Sunday, September 12, 2010

HOUJICHA green tea..

I first encountered this distinctive and unusual Japanese green tea last winter and decided to revisit it today since I was looking for something low in caffeine.  Almost all green teas in Japan are steamed to prevent oxidation (whereas in China currently the majority are fired -- pan frying, toasting in baskets, oven baking, etc).  Houjicha (sometimes spelled Hojicha) is both steamed and toasted, which give its dry leaves their warm brown fluffy look, its liquor the golden-brown colour and its distinctive strong toasty aroma and flavour.  The first three processing steps of Houjicha are the same as for Sencha: 1) Steaming, 2) Drying and Crumpling, and 3) Shaping. Then the tea goes through one special additional step: 4) Roasting in high heat.  The process was invented in Kyoto, Japan in the 1920s.

Warm brown lightly  fluffy dry leaves of
Houjicha from Tealish

Houjicha is usually made from bancha, a term to describe late harvest tea.  As such it's composed of larger, more mature leaves and, if from when the bushes are being trimmed to level them down, will include bits and pieces of twigs too.  Keep in mind that the tea bushes are machine harvested in Japan, not hand-plucked.  In general, bancha's considered a 'common' class or lower quality tea.  I really admire that there's a "use everything" approach to the tea plant though.  As the delicious osso bucco of Italy uses the tough leg hocks of the lamb to make a delicous meal, so tea growers have traditionally made use of every part of the plant and developed ways to process the material to make a delicious beverage.

There are a number of variables with houjicha -- some is made from grades of tea besides bancha, and it can be lightly or heavily toasted, creating different flavour profiles. In fact if you start looking around the Japanese tea sites (only those in english, in my case), you can see that hojicha is made from the leaves/twigs of all kinds of tea -- sencha, bancha, even gyokuro.  Which, of course, makes sense since all tea plants will have older leaves and twigs that are a shame to waste.

Houjicha is touted by the resource books I have and on many websites as being very low in caffeine which is usually accredited to the roasting process.  No scientific data is provided to support that though.  I'm a girl that likes such things.

We know that the further away you get from the leaf bud, and the later in the season it is harvested that there will be less caffeine in the leaves or plant parts.  This is because everything is concentrated in the youngest buds and the plant has more energy and focus in the spring.  All to say, I find the explanation on Tea Laden to make sense -- "Since the leaves used to make Bancha are coarser and contain some stalks and stems the resulting tea generally contains less caffeine or tannin then the finer grades of Japanese tea. Also the cup tends to be somewhat milder." 

Whether you prefer the science or the "roasting" story, I can report that I've not got much of a buzz after having two cups on each of the past two mornings.

In brewing the tea I took the advice of  the Japanese site Hibiki-an and brewed 7 grams of leaves in 7 oz of boiling water for 30 seconds.  For the second infusion I did 45 seconds.

I have to say that the dry leaves of this tea which I bought at Tealish last spring have a noticeable musty aroma followed closely by toasty and roasty.  It's the only Houjicha I've had so I don't know if this is usual.

Wet Leaves:
There's a rush of sweet vegetal that's gone in a nano second and then the full strong aroma of roasted coffee!  On a whiff it gives me the warm rich nutty aroma of a good dense wholewheat bread, followed by a bit of bitterness, mustyness, a truly distinct, odd, boiled-forest-twigs aroma.  I find myself vascillating between concentrating on breaking down and identifying the aromas and thinking good grief who the heck thought this was a good idea.

Houjicha -- the first, weaker brew.  Golden brown and
less red than most fully oxidised 'red' tea.

Light mouthfeel, no tartness, a big toasty, strong flavour, with a slight marine hint that's quite startling if you've never had this tea before.  There is an after-flavour of light bitterness which gives this some backbone.  It's a bitterness that doesn't taste bitter, which I know doesn't make sense.

On the second morning I tried this with milk, as if it was a black tea which rounded and sweetened the flavour profile but doesn't really enhance the tea -- wouldn't recommend it.  Hmmm, I can see how a committed coffee drinker might find this tasting like watery coffee grounds rather than a big-flavoured tea.  It has a somewhat similar taste profile without the big body of coffee.

I really want to love this low-caffeine tea but I don't -- but interestingly, when I gave my sister-in-law (not a big tea drinker) two other green teas and the hojicha to try she immediately liked the hojicha best.  A wonderful example of how tea tasting is such a personal journey.

Houjicha has a distinct, strong toasty flavour that is truly intriguing and unusual  -- so I know I'll be back to try it again.  After 3:30 or 4pm I'm always on the hunt for a delicious hot, low-caffeine beverage.

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