Answerman Do Japanese People Really Only Drink Green Tea?
by Justin Sevakis,
I have always been a fan of Japanese teas. I have noticed, though, that anime characters appear exclusively to drink green tea blends. The western world seems much more varied with the occasional scented (Earl Grey), smoked (Lapsang Souchong), or fruit teas interrupting the wide variety of mostly black tea blends. Do the Japanese really drink nothing but green tea? And, as a supplementary question, are you able to explain, please, the significance of the image one sees from time to time of the small, single stalk of tea standing upright in the middle of the beaker? The image always seems quite portentous: is it, say, the eqivalent of a westerner walking under a ladder, spilling salt, or crossing paths with a black cat?
Indeed, Japan does drink (and produce) green tea like nobody else. One might even say that green tea is Japan's national beverage. It's served everywhere, offered on planes and in offices, placed in hotel rooms, and is generally ubiquitous. However, Japan has its own way of growing and brewing the stuff, and they are extremely particular about it. Most tea is brewed loose, or using strainers instead of tea bags. Tea leaves are photosensitive, so they're kept in dark, vacuum sealed containers (never glass jars!). Brewing is done at a cooler temperature than black tea or coffee: 60-75°C (140-176°F, depending on the variety). All of this affects the flavor, sometimes greatly.
Japanese teas are typically not blended at all -- instead, Japanese green tea is enjoyed in pure batches. The most common type, sencha, is a whole tea leaf that's been steamed to prevent oxidation, then rolled up into cylinders, shaped and dried. This is as opposed to Chinese green tea, which is pan-fired before drying. The flavor is quite different -- Japanese sencha has a greener, almost grassy taste. Many Westerners who aren't used to green tea accuse it of tasting like a freshly mowed lawn.
Japanese sencha is divided up and sold by grade. Other variations include sencha grown in the shade, which is supposedly sweeter and contains more amino acids (kabusecha), sencha picked early in the harvest (shincha), and leaves that have been steamed for a longer or shorter amount of time. Sencha that's been picked last in the season is called "bancha," or "common tea" and is considered lowest grade.
Matcha, which is grown from a slightly different line of tea plant, is also grown in the shade. However, it's ground into a powder after the leaf is dry, which is bright green. Matcha is the tea of choice for Japanese traditional tea ceremony, and until recently was really only popular in Japan. However, with the popularity of green tea flavored desserts exploding worldwide, the production of matcha has experienced a huge boom in recent years. Like sencha, matcha is also separated by grade, how high on the tea plant it was grown, and how oxidized it's become. You can also drink this type of tea leaf without it being ground, but it's called "gyokuro."
Other important varieties of Japanese green tea include hojicha (bancha or sencha that's been roasted over charcoal), genmaicha (bancha with roasted brown rice, which has a warm, nutty flavor, making it popular in winter), kukicha (made from the leaf stalks and branches of the sencha or matcha plants) and jasmine tea (a Chinese tea traditionally, scented with jasmine blossoms). They all are popular and have their own devotees.
Green teas are served without sugar or milk -- and indeed, Japanese people tend to be horrified when they see Westerners dump sugar into tea. But as a result, their tea drinking has been thought to be a huge health benefit, and a reason behind Japanese longevity. Green tea has been credited for everything from curing cancer to weight loss. Scientific study, however, has not resulted in much proof behind these claims. Conversely, green tea was once thought to cause kidney stones, but recent research suggests that it might prevent them.
Japanese green tea is also served cold, pre-brewed and bottled. Brands like Oi Ocha and Teas' Tea are extremely popular, and have slowly been making inroads into the US market. You can even find them in high-end delis in major American cities. Many Asian grocery stores carry 2 liter bottles. Both brands are marketed by the Japanese tea giant Ito En, who has also introduced green tea latte drinks to the market.
Japan does enjoy Western style tea as well. "Royal Milk Tea" is a local name for either Assam or Darjeeling that was introduced to Japan by Lipton in the 1960s. It's similar to chai in that it's cooked in a saucepan, but does not include spices. It's commonly sold in refrigerated bottles, pre-blended with milk and sugar. Other commonly available tea varieties like Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Chamomile and ginger are all available in Japan. They are harder to find, and not as popular, however.
So, Japan DOES drink teas other than their own green varieties. However, the vast majority of what gets consumed there is, in fact, green. And that's just the way the Japanese like it.
As far as the whole "floating tea stalk" superstition, the origins of that one are a little hard to track down, but the myth I've heard is that centuries ago, tea farmers were having a hard time selling the stalks of tea leaves. So, as a bit of clever marketing, they started making the claim that a vertically floating tea stalk in your cup was a harbinger of good luck, and if you wanted some good luck in your life, you'd better buy some tea stalks. And so people did.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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