Sometimes the simplest questions asked about tea are the hardest to answer well. I am sure that the Japanese tea master Sen Rikyu ( 1522-1591) would ageee with this dilemma of simplicity versus complication.
A customer asked me the other day what the difference was between Chinese and Japanese green tea. I thought a minute before I spoke, because to me, the answer to this seemingly simple question could take an entire afternoon to answer properly. And to do justice to the astounding attributes and style differences between these unique and delicious green teas.
We live in a world of sound-bite answers, so I imagined that she did not want to hear all that I could say on the topic. But the innocence of the question gave me pause to wonder if there is a simple answer that does some measure of justice to this type of queston.
Where should the explanation begin ?
- with the differences in the plant varieties hybridized for best leaf growth in Japan’s unique climate and environment ?
- with mention of Japan’s use of mechanized leaf plucking ?
- or that some Japanese green teas are shade-grown for optimum chlorophyll production ?
- with the fact that the emphasis on most Japanese tea is on the integrity of the blend rather than on the region of origin of the leaf ?
- or that most Japanese green tea is manufactured to a stable, half-made state before being finish fired ?
- or that the taste of the tea in Japan is what really matters – that the appearance of the leaf does not count for much to most Japanese tea drinkers ?
- or that the Japanese embrace a measure of flavor astringency in their tea that makes one feel as if one is consuming the essence of the plant in each sip ?
I chose instead to tell her this: while a great many things differ in the cultivation and processing of Japanese and Chinese green tea, it is the Japanese custom to put fresh leaf through a steaming process as it enters the tea factory ( the tea travels along on a conveyor belt while the steam shoots up from bottom and along the sides as the tea passes by). While the tea is steamed for only about 35 seconds or so for standard sencha, it is steamed for to 90 seconds for a fukamuchi sencha.
This process is essential for traditional Japanese green teas, as the steaming breaks down the cell structure of the fresh leaf ( think about the absolute rendering of flavor that steam, combined with hot water, forces out of coffee grounds in a large espresso machine ) and contributes to the very green and very vibrant, often vegetal and sometimes kelpy flavors that Japanese teas are so famous for.
This seemed to make her happy and settle the question in her mind. I suggested some further reading to learn more about the differences and distinctions. She chose one one of each style tea to try, and I am sure that that would have made Sen Rikyu happy, too. He knew all to well that the spirit of the tea lives in the cup, and in the practice of brewing tea.