Have you ever heard or tried houjicha (ほうじ茶) before? I first tried it in Japan during my Japanese tea training course in Japan. We were served lots of cold brewed houjicha thorough the day to combat the heat. Its colour was really nice, reddish, bright, beautiful. And it was so refreshing! Almost everywhere we went to we were served a nice cup of cold brewed houjicha.
You might sometimes find it written as hojicha instead. Like wakoucha or wakocha. It is the same tea, but for whatever reason there is a tendency of shortening the long Japanese sound ou in the English language, possibly in other languages as well. Ou in Japanese is pronounced as a long oo, the same way ei is pronounced as a long ee in sensei.
What you might not know & might surprise you is the fact that houjicha is still green tea, despite its colour. Yes, I know, I was also shocked when I found out. It has a smell similar to wet hay which makes it more difficult to believe houjicha is a type of green tea.
Months ago I told a tea vendor who have posted about roasting sencha at home on Instagram that I liked how his houjicha looked like. He said it wasn't houjicha but roasted sencha. I told him that in fact it was the same thing since once roasted, Japanese green tea becomes houjicha. With some exceptions. He was a bit perplexed. I would be too if I did not know about this.
What type of tea is houjicha made of? Technically, houjicha can be made using any type of green tea except matcha since it is powdered tencha & kamairicha or tamaryokucha since they have been pan fried. We roasted tencha during the tea training in Japan, which many people out there might see as a heresy. I found it fascinating. The small tea flakes became golden brown in front of my eyes, their colour & aroma changed significantly & the resulting infusion was completely different from the one we had using non-roasted tencha.
Usually houjicha is made out by roasting bancha (番茶) a commodity Japanese tea yet there might be many other roasted green teas in the market such as kukicha & even sencha. By roasting different types of green teas we obtain different aromas, tonalities & of course flavour ranges. However, since every tea farmer likes to process their teas differently, we could find many versions of houjicha all around Japan.
How is houjicha made? Traditionally, houjicha was made at home using a clay device known by many names: Houjiki, Hojiki, Houko, Houroku... The tea leaves are added inside the houjiki which is placed directly over a flame. We then grab it by the handle & make circular movements while the tea leaves get roasted until we get the desired roasting point for our tea leaves. Once the leaves are ready, they are offloaded into a teapot or a tea caddy via the connecting gap between the houjiki body & the handle.
We have to be watchful in order to ensure that the leaves don't get burnt, otherwise the taste of the tea will not be nice. Japanese roasting masters take great care of their roasting process since producing a pleasant flavour profile requires a certain level of skill. There is something extremely comforting in roasting your own green tea before brewing it. The houjiki can of course be used to fire up a bit other teas such as black teas. I roast wakoucha sometimes before I prepare my brew since I have noticed the roasting intensifies its aroma, taste & colour. Some tea shops in Uji, have an antique houjicha roasting machine by the door which they use to roast tea continuously filling the air with a delicious aroma. In order to roast large amount of leaves, tea factories use industrial roasting machines.
Why roasting Japanese green tea?
One of the reasons would be to change its flavour, to enjoy a cup of tea that tastes different than the traditional Japanese green teas.
Another reason is to lower its caffeine content. In this way we don't only get a different flavour profile but also those people who have issues caffeine can still enjoy a nice cup of tea.
Sometimes, the reason is to ensure the tea leaves aren't wasted. If the green tea goes unsold for certain period of time, it starts loosing its freshness. Instead throwing it away, the green tea leaves can still be saved by roasting them. In this way, a new product is made available, the tea leaves aren't thrown & some of the investment can be recovered. This used to be done often at home when the tea leaves started to to become a bit stale. So the caffeine & cathechin content get reduced when roasting green tea? I am not a scientist & even within the tea industry there are different answers going around depending on who you ask. So I will not go into much detail on this paragraph about these two topics mainly because they deserve a more thorough research & a separate article on their own.
So first of all, the amount of caffeine in the green tea used to make the houjicha is not the same. If we use kukicha, it will have less caffeine, if we use sencha it will contain more caffeine. More stalks & veins versus more leaf determines the amount of caffeine in a tea along with shading. Normally, houjicha is made out of bancha which has a lower caffeine content compared to other Japanese teas. But it could be that the houjicha was made out of old gyokuro leaves that got a bit stale, then we would have a houjicha with a higher level of caffeine.
Certain studies have shown that roasting can make a great difference in the caffeine content a given tea has. The caffeine dissolves easily in hot water & evaporates during the roasting process. The water content in tea leaves is reduced from 5-6% to 2-3% after roasting. I would say this is more like a generic guideline since the amount of water of each type of tea varies. Regarding the cathechin content reduction during the roasting process I found the abstract of a study that claims the following: ''The degradation of tea catechins was suppressed by roasting at 160 degrees C. Hence, roasting at 160 degrees C for is recommended for Houjicha processing for acrylamide mitigation, formation of potent odorants, and suppression of degradation of tea catechins.'' It seems that some degradation happens when roasting green tea & according to the statement above this could be avoided by roasting the tea at a certain temperature. I would be interested in finding out the percentage of degradation avoided by roasting the tea using the recommended temperature.
More specific research is also needed mainly because some of the studies I found were quite old & also because depending on how they choose to extrapolate the data, the results will vary. If you are reading this & have access to more recent research on the topic, please share away.
Can I roast green tea at home?
Of course you can! I encourage you to do it at least once in your life. Not only to enjoy the experience but also for you to see how the colours & aromas change & develop.
If you get a houjiki, you can do it by following the instructions I provided above. It's fairly simple, there is a video about the process here.
If you don't have a houjiki at home (I actually don't yet, I know, so sad) you can use my very own green tea roasting method. This is what I do when I want to roast green tea or any other tea. I discovered it after testing an idea I had in mind. And it works really well. I usually roast small quantities yet it can be scaled according to your own needs. One important thing to keep in mind. Tea absorbs odours & flavours really fast. This is the reason why I recommend using a non-porous/glazed ceramic or clay pot instead using the pan or skillet directly.
1 ceramic dish (heat resistant) 1 wooden spoon 1 oven glove Ingredients 3 grams of Japanese green tea (any type you like) Preparation 1. Add the green tea to the ceramic dish 2. Place the ceramic dish inside the pan 3. Place the pan on the stove at a medium heat (number 6 out of 9 in mine)
4. Stir the tea leaves using the wooden spoon
5. Roast the leaves for a bit (8 mins or so, until the bright green becomes golden brown, it might need more or less time depending on your stove)
6. Remove from the stove, remove the tea leaves from the ceramic pot immediately (otherwise they will over roast)
There you have it, your very own roasted Japanese green tea. You can try with different green teas, with other types of teas or even with herbs. Are there any other things I can do with houjicha? There is a trend going on right now. Powdered houjicha used for lattes in a similar fashion than matcha. Some people go as far as call it black matcha, however, just because is powdered tea it doesn't mean is matcha. Matcha tea follows a completely different process before & after the harvest. It is the only Japanese tea that is processed this way. For more info you can read this article I wrote about it before. Unfortunately, the Japanese haven't claimed the geographical denomination of the matcha process & therefore the tea industry is using the word matcha as they please. I think this is detrimental for the Japanese tea industry & also for end customers. I might consider writing an interesting & perhaps controversial article just about this. Anyhow, houjicha is recommended as an entry tea for those who like coffee but cannot drink it or for those who would like to start drinking Japanese teas & don't know where to start. It's flavour varies depending on the type, caramel & chocolate notes can be found. It can be enjoyed cold, hot, in lattes & in desserts as well plus since it has a lower caffeine content it can be drunk all day long.
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