Tea has been a staple in Asian culture for centuries, with various types and flavors that vary from region to region. The popularity of Chinese tea has long outgrown its borders as entrepreneurs introduced tea seeds and plants to other Asian countries. That led to the production of Chinese tea types in other countries. In today's blog post, we'll explore some of the most popular varieties of Asian tea produced in some of China's neighboring countries. We'll explore the production specifics that vary by each country, and some teas with unique profiles, that stemmed from these bold experiments. We can even offer you some of them in our tea store, too, so make yourself a cuppa and let's dive in!
Asian tea in Japan
Japan has a long history of tea culture and has developed its unique tea varieties, such as matcha and sencha. However, in recent years, Japan has also started to produce Chinese tea types, such as Black Tea (or Hong Cha), Dark Tea (or Hei Cha), and even Oolong Tea!
Japanese black tea
Japan's black tea production has a relatively short history compared to other tea types. It was first introduced in Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912) by a British merchant named John McArthur, seeking to expand the market for tea beyond China and India.
Initially, black tea production in Japan was limited, with most of the country's tea production focused on green tea. However, in recent years, black tea has become increasingly popular, with several Japanese tea producers developing their unique varieties.
There are several black tea types produced in Japan. Here are some examples:
- Wakoucha is a black tea produced in Japan using the Wakoucha cultivar. The cultivar is a hybrid between the Indian Assamica and the Chinese Sinensis tea plant. It is also resistant to cold weather, making it a popular choice for tea production in northern Japan. Wakoucha black tea has a bold flavor and deep red color. Sometimes people in Japan consume it with milk and sugar, similar to other parts of the world.
* Wakoucha Japanese black tea
- Satsuma is a type of black tea produced in Kagoshima Prefecture in Southern Japan. The tea is named after the former Satsuma Domain, now part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Satsuma black tea uses tea leaves from the Yabukita cultivar, Japan's most commonly grown tea cultivar. The tea leaves are heavily oxidized, which gives the tea a rich, full-bodied flavor with notes of caramel and honey.
Satsuma black tea is often compared to Assam tea from India, as both have a strong and robust flavor. However, Satsuma black tea is special in its own right and is a favorite for tea enthusiasts in Japan and around the world.
- Benifuki Black Tea: Benifuki is a relatively new tea cultivar that the Tea Research Institute developed in Shizuoka Prefecture in the 1960s. It is commonly used for both green and black tea production in Japan. Benifuki black tea bears the same name. It's known for its bold flavor and high levels of polyphenolic compounds, supposedly having health benefits.
- Kirishima Black Tea: Kirishima is a region in southern Japan known for its tea production. Kirishima black tea is made using a blend of tea leaves from different cultivars, some of which are used for black and others for green tea production. It is known for its smooth and mellow flavor.
- Yutaka Midori Black Tea: Yutaka Midori is a tea cultivar commonly used for green tea production in Japan. However, in recent years, some producers have started using Yutaka Midori to make black tea as well. Yutaka Midori black tea is known for its floral aroma and mild flavor.
Due to the crossing with Indian and Chinese tea varieties, Japanese black teas offer a distinctive flavor profile worth exploring.
Japanese Hei Cha
The production of Hei Cha, or Dark tea, in Japan is entirely new and has a truly innovative approach.
Only as recently as the last decade, a small group of innovative producers in Japan started experimenting with Hei Cha production using traditional Chinese methods. They use tea leaves mostly from the Yabukita cultivar. It is the most common tea cultivar in Japan. They follow an orthodox processing involving withering, steaming, rolling, and fermenting the tea leaves.
Yamabuki Nadeshiko is an example of such innovative Japanese Hei Cha. A unique thing about it is that it is fermented with the Japanese fermentation starter called "kuro-koji-kin", or black Koji mold. This mold has been used for centuries in Japan to ferment traditional foods and drinks like soy sauce, sake, and miso. Another difference from the Chinese Hei Cha is that this Japanese dark tea ferments in a sterilized room, with strict control over molds and bacteria. In Chinese Pu-erh processing, fermentation is natural (there is control of the moisture and temperature in the process). It allows the spontaneous development of all molds and bacteria naturally present in the air.
* Yamabuki Nadeshiko: Japanese post-fermented tea
While oolong tea is traditionally associated with China and Taiwan, Japan also has a small but growing oolong tea industry. Japanese Oolong is often referred to as "Wulong" tea, which is the Mandarin Chinese term for this tea type. Japanese oolong tea production involves the same techniques as traditional oolong tea. Namely, withering, "making the green", rolling, and oxidation.
