While Japan is best known now for its delicate green teas, there is also a long history of black tea production. And in fact, in its heyday, Japanese black tea outsold green tea on the export market.
Nowadays, Wakoucha (Japanese black tea), has been enjoying a domestic revival spurred on by strong consumer interest in coffee and imported blacks. It’s about time too! Whether you’re a Japanese green tea lover or prefer a cup of black in the morning, wakoucha has something for everyone, with low astringency and cultivars with flavor profiles ranging from full-bodied to fruity and mellow.
In this article, let’s take a deep dive into what wakoucha is, how it’s sourced and some health benefits.
While green tea was first introduced to Japan via China in the ninth century and the earliest domestic production dates back to the 12th century, black tea enters the picture in earnest in the 19th century. With Japan opened up after nearly two centuries of near-total isolation, it entered a global marketplace eager for its silk and tea. Seeing that Western tastes gravitated towards black tea more than green, the Japanese government conducted research to catch up to the main black tea producers in China and British India. Several milestones followed, including the first Japanese black tea cultivar in 1908 and Japanese black tea production hitting 3,000-4,000 tons annually between 1935-40.
Wakoucha peaked in the 1950s when the official tea cultivar registry was established and exports equaled approximately 8500 tons, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all tea exports in 1955. However, Japanese blacks hit a crisis in 1971 when a free trade agreement lifted protections on wakoucha, leading buyers to choose Indian and Sri Lankan black teas over homegrown varieties and obliterating the industry.
The revival of wakoucha began at the end of the 20th century when green tea consumption was in decline. Green tea producers started to invest in Japanese blacks again in response to a market of consumers who were increasingly filling their cups with coffee and black tea. Fast forward to the 2010s when black tea production significantly increased. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of producers multiplied sixfold to about 600 nationwide while domestic black tea associations, research groups and competitions were founded.
The majority of teas around the world are created from the leaves of the same plant species, Camellia sinensis, but the type of tea produced is usually dependent on which variety is cultivated. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is typically grown in China and Japan and used for green teas, while camellia sinensis var. assamica is used for black teas and found in northeastern India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and parts of the African continent.
Due to Japan’s temperate climate, assamica cannot be easily grown, although there has been some success in Kagoshima Prefecture. Thus, to produce Japanese black tea, farmers have taken two different approaches.
One has been to create hybrid cultivars that can thrive in Japan’s climate and carry similar flavor profiles to assamica. However, because green tea is still overwhelmingly the tea of choice in Japan, the most common route has been to produce wakoucha from the sinensis (green tea) variety. As a result, many Japanese black teas are mellower, less astringent and lighter in color compared to their assamica counterparts.
Regardless of whether a sinensis, assamica or hybrid variety was used to create your cup of wakoucha, black tea carries a variety of health benefits, including:
- containing theaflavins, an antioxidant unique to black teas which has been shown to lower cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides levels
- helping your body’s natural production of antioxidants which neutralize the negative effects of free radicals
- lowering cardiovascular risk factors
Description: In 1908, using assamica seeds brought back from India, Japanese farmers managed to successfully grow the plant that would be the country’s first registered cultivar.
Taste profile: Benihomare teas tend to be full-bodied which is characteristic of many Assamica black teas, yet also come with the sweetness and mellowness that often defines wakoucha.
Where to buy online: TE=CHA
Description: This cultivar was created in the 1960s as a hybrid marrying sinensis with assamica.
Taste profile: Benihikari can have sweet citrusy notes alongside hints of vanilla and apricot. Like many other Japanese black teas, this one also has low astringency. However, unlike wakoucha produced from sinensis varieties, benihikari tends to have a tannin level common in black teas made from assamica cultivars.
Where to buy online: YUNOMI.LIFE
Description: Wakoucha made from the Izumi cultivar is quite rare and usually comes from Sashima in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Taste profile: Spring harvests lean towards citrusy notes and with low tannins. By the summer harvest, this cultivar loses much of its hints of orange in favor of a light peachiness. These teas will taste more like the black teas you’re more familiar with, rich and smooth with a bit of astringency.
Where to buy online: YUNOMI.LIFE
While there are many tea plantations around the country that offer behind-the-scenes glimpses at the production process, only a relatively few produce black teas.
Here are a couple in Kyushu and Honshu that can show you how your wakoucha goes from plant to cup:
Sashima Tea and Kengo Kuma Architectural Tour
- Learn about black tea from an expert
- Sample 12 varieties of wakoucha
- Choose your favorite tea and enjoy with a vegetarian lunch sourced from local produce (included in the price)
Duration: 3 hours
Tour cost: ¥20,000/person. A minimum of two people are required to participate in this event.
446-4 Kamikobashisakai, Sakai-cho, Sashima-gun, Ibaraki Prefecture
Nearest train station: JR Koga station
Nagasaki Ikedoki Tea Tour
- Learn about local history and tea
- Tea field and factory visit
- Lunch (included in the price) and local tea-tasting
Duration: 4 hours
470 Sonogishukugo, Higashisonogi, Higashisonogi District, Nagasaki Prefecture – Map
Nearest train station: JR Inogi station
Green Eight Cafe and Terrace
- Take a stroll through the tea terrace
- Enjoy a drink at the on-site cafe specializing in nine varieties of Japanese black tea
- Try the wakoucha flavored ice cream!
Duration: 2 hours
349-4 Wadashima Shimizu Ward, Shizuoka Prefecture – Map
Nearest train station: JR Okitsu station
Source : Gaijin Pot