A Short History of Tea

The discovery of tea is steeped in legend and there are quite a few stories. One of Den's favorite legends is a story of Emperor Shen Nong in the 28th century BC, China. He was a scholar and the father of Chinese herbal medicine. During his journeys through hills and fields and ate 72 different kinds of plants to find out whether they were medicine or poison. The legend said that he took tea whenever he felt he was poisoned. Although we don't know if he ate a tea leaf or drank a liquid, it's interesting that "tea" began as a medicine.

In Japan, tea culture was brought from China in the 8th century. At that time, Japanese Buddhist monks were studying religion and the latest cultures in China. Whenever they returned to Japan, many new cultures were introduced, and TEA was one of them.

Eizai was one of the Buddhist monks who loomed large in the spotlight throughout Japanese tea history. Eizai studied in China in the 13th century, and upon his return to Japan he brought a completely new style of tea. The tea was made from steamed raw leaves and then milled by a quern into a powder. This what we now call Matcha. Eizai also wrote a book, "Maintaining Health by Drinking Tea", that was the first book about tea in Japan. When he spread the Rinzai sect that is Zen Buddhism, Matcha was a necessity for Zen training and ceremonies. While the Rinzai sect was spreading to the Samurai and upper classes, the tea drinking habit was doing the same. Over the next several hundred years, tea drinking gradually became entertainment, and the tea ceremony, "SADO", was established as an art culture.

In the 14th century, another Buddhist Monk returning from China also brought back lessons of Chinese tea culture. This monk named Shouichi Kokushi, settled in Honyama, Shizuoka. It was on the choicest lands in Honyama that Shouichi Kokushi spread the tea seeds he carried back from China. Shizuoka has since been referred to as "Tea Town". This was the beginning of tea as the beverage of choice for the Japanese people.

Sencha was "invented" in 1738 by a farmer in Kyoto who added the extra step of kneading the steamed leaves to the manufacturing process. The kneading breaks down the fibers in the tea leaf allowing for very fast extraction of the ingredients during brewing. The resultant product became very popular in Edo City, present day Tokyo. Then 100 years later, Gyokuro was invented and both teas became popular and spread throughout Japan.

Tea production in Japan started to grow rapidly around the 18th century when Japan started to export tea to the western countries. Tea exporting became a prosperous business after Japan opened the country to the world in the 18th century, and the USA was the biggest importer of Japanese green tea at that time.

Because of rapid domestic economic growth in 20th century Japan, the Japanese started to consume more tea domestically than they exported. Today Japan produces about 69,800 tons(2020) of tea a year with 99% of it being green teas. Worldwide, Japan is the 8th largest producer of tea and the 3rd largest green tea producer. The consumption of green tea per capita in Japan is 650 grams which means the Japanese are the best green tea lovers in the world.

The following are some interesting dates in tea history:

  • BC 59: The first written references to tea appears in a Chinese document.
  • 800's: Tea and tea seeds were brought from China by Japanese Buddhist monks.
  • 1300's: Eizai, a Buddhist monk, brought Tencha (Matcha) from China and wrote a milestone book - "Maintaining Health by Drinking Tea"
  • 1500's: Sado (tea ceremony) was completely developed.
  • 1738: Sencha was invented.
  • 1836: Gyokuro was invented.
  • 1904: Richard Blechynden created iced tea at the St. Louis World Fair.
  • 1908: Thomas Sullivan "invented" tea bags in New York, sending tea to clients in silk bags, which they mistakenly steep without opening.
  • 1923: Shirakata Denshiro Shoten Inc., parent company to Den's Tea, begins operations.
  • 2000: Den's Tea opens in Southern California.

The word "tea" includes a wide variety of drinks. However, green tea, black tea and oolong tea all originate from the same plant. The tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) is one of species of evergreen shrubs and trees that belong to the tea family. The foliage is emerald green and the flowers are yellow and white and very fragrant.The tea plant is closely related to the Camellia, which we know for its attractive red and white flowers. Most of us are familiar with the pictures of tea farms where the tea plant is a low, mounded shrub. If not pruned into this shape, the tea plant can reach a height of more than 9 meters (40 or more feet).