Japanese producers may also incorporate their unique production methods and cultivars to create distinct and flavorful teas. Some Japanese producers experiment with Taiwanese cultivars for Oolong tea production. Among them are Cui Yu (翠玉) and Jin Xuan (金萱). The cultivar commonly used for Wulong tea production in Japan is known as "Shizuoka Wulong". That is a locally developed cultivar based on Jin Xuan. It gives the Japanese Oolong a distinctive floral aroma and fruity flavor. Some producers use Surugawase (Shizu 7109) – a cultivar commonly used for green tea – to create Oolong tea. That yields a pleasantly bitter and slightly astringent tea with mild grassy and vegetal notes.
An interesting feature in some Japanese Oolong tea production is the lack of Roasting in processing. It is similar to the traditional processing style of Taiwanese Baozhong Oolong (包种乌龙). This tea is lightly oxidized, with a mild taste, delicate flowery notes, and subtle grassy astringency.
Japanese Oolong tea's growing and production takes place mostly in the southern regions of Japan, including Kagoshima and Miyazaki. These regions have a mild climate and fertile soil, ideal for growing tea.
Japanese oolong tea is still relatively rare compared to other tea types like green tea and black tea. It has nevertheless gained recognition in recent years among tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs.
White and yellow Japanese Teas
White tea production in Japan is very limited and rare. It is because white tea is traditionally associated with Chinese tea culture and is not commonly produced in other tea-growing regions (there are some exceptions to the rule that we are not only aware of but have already acquired some of these precious rarities! Stay tuned for more on this subject in our future blog posts!)
However, in recent years, some Japanese tea farmers have started experimenting with white tea production using traditional methods, such as sun-withering and drying. These teas usually come in small quantities, highly prized by tea lovers.
It's worth noting that "white tea" can refer to Japanese green teas with minimal processing and a slightly more delicate flavor and aroma than other green teas.
Yellow tea is another type of tea that is not commonly produced in Japan. Yellow tea is primarily associated with Chinese tea culture. It is made using a unique processing method that involves lightly oxidizing and steaming the tea leaves, followed by a period of "yellowing," where the leaves are wrapped in cloth or paper and left to sit for several hours. This process gives the tea a unique flavor profile that is less grassy and vegetal than green tea but lighter and more delicate than Oolong or black tea.
While there may be some experimental yellow tea production in Japan, it is not a well-known or widely cultivated Asian tea type in the country.
Asian tea production in Japan - local customs and beliefs
The country's unique spiritual landscape has influenced the development of the tea industry in Japan. It gave birth to some curious traditions and customs about tea growing and processing. Some tea producers believe that playing music or singing to the tea plants can help improve the tea quality.
- Picking tea leaves in the morning: Some Japanese tea producers believe that picking tea leaves in the morning, with dew still on them, improves the flavor and aroma of the tea. The dew adds moisture to the leaves, making them more plump and flavorful.
- Playing music or singing to the tea plants: Some Japanese tea producers believe that playing music or singing to the tea plants also improves the quality of the tea. The theory is that the music or singing vibrations stimulate the plants' growth.
- Using traditional production methods: Some Japanese tea producers still use traditional methods to produce their black tea, such as hand-rolling the leaves or using wooden barrels to dry the tea. These methods supposedly help preserve the flavor and aroma of the tea.
- Practicing mindfulness: Tea production in Japan is often seen as a form of meditation or mindfulness practice. Tea producers may spend hours or even days carefully tending to their plants and processing their leaves, focusing on the present moment and cultivating a sense of calm and tranquility.
These customs and practices are deeply rooted in Japanese tea culture and reflect the country's long history of tea production and appreciation. They demonstrate Japanese tea producers' reverence and care for their craft and the importance of producing high-quality, flavorful tea.
That's it for today! In the following blog posts, we'll go further into Southeast Asia to explore one of the most beloved Asian tea categories production outside of China. Pu-erh tea production has been longstanding in many of China's neighbors, including Vietnam, Laos, and Sri Lanka. We'll witness the local ethnic minorities' traditions and techniques in producing and processing the world's most collected tea. We'll also hop to Thailand to discover one of the few places in the world, outside of China, that produces white tea. More to come, so stay tuned!