What’s the difference between Chinese and Japanese green tea? A brief look at the key distinguishing features of green tea from these two countries.
The history books tell us that tea arrived in Japan from China during the 8th century via Buddhist monks who had travelled abroad and returned with this new beverage, which also happened to support meditation and have positive medicinal properties.
It was not until the late 12th century, however, that Zen Buddhist monk Eisai brought tea seeds back from China and planted them in various monastery grounds in Kyushu, Japan’s southwesternmost island.
Taste and terroir
The first main difference between Chinese and Japanese tea is terroir. Most of China’s green tea comes from its southern provinces, famously Fujian, Zhejiang and Anhui, where the climate is humid, with plenty of sun and rain.
The tea-growing areas of Japan are similarly located in its southern provinces to take advantage of the subtropical climate, but these areas are much further north in latitude compared to where green tea is produced in China.
Japan is furthermore comprised of islands where few places are more than 100 kilometres from the sea. As a result, the environment bestows upon the tea a distinct marine note that gives it a signature ‘umami’ (savory) taste, reminiscent of seaweed.
By contrast, there is a wider range of climate, topography and altitude in the green tea producing areas of China, which accounts for a broader spectrum of terroirs and tea tastes. Each province—even down to specific areas within provinces—thus produces very different flagship teas. For example, the long spear-like leaves of the slightly spicy taiping houkui differs in both form and flavour to the furry tips of the sweet and fresh vegetal Yellow Mountain maofeng although both are from Anhui.
Fried or steamed?
What separates green tea from oolong and black tea is lack of oxidation. Dehydration through the application of heat stop the oxidising enzymes from doing their job and thus keep the tea green, but this is done differently in China compared to Japan.
In China, this process is often undertaken using a heated container using an action akin to stir-frying. Small batches are often heated by hand in a vessel like a large wok, but larger batches may be twirled with a broom in a special tub the size of a washing machine drum or in a cylindrical machine similar in size to a phone booth. As long as the leaves are in constant motion they will not be burnt. The temperature and number of times this heating process occurs will depend on the kind of tea being produced.
For some years, Japanese tea cultivation and production mirrored that of China. During the years of sakoku (1633–1866), when Japan restricted its interaction with the rest of the world, tea production developed independent of Chinese influence. It was during this time that, in 1738, tea producer Soen Nagatani invented a method of ‘fixing the green’ as this heating process is called, and it involved steaming, rather than frying, the leaves.
Of course, steaming doesn’t have the same drying effect as stir-frying, so the tea producer will then quickly cool the leaves by circulating air through them—this may involve having air jets blow them through a tube, or running them through a spin cycle in rotating cylinders—to alleviate the humidity before the drying and rolling processes begin. Because the leaves maintain more moisture when steamed, Japanese green tea often undergoes three or more periods of drying compared to one or two for Chinese greens.
The net effect of steaming versus stir-frying is that the Japanese method yields tealeaves that are vivid green in colour with prominent marine and herbaceous notes compared to the yellower leaves of Chinese green tea where the taste tends towards the vegetal, nutty and floral side of the divide.
While there are certainly Chinese tea plantations beholden to harvesting machines and production facilities filled with automated ovens, a great deal of tea is still plucked and prepared by hand, particularly prized ‘famous’ teas such as the flattened longjing (dragon well) or the curly bi lo chun (spring snail).
By contrast, due to the higher cost of labour in Japan, the island nation was much quicker to mechanise and automate its production, from its harvesting machines to factories for steaming, cooling, drying, shaping and sorting. Often this means the tender buds and top leaves are harvested alongside lower, larger leaves, and even twigs, which makes sorting all the more important.
This is only part of the story, however. Tea is sold differently to wholesalers in Japan compared to China. It is quite common in China for tea to be harvested and processed by the same plantation then sold wholesale as a finished product.
Conversely, in Japan it’s rare to have a tea farm harvest and process its own tea. Instead, the farms produce a semi-crude product called aracha, which still features an elaborate process from withering to drying, usually using communal facilities. This product is then sold to tea companies. Automation aids uniformity when it comes to taking the tea from crop to aracha, then the buyer ‘finishes’ the tea with their own signature process.
Many tea connoisseurs find the human flair involved in processing Chinese tea more appealing because it offers greater variation from farm to farm, harvest to harvest, compared to the uniformity of the Japanese method, but there’s something to be said of consistency from a consumer’s point of view.
I should mention two types of tea are still hand-picked in Japan, however: tencha, which is shade-grown tea often used to produce gyokuro and matcha; and shincha, the first flush of sencha. (Regular sencha accounts for about 70% of the green tea produced in Japan and approximately 80% of all tea consumed in Japan.) These teas fetch high prices due to a combination of limited supply and added labour costs.
Of course there are many more differences between Chinese and Japanese green tea, but start with these three traits and it’ll provide you with context for the main contrasts. So when you next compare Chinese and Japanese green teas, always consider the ‘where’ and ‘how’ factors as you drink.