So, if most tea comes from the same plant, why are there so many varieties of tea? The answer lies in what happens to the tea after it is picked. Tea can be divided into three broad categories: unfermented, semi fermented and fermented. Fermentation refers to the oxidation of the tea leaf. Oxidation occurs when an object reacts with oxygen in air or water. It causes some metals to rust and the surface of a cut apple to turn brown. The same process happens when tea leaves are picked and left to dry.

Green Tea is unfermented (un-oxidized) tea. There are two ways to stop the fermentation process, steaming or roasting. For Japanese varieties of tea, steaming is used almost exclusively. Immediately after picking, the leaves are steamed to stop the fermentation process; they are then rolled and dried. Preventing fermentation gives the tea its distinctive taste and green color.

Black and Oolong teas are fermented teas. The tea leaf is fully fermented in black tea products. After picking, the leaf is withered in the sun or with a flow of unheated air. Once withered, the tea is rolled to break up the cell structure in the leaf and to promote further oxidation. This gives the tea it characteristic dark color and aroma. Oolong is semi-fermented tea. Here the tea is dried to reduce the moisture content but the process is stopped before the leaf is completely dry. It is then heated in a pan to stop the oxidation process. The result is a tea is not as dark as black tea.

Besides affecting color and aroma, fermentation also impacts the health benefits of tea. For example, prior to fermentation, a tea leaf contains catechins, a powerful antioxidant, and a green tea drinker benefits from them. During the production of black tea, the fermentation process changes the catechins into theaflavin. Fermentation also reduces the content of some of the vitamins in the tea. For example, there is vitamin C in green tea although black tea does not have any. See "The Health Benefits of Green Tea" for more information.

Tea is grown throughout Japan and Japan ranks in the top ten in world tea production. The premier growing regions in Japan are Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Uji and Sayama. (Den's tea is grown in the Shizuoka Protectorate.) The first harvest of the year, usually in early May, produces the highest quality tea in Japan. This tea is called Shin-Cha or new tea. After a long period of dormancy during the winter, the first leaves of the season are rich with nutrients, including amino acids and catechins. These enhance the flavor and aroma of this first-harvest tea. This Shin-Cha has a bright, luminescent green color, strong aroma and pronounced sweetness. Japanese tea production starts with steaming which stops the oxidizing process of the enzymes in the tea leaves. This steaming process is unique only with Japanese style tea, though. This preserves the green color and aroma of the tea. After steaming, the tea is dried to reduce the moisture content. At this point, the tea is rolled or kneaded to breakdown the cell structure of the leaves. Subsequent processes dry the leaves further and roll them again producing the characteristic needle shape. Before describing some of the more common tea, one special tea, Aracha, is worth mentioning. Aracha, or rough tea, is not finished tea. It isn't sold to consumers because it contains stems, tea dust and the leaves are irregular shapes. Most of the teas described here are made using the same general process with the next manufacturing step defining it as one of the 20 types of Japanese Green Tea. The differences among them have to do with a character of Aarcha or the way each is sifted and blended. Variations of these conditions impart distinctive tastes, colors and aromas.

The following describes a number of these teas.


Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan, accounting for almost 80% of the tea consumed. Usually top parts of the tea leaf and buds are used. It is grown in full sunlight and is processed in multiple stages - sifting, cutting, roasting and often blending. Sencha is noted for its delicate sweetness, mild astringency and flowery-green aroma. The quality of Sencha will vary depending on origin, time of harvest and leaf processing techniques.

Fukamushi Sencha

Fukamushi is a deeper steamed Sencha. Fukamushi leaves are steamed two or three times longer than standard Sencha. The extra steaming breaks down the fibers further and cause the leaf shape to be coarser than regular Sencha. This produces a tea with a darker color, deeper flavor and easy brewing.


