Have you ever wondered why Japanese teas taste so unique? One reason is the wide variety of cultivars used to produce them. In this article, we'll explore the world of Japanese tea cultivars and its diversity, from Yabukita to lesser-known varieties, and learn about the factors that make them so essential to the country's tea culture.
What are cultivars?
To understand cultivars, it's important to first know a bit about the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. There are two main varieties of this plant: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (mainly found in China and Japan) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (cultivated mostly in India and Sri Lanka). Within each of these varieties, however, there are countless variations in flavour, aroma, and appearance. These variations are known as cultivars, or "cultivated varieties."
Cultivars are created when farmers select individual tea plants with desirable traits and propagate them to create a new variety. This selection process can be based on several factors, including the intended use of the tea (such as Sencha, Gyokuro, or Kamairicha), the climate of the region, and the farmer's personal preferences.
Examples of Japanese tea cultivars
In Japan, there are over 50 different cultivars used to produce tea. One of the most famous is Yabukita, which is prized for its versatility and balance of flavours. Yabukita is commonly used to make Sencha, but it's also used in other types of tea like Gyokuro and Matcha.
Let's take a closer look at some of the most popular Japanese tea cultivars and how they impact the taste and aroma of the tea.
Yabukita: If you've ever had Japanese green tea, chances are you've tasted Yabukita. This cultivar is the most widely grown in Japan and is prized for its versatility and balance. Yabukita's delicate balance of flavours and aromas has made it a beloved staple of Japanese tea culture.
Gokou: Gyokuro is a type of shaded green tea that's highly prized in Japan for its sweet, umami-rich flavour. To create the perfect Gyokuro, you need a cultivar that can thrive in shaded conditions. That's where Gokou comes in. This cultivar is known for producing teas with a rich, savoury taste that's perfect for Gyokuro.
Saemidori: Sencha is the most common type of Japanese green tea, and Saemidori is one of the most popular cultivars used to make it. Saemidori produces tea with a fresh, grassy flavour that's perfect for Sencha. It's also used to make other types of green tea, such as Genmaicha and Hojicha.
Another popular cultivar is Okumidori, which is known for its sweet and mellow flavour. This cultivar is often used to produce Gyokuro and Tencha (material to produce Matcha), which are shaded teas with a delicate flavour and aroma.
For those who prefer a more roasted flavour, there's Kanaya Midori. This cultivar is commonly used to make Hojicha, a roasted green tea with a nutty, caramel-like taste.
In addition to these well-known cultivars, there are many other varieties used to produce Japanese tea. Some are specifically bred for use in black tea, while others are meant for tea grown in colder or warmer climates.
Factors that influence cultivar selection
When selecting a cultivar, farmers take into account several factors, including the intended use of the tea and the climate of the region. For example, cultivars used to make shaded teas like Gyokuro and Tencha must be able to grow in low light conditions and produce leaves with unique and delicate flavours. Some examples of these cultivars include Asahi, Saemidori, and Okumidori.
On the other hand, cultivars used to make Kamairicha, a type of pan-fired tea, must be able to withstand high temperatures without losing their flavour. Kamairicha requires a slightly different leaf structure than other teas, which is why cultivars such as Kanaya Midori and Yutaka Midori have been developed.
Waseshu and Banseishu: Early and Late Harvests
In addition to these specialized cultivars, there are also cultivars that are bred for specific climates. For example, in regions with warmer weather, there are cultivars that can be harvested earlier in the year for the production of Shincha, such as Waseshu (早生種). In colder regions, there are cultivars that can be harvested later, such as Banseishu (晩生種). And for regions that experience more typical weather patterns, there are cultivars that can be harvested at the normal time, such as Yabukita, which falls under the category of Chuuseishu (中生種).
Cultivating multiple cultivars in the same field
Another way that farmers can create a diverse range of flavours and aromas is by growing multiple cultivars in the same field. This allows them to produce different types of tea from the same location, without the need to harvest all of the tea plants at the same time. This can be a great way to maximize the yield of a tea plantation and provide a variety of teas to customers throughout the year, however, it requires careful planning and management to ensure each cultivar gets the right conditions and harvest time.
Japanese tea cultivars play a crucial role in the flavour and aroma of Japanese tea. By understanding the different characteristics of each cultivar, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the unique flavours and nuances of Japanese tea.
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