, it inhibits glutamine and glutamate transporters, thereby blocking glutamine and glutamate reuptake. Theanine also also increases serotonin, dopamine and glycine levels in various brain regions. However, its effect on serotonin is still a matter of debate in the scientific community, but its effect on dopamine is unquestionable. And probably no one needs to be told that dopamine is a key neurotransmitter in happiness and motivation.
And to make matters worse, all this chemical-neurotransmitter butchery (and maybe a lot of other stuff we don’t even know about yet) triggers alpha wave stimulation in our brains. Alpha waves are actually 8 to 12 Hz waves that normally occur in the brain during a state of deep relaxation and rest. But beware, alpha waves are not to be confused with some kind of passivity! A 2015 study, for example, figured out that boosting alpha waves can boost creativity pretty radically. And while I mentioned something about trippy and meditative states from l-theanine in the introduction, it’s worth mentioning that the production of alpha waves in the brain can be naturally boosted by regular meditation, for example. This is confirmed by another study, also from 2015. Not surprisingly, matcha has traditionally been used by meditating monks to enhance their mindfulness performance.
We already know that tencha are actually leaves without veins and stems that have not yet been ground into matcha. However, tencha is also sold as a stand-alone tea, which is not further processed after de-veining. However, it has a very mild and bland flavour and is reminiscent of gyokuro that has been infused a few times.
We will talk a little more about gyokuro in the subsection below.
Gyokuro, which translates as “jade dew”, is undoubtedly one of the most fancy Japanese teas. Of course, with its high quality comes a pretty high price, and finding a low-cost gyokuro is certainly a much bigger nut to crack than finding a low-cost ryokucha of any other kind.
Gyokuro leaves are processed in much the same way as matcha; however, they should be shaded for at least 20 days before harvesting; but once dried and steamed, the leaves are shaped and stacked into thin needles.
It is thanks to shading that gyokuro is high in amino acids (such as l-theanine) and chlorophyll, and low in catechins, which takes the bitterness out of gyokuro and makes it taste a little sweeter.
When preparing gyokuro, however, you should be especially careful of its legendary needle-shaped leaves, which I recommend infusing for at least two minutes when first infused to allow them to fully develop.
Kukicha, also called bōcha, is a very funny little tea. It is a mixture of tea stems and all sorts of twigs, which mostly come from sencha or matcha production. This gives kukicha a unique grassy, hay-like flavor and aroma that sets it apart from other types of tea. But beware – if left to infuse for too long or if watered with too hot water, kukicha can become unpleasantly bitter. And that’s a great pity.
Since the vast majority of the tea’s caffeine is found in its leaves, kukicha is therefore a very light tea and suitable for evening drinking.
And what the hell is Karigane? Karigane is actually just kukicha, which is a byproduct of gyokuro. Sometimes it is also called “shiraore”.
Genmaicha is an absolute classic in Japan. It is green tea (mostly bancha) combined with roasted rice. Sometimes it is also called, very tellingly, “popcorn tea” (because the rice grains tend to pop during roasting and resemble popcorn), or “people’s tea”, as the rice served as a filler and lowered the price of the tea, making genmaicha more affordable for poorer Japanese in the past.
The sugar and starch from the rice give the tea a warm, full, nutty flavour. The flavour of the tea is overall very delicate and combines the fresh grassy taste of green tea with the aroma of roasted rice. Although genmaicha is based on green tea, the recommended method of preparation is slightly different – the water should be at a temperature of approximately 80 to 85 °C and the leaves are recommended to be steeped for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the desired strength of the infusion.
Genmaicha is also sold with the addition of matcha. This product is called matcha-iri genmaicha (抹茶入り玄米茶), which literally means “genmaicha with added powdered tea”. Matcha-iri genmaicha has a similar taste to regular genmaicha, but is understandably more potent and its color slightly more muted.
In South Korea, on the other hand, a very similar tea is called hyeonminokcha (현미녹차; ‘brown rice green tea’).
Funmatsucha is something that looks like matcha, but it’s not matcha.
Funmatsucha has no established origin. It can be sencha, hojicha, or even genmaicha in powdered form. And that’s exactly the main difference between matcha and funmatsucha – matcha, in short, is something that has to come strictly from tencha.
Moreover, matcha, unlike funmatsucha, has a higher l-theanine content, and funmatsucha, unlike matcha, has a higher catechin content (which makes sense when you consider that matcha was shielded before processing). Funmatsucha, however, is literally an antioxidant bomb and has the highest EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) content of all ryokucha – a catechin that has been shown to have strong antiviral effects. Specifically, EGCG can inhibit the function of viral protease and helicase, which are enzymes essential for viral replication.
Due to its high catechin content, the taste of funmatsucha is quite a bit more bitter and astringent in contrast to the taste of matcha.
With funmatsucha, I would like to draw particular attention to its storage. I myself threw my Gaba Midori funmatsucha in the trash because it quickly turned yellow and I thought I was storing it incorrectly. The reason I did this was simply because, for some mystical reason, I considered funmatsucha to be a type of matcha that, when stored properly, would last a long time and turn a beautiful deep green. But count on the fact that funmatsucha won’t do that, and due to its different composition, it will react quite differently with oxygen and will turn you a nice yellow in no time. That’s not a disaster, though. You haven’t messed up the Funmatsucha and it’s still perfectly drinkable.