Gyokuro is grown in the shade. This is a premium and expensive tea and not found too often in Japanese tea cabinets. Gyokuro is produced by shading the tea bushes for about three weeks prior to picking. As a result, these leaves receive more nutrition from the soil. This shading process also protects the bushes from sunlight which increases the chlorophyll content of the tea leaves and prevents theanine, a factor of sweetness, from being changed to tannin, a factor of bitterness. Gyokuro has a rich green color and a sweet taste.


Bancha is made from a lower part of the tea leaf which is big and thick. Compared to Sencha, Bancha is slightly less aromatic and slightly more astringent. Nevertheless, Bancha is appreciated in Japan for its robust flavor. It is often used for Genmaicha and Houjicha.


Genmaicha is a blend of Bancha with well-toasted brown rice (genmai) and popped rice. The rice adds a slightly nutty taste. It has a distinctive roasted aroma and a mild flavor, and is popular for everyday use. Genmaicha with matcha is also a very popular blend from children and adults in Japan.


Hojicha is produced by roasting Bancha over high heat. The result is a savory tea with a refreshing, roasted taste and virtually no bitterness. Houjicha is brown in appearance, but it is still green tea. It contains the lowest level of caffeine of any Japanese tea. (In this connection, high quality teas like premium Sencha or Gyokuro tend to contain more caffeine than lower grades such as Bancha.)


Kukicha is a unique looking tea in that it contains stems and stalks from the production of Sencha. It has a light, transparent green color with a mildly sweet, bright taste. It is a great example of the diversity in Japanese Green Tea.


Guricha is unique and different from Sencha both in appearance and taste. This tea benefits from a specific process that creates a tea similar in appearance to the pan-fired teas of China. Guricha is a high grade green tea that is steamed and fashioned into 'comma' shaped leaves by omitting the final kneading process. Guricha has attained fame and lore throughout Japanese tea history. Traditionally, much of this tea had been exported to the Mediterranean countries like Morocco. This tea brews a milder, less astringent cup than a typical Sencha.


Matcha is the tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It is different than the teas mentioned so far in several ways. First, it is made from Tencha, not Sencha like most people think. The Tencha leaves are shaded from the sun for about one month before being picked, much like Gyokuro. This brings out an extraordinarily sweet taste with no bitterness. Second, the manufactured leaves are then ground like flour to produce a fine green powder. Finally, brewing a cup of Matcha is done using a bamboo whisk (Chasen) to produce a frothy green liquid. Compared to other teas, Matcha has a relatively short shelf life and should be consumed shortly after purchase. Matcha is also popular as a food seasoning just like an herb. There are numerous recipes using this flavorful powder, the simplest of which is sprinkling some over vanilla ice cream.

Tea experts will invariably argue over which Japanese Green Tea is "best". The "best" tea is the one you enjoy! We suggest you sample several teas. Take time to examine the color, imbibe the aroma and savor the taste. If you enjoy all three sensations, you are more likely to "take time for tea" and that's the most important part of tea.

While all tea is made from the same tree, Camellia Sinensis, there are a number of varieties in this plant family. The major varieties are the Chinese plant and Assamica. In Japan, 108 cultivars have been registered. Yabukita is widely used, accounting for 80% of Japanese tea production and probably most of the Sencha you have tasted was Yabukita.

Yabukita was found in Shizuoka in 1908 by a planter named Suzuki. He happened to find this new tea cultivar north of a bamboo bush. In Japanese, "bush" is "Yabu" and "north" is "kita", consequently the named "Yabukita".

The other relatively major tea cultivars in Japan are Yutaka-midori, Sayama-kaori, and Kanaya-midori. These are registered cultivars and sometimes the name is used for the product itself. Each cultivar produces a leaf with a different shape, color, and flavor. Yabukita has been popular because it has very good flavor and is resistant to diseases.