Updated: Mar 10
If you have never brewed any loose tea leaves or any Japanese loose tea for that matter, you might get quite shocked upon tasting your brew and realizing that is rather bitter. You might even spit it out in disbelief then go back to teabags or other loose leaf teas.
Usually, Japanese teas are regarded as the most difficult to brew out there since they require a high control on the amount of water and leaves ratio plus the water temperature. Let's take gyokuro as an example. Gyokuro is a pleasant and delicate Japanese shaded tea with a flavour profile on the sweeter side.
If you have ever experienced a Senchadou or Sencha Tea Ceremony, you might have tasted gyokuro. In Japan, some people consider gyokuro a tea for the old generations. However, I could not disagree more since I find its taste absolutely outstanding and I am not that old.
So take 3 grams of gyokuro, add them to the teapot, pour 100 degrees Celsius water to it, leave it brewing for a minute. Taste your brew. It doesn't taste very good, does it? The gyokuro leaves have been burnt, the cathechins have been released and the brew has been ruined. Gyokuro teas should be brewed using water temperature between 45 and 55 degrees Celsius in order to release all the good flavours gyokuro tea has to offer.
Obviously, this is an extreme example since starting on Japanese teas by gyokuro might be discouraging for many. But it is a clear example about why some people might not like Japanese teas, because they have not been brewed correctly and therefore their taste was really unpleasant. Sencha bitterness is not fun. There is a time when Japanese teas are brewed at 100 degrees Celsius, when they are being tasted before being purchased. The reason for this? Brewing them at such temperature releases all the bad flavours. This is how tea dealers know what teas are good for the flavour profiles they want to achieve. I tasted sencha brewed at 100 degrees Celsius, among other teas, and I almost gave up my love for Japanese teas.
So, which are good entry Japanese teas to start brewing? If you enjoy nutty flavours, genmaicha could be the right tea for you. Genmaicha is sencha tea mixed with puffed rice. In the past teas were a very expensive commodity so more modest households would mix their teas with puffed rice to stretch it a bit. Genmaicha is also an affordable type of Japanese tea, so it is ideal to begin your Japanese tea brewing training. Within the genmaicha type there are also different qualities, it is advisable to experiment and try different brands and regions until finding the right one for you.
The better the quality, the better the brew. However, it also depends on the palate too. So choose teas that you really like and learn how to brew them to your taste. I personally cannot stand bitterness, other people loves it. Stronger teas are quite overwhelming for me yet many of my tea friends love very bold smokey teas. So you have found a nice genmaicha you like, at least smells good and has good reviews. What else do you need to brew it? While you could use other means of brewing the tea, I will explain how to brew it the right way. We are learning how to do it properly after all, aren't we? Japanese Tea Brewing - 101
You will need a teapot called kyusu, a tea vessel or cup called yunomi , a tea spoon or scoop (tea leaves shouldn't be touched with the bare hands) and a water cooler known as yuzamashi. You can also use a tea caddy to preserve your tea leaves. - Boil water, add some water to the tea vessel when is ready (it is best if the water is not chalky)
- Add the water to the teapot, put the lid on, leave it for a couple of mins
- Pour the water into the water cooler
At this point, the water should be around 70 degrees Celsius, its temperature decreases around 10 degrees Celsius each time the water changes container. If you want slightly warmer water, skip step one and pour some water directly into the teapot. - Open the tea pouch, scoop some leaves out using the tea spoon and add them to the teapot
- Put the lid on, leave the tea leaves rest for about a minute
- Remove the lid
- Add the water contained in the water cooler, put the lid back on
- Brew for 50 seconds
- Take the teapot by the handle making sure your index finger holds the lid
- Pour the tea into the yunomi
- Shake it carefully to ensure you get the last drop (known as the golden drop, it's the best one!) - Take the lid and place it on top of the kyusu but covering its opening partially (leave some gap so the tea leaves do not get too warm)
Now you can enjoy your very first nicely brewed cup of Japanese tea. Congratulations!
The steps provided above are just a guideline. It is up to you now to experiment with warmer or colder water, more or less water, more or less tea leaves in order to find out which of the brews you enjoy the most. It is advisable to keep notes of all your brews so you can go back to them as needed.
Some Japanese teas can be brewed multiple times, all depends on their quality. This should be done while the tea leaves are still warm ideally. Otherwise, they oxidize over time and the taste profile changes greatly.
To do a second and third infusion of the same tea leaves, use warmer water and shorter brews. For example, if you wanted a second brew of your genmaicha, use 80 degrees Celsius water and brew it for about 10 seconds. Genmaicha usually allows two or three brews. How do you know the tea leaves are spent? They are wide open, their colour changes and the brews are rather bitter or tasteless.
While I have used genmaicha as an example, there are other affordable Japanese teas out there you could use to start brewing. Kukicha for example, which allows warmer water for the brews, bancha or houjicha. As you can see, it is not that difficult to start brewing Japanese teas if clear and specific instructions are provided.
So now it is time for you to go and start brewing. We will also enjoy a nice cup of Japanese tea.
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