Hojicha is a very special green tea. It has a brown colour.
But don’t panic. The brown colour of Hojicha is not caused by any oxidation or fermantation. Hojicha is a classic sencha (mostly) that has been roasted in a porcelain pot over coals after being dried and steamed. Importantly, during the roasting process not only the colour changes but also the taste. Hojicha loses almost all of its polyphenols through roasting, and as a result, it also loses the classic grassy freshness of green tea, and instead, notes of coffee, caramel, or chocolate can be found in its flavor.
Matcha and Funmatsucha is “powder tea” and konacha is “powdered tea”. The difference between the two names in practice is that konacha is not “powdered” into a powder like matcha or funmatsucha, but consists of small remnants of leaves, buds and dust that are literally left over as waste after matcha and gyokura processing.
Konacha is mostly found as a very economical tea offered in many sushi restaurants, and needless to say, in most cases it’s a pretty big mess. However, you can certainly find some konacha of better quality than those in sushi restaurants, but it will still be more or less just the best of the worst.
Although it is not very common, konacha can be roasted into so-called houjikonacha. The heat treatment reduces the bitterness and gives the tea a roasted flavour and aroma. Houjikonacha is also an ingredient in the Japanese dish chagayu, which is actually just a very fancy name for rice and tea.
Fukamushicha literally means “deep-steamed tea” and as the name suggests, it is a tea that is steamed a little longer than most tea varieties. It is usually produced in Shizuoka Prefecture.
The classic ryokucha is steamed for about 30 to 40 seconds and the resulting product is called futsuumushicha (普通蒸し茶, “normal steamed tea”). Fukamushicha, by comparison, is steamed for one minute and sometimes longer.
The steaming process greatly affects the taste of the green tea. The main advantage of using the fukamushi process is that it suppresses the bitterness while extracting a little more fullness and sweetness from the flavour.
The longer steaming time causes the tea leaves to be very soft and the tips often break off during the process of rolling into the needles. These tiny particles make fukamushicha look as if it is a lower quality tea, but in reality it is definitely not.
The appearance of fukamushicha may therefore be a disadvantage, but the small tea particles only mean that the health benefits are increased (of course, with the right preparation and the right quality of tea). As with matcha and funmatsuchi, by drinking small solid particles we can get more nutrients (such as catechins) from the tea, plus nutrients that are not water-soluble, such as fiber, some vitamins and chlorophyll.
Fukamushicha is also slightly more difficult to prepare compared to other teas. If the strainer in your teapot has holes that are too wide, the particles will not filter through. The infuser should also have a large surface area, as fukamushicha can quickly clog up a surface that is too small. That’s where the miraculous kyusu teapot, designed specifically for ryokucha, comes in, which among other things is a great choice (also) for making fukamutsicha.
So let’s just sum up nicely that there are many more tea types and variations than just the ones we have mentioned in this blog. Most importantly, even the tea types mentioned can be studied in much more depth than we have analyzed them in this little guide. The tea rabbit hole is very deep, there is always something new to discover, and whichever tea you choose, make sure you pay attention to quality, proper preparation and also proper storage.
My beginnings with tea were poor. I steeped it for a long time, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unintentionally, and wondered at the disgustingly bitter taste. Sometimes I put in water that was too hot, or didn’t store and consume it the way I should have. There’s a lot that can go wrong with tea, but there are also many hidden and beautiful elements to be discovered in it when handled properly. And that’s why I’ve written this Little Guide. With more information acquired about tea, it is certainly easier to handle and the likelihood of potential mistakes can be greatly reduced (hopefully).
I dared to list here some sources for a few more scientific things, so that someone doesn’t attack me with where I got some data about tea amino acids and their function on the human body.
- Cartwright RA, Roberts EAH, Wood DJ. Theanine an amino acidof N-ethly amide present in tea. J Sci Food Agric, 1954:597-599.
- Kakuda, T., et al. (2000). Inhibiting effects of theanine on caffeine stimulation evaluated by EEG in the rat. Biosci Biotechno Biochem 64, 287-293.
- Eschenauer G, Sweet BV, Pharmacology and therapeutic uses of theanine. Am J Health-Syst Ph 2006;63:26-30 .
- Mason, R. (2001). 200 mg of Zen; L-theanine boosts alpha waves, promotes alert relaxation. Alternative & Complementary Therapies 7, 91-95.
- Kimura K., et al (2007). L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol 74 (1), 39–45.
- Haskell, C.F. et al. (2008). The effects of l-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood. Biol Psychol 77 (2), 113–2.
- Quinde-Axtell Z, Baik BK (December 2006). „Phenolic compounds of barley grain and their implication in food product discoloration“. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 54 (26): 9978–9984.
- Rinaldo D, Batista JM, Rodrigues J, Benfatti AC, Rodrigues CM, dos Santos LC, et al. (August 2010). „Determination of catechin diastereomers from the leaves of Byrsonima species using chiral HPLC-PAD-CD“. Chirality. 22 (8): 726–733.
- SHARMA, Nitin; MURALI, Aarthy; SINGH, Sanjeev Kumar, et al. Epigallocatechin gallate, an active green tea compound inhibits the Zika virus entry into host cells via binding the envelope protein. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. 2017, roč. 104, s. 1046–1054.