How to Brew Japanese Tea

Tea is a world as complex and deep as wine. With its celebrated and hallowed tea culture, Japan holds a singular place in this sphere. To understand more about how to choose and brew Japanese tea, we caught up with Zach Mangan, the founder of Kettl Tea, a company that sources fine Japanese tea directly from artisan producers.

How to Choose Japanese Tea

The top-of-mind question. Bub before we tackle that, let’s break down Japanese tea a bit: Japan is known for its distinctive green teas. “Green” here means when a tea leaf is picked, it’s heated almost immediately to prevent oxidation, which results in its distinctive emerald color and fresh, herbaceous flavor. In Japan, for the most part, this heating is achieved by steaming the tea. There are about a dozen primary styles of Japanese green tea. We’re going to cover four:

  • Hojicha Savory roasted green tea with a refreshing and roasty taste
  • Genmaicha Green tea mixed with toasted brown rice which adds an appealing nutty flavor
  • Sencha Japan’s classic green tea with a delicate sweetness and astringency
  • Matcha Finely ground green tea that has been shade-grown (more on that below), considered Japan’s preeminent tea

Now, back to that fundamental question. Using sencha as an example, Zach explains what to look for:

Look for these four elements to determine the quality level of your tea:

  1. Fresh aroma
  2. Consistent color and leaf size
  3. Details of origin
  4. “Best by” or “packed on” date printed on the package

Speaking of packaging, seek out sealed, opaque packaging with the air pressed out. That’s a good sign. And make sure to ask your purveyor where the tea came from and when it was produced. If the purveyor can’t answer those questions immediately—that’s a bad sign.

To store Japanese tea, remember to avoid oxygen, heat, light and moisture. For long-term storage, refrigerate your tea. Brew leaf tea in a teapot, which gives tea leaves room to fully release flavor and aroma, and serve in ceramic tea cups, which hold heat and feel great in your hand.

How to Prepare Hojicha

Hojicha, roasted green tea, is lower in caffeine than other Japanese green teas and very easy to brew. Its intoxicating, roasty fragrance is as irresistible as its flavor. Hojicha can tolerate high water temperatures, which helps draw out its distinctive aroma. This tea is extremely versatile, wonderful to drink with meals or on its own as a casual cup whenever the mood strikes. Let’s watch Zach walk us through the steps to brewing hojicha:

Here are the details for preparing hojicha:

  • Tea 4 grams
  • Water 150-180 cc
  • Water temperature 195° F to 212° F
  • Brewing time 00:45 to 1:00
  • Number of steeps 1-2

Note Zach’s technique for pouring servings, which can be applied to all whole leaf teas. For three cups, he pours 1-2-3, 3-2-1 and so on. Why? As it brews, tea becomes stronger on the bottom. So Zach pours across servings so every cup has the same potency. And he makes sure to shake out the last drops of liquid, which hold intense, delicious flavor.

How to Prepare Genmaicha

The nuttiness from the roasted brown rice in genmaicha marries perfectly with the sweetness of the green tea leaves.  Like hojicha, this style has less caffeine than other Japanese teas. But genmaicha requires a lower water temperature to bring out its best flavor. Let’s watch Zach brew this tea:

Here are the details for preparing genmaicha:

  • Tea 5-6 grams
  • Water 180 cc
  • Water temperature 190° F
  • Brewing time 00:30 to 00:45
  • Number of steeps up to 3

Note how Zach spreads out the tea leaves on the bottom of the pot to distribute them evenly, and pours hot water in a circular motion to evenly cover the tea—key steps to brewing all Japanese tea.

How to Prepare Sencha

Sencha is Japan’s classic green tea, produced in many regions of the country—each reflecting its own particular terroir. This tea expresses stringency, sweetness and umami all at once, but to tease out these sublime sensibilities be extra careful with water temperatures; sencha requires one of the lowest water temperatures of any Japanese tea. When to drink sencha? “I love it in the morning and afternoon to provide a little energy boost, thanks to its caffeine,” says Zach. Let’s watch him brew sencha:

Here are the details for preparing sencha:

  • Tea 5-6 grams
  • Water 180 cc
  • Water temperature 170-180° F
  • Brewing time 00:30 to 00:40
  • Number of steeps up to 3

Zach mentioned another fascinating tidbit: sencha is loaded with L-Theanine, a chemical that helps create a sense of calm, which is why you feel so mellow after a couple of cups, even though sencha also contains caffeine.

How to Prepare Matcha

Matcha is finely milled green tea, whose leaves are covered from sunlight for 20-25 days before harvest. This shade-growing causes the tea to produce more chlorophyll and thinner, more pliant leaves as they search for sunlight. And the calming L-Theanine content increases as a result, too. All these factors create in matcha a rich, round, beautiful full-flavored tea.

Because it’s a powder, you have to whip the tea with a traditional whisk to suspend the tea particles in hot water.  Zach explains the process:

Here are the details for preparing matcha:

  • Tea 1.5-2 grams
  • Water 65 cc
  • Water temperature flexible

Zach offers these tips for buying matcha: The more specific information you know about the origin of the tea, the better. Make sure the matcha was harvested and processed in Japan. The most famous production area is Uji, but Yame in Fukuoka and Aichi Prefecture also produce terrific matcha. Make sure packaging protects against light, heat and moisture. And as we discussed earlier, look for “best by” or “packed on” dates—for quality matcha, these are a must.

Also, always store your matcha in the refrigerator.

Thanks for sharing your amazing tea know-how, Zach!

Chef's Corner