Tea was discovered in its greenest form over five thousand years ago; some versions of history depict a flower falling into a cup of hot water, while another has a man eating a leaf and realising how delicious it would be steeped in water. For centuries, all tea was green tea. Green tea is simply the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant placed to steep in hot water. The leaves had not undergone any of the oxidation process of tea leaves today, so it was tea in its most natural form. This version of green tea is still enjoyed around the world today, as are many other versions of the same tea leaf.
Green tea was first brought to Japan in AD 805 by two Buddhist monks, Saicho and Kukai, who, after studying abroad in China, returned with some young tea trees.
In AD 1191 another Buddhist monk, Eisai, popularised the idea of drinking tea for good health after studying in China for a period of time. Around the same time, Japanese farmers began growing green tea in Uji, Kyoto. Eisai then went on to write the first Japanese book about tea, KISSA YOHJYOH KI, in AD 1211.
Obuku area in the Ujiawara region of Kyoto had its first tea trees planted in AD 1271 by a Buddhist monk, Kohken. Obuku is a small area of land with a diameter of just 0.4 miles (600 meters). Even today, Obuku is known for producing very rare, highest grade Sencha. In Japan, there are only a few places where top grade Sencha is produced and the Obuku area in Uji is one of them. Obuku is located in mountain ravines, where tiny streams run, and the soil is full of minerals. The misty climate, sloping hills, warm days and cool nights provide an ideal setting in which to grow the highest grade tea. Indeed, Sencha as produced in the Obuku area was presented to the Japanese emperors for many years. One special advantage of the Obuku region is that it never suffers from frost, even on very cold winter mornings; because of Obuku’s unique geography, it is always mildly windy. It is said that the wind blows the frost away and that this is the reason why there is no frost in Obuku.
In the 16th century, shading from sunlight with Tana canopies began, in order to prevent damage by frost; the tea leaves were covered by a canopy in February and March just before the sprouts appear. However, it is believed that tea farmers discovered by accident that tea leaves grown in shade have mellow taste, and then began to shade tea leaves from sunlight after sprouts appear to create the mellow taste. Today, tea leaves for Matcha are shaded from sunlight by a canopy called TANA, for 20 to 30 days just before harvest, to create a source of mellow taste, Theanine in tea leaves.
During the late 16th century, Rikyu Sen popularised the tea ceremony. In the Japanese tea ceremony, even today people celebrate aged Matcha in the ceremony called Kuchikiri no Gi every autumn. Kuchikiri no Gi means the ceremony of opening a special jar of tea. Matcha and Gyokuro used to be placed in a large tea jar. This tea jar was then sealed and stored in a cool place, like the top of a high mountain or in the ground, after harvest until autumn. People would first enjoy that year’s Matcha and Gyokuro in the autumn after the Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony. It was said that when the jar lid first opened in autumn, the delicious fragrance of the tea filled the room and was so wonderful that there were no words to describe it.
In AD 1789, in Ujitawara, Kyoto, Soen Nagatani developed a new process of steam drying tea leaves. The new process, known as the Uji method, resulted in fresh, flavourful tea. It quickly replaced the traditional method of roasting and drying tea leaves.
In AD 1841, in the Ogura area of Uji in Kyoto, Shigejyuro Eguchi perfected the Gyokuro processing method based on the process that was then being used to process Sencha, invented by Sohen Nagatani in 1738. The tea leaves used for Gyokuro were the same as those used for Tencha. (Tea leaves used for Matcha, before they are ground into fine powder, but after stems and veins are removed, are known as Tencha.)
On the other hand, the use of tea leaves first originated in China more than three thousand years ago, and was likely initially used by people just for chewing and eating, in just the same way that coffee was first used by people eating the beans directly in Ethiopia. Over time, the use of leaves and buds of the tea tree gradually expanded as people began to use in cooking and when added to boiling water to flavour the water they drank.
During the period of the Wei Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 220-589), the popularity of drinking tea soared and tea slowly changed from a luxury item into a drink commonly consumed by the public, as simple basic drying processes were introduced that increased its availability and allowed the introduction of scented teas, which helped lessen the bitterness green teas had at that time.
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) tea drinking became ingrained as a fundamental part of Chinese society, with a whole culture around tea drinking springing up and the introduction of formalized ‘tea ceremonies. During this time, the process of steaming the tea leaves was gradually refined, allowing the production of better tasting, less bitter, green teas.
By the time of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) tea drinking had become an integral part of the daily life of all Chinese, in a similar way to how afternoon tea became ingrained in the English culture. The use and production of so-called ‘tribute teas – those produced to be presented to the emperor and other high officials – became an important part of royal culture and a source of government taxation. The production of these tribute teas, such as Xihu Longjing and Dongting Biluochun, had fuelled rapid innovation in the types and quality of tea produced, as people competed for royal favour. One of the most famous of these tribute teas was Dragon-Phoenix ball tea, which was commonly grown and presented to the royal family. A special type, called Miynlong tea, was specially packed in a yellow silk and presented to the emperor.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the first Emperor, Zhu Yanzhang, formally abolished the tradition and government control of giving tribute tea. Once that happened, a golden age of green tea innovation resulted. Production flourished and new production techniques, types and styles of tea were quickly tried. It was during this period that the use of loose-leaf tea became dominant. Roasting (dry heating) of the tea to ‘fix’ it to stop oxidation was introduced during the 16th century, and remains to this day the primary technique used to make green tea.