Houjicha: roasted Japanese green tea
I live in a 60-year old Japanese house. Beautifully positioned between two mountains surrounded by rice fields and a flowing stream. Sliding doors. Tatami floors. Single glazing. Zero insulation. No central heating. Get the picture? It’s so cold inside the house that I find myself living at the local onsen (hot spring bath house) just to heat my feet back into circulation!
So what does this have to do with tea? Well, out here in Kyushu, houjicha is flowing as much as the Yamakuni river! This is because it’s a HOT green tea (see Tracy’s post here). Usually when you hear people tell you how to make Japanese tea, they focus on cooling down the water. And this is vital when steeping delicate green teas like Sencha, Kabusecha and of course Gyokuro.
Houjicha (also spelled hojicha – but when you say it, stretch the oooo!) is roasted green tea. It needs hot water to help the leaves release the flavors, similar to Chinese oolongs which have been pan fired as part of the processing.
Usually, Houjicha is made from second harvest, more mature leaves, which are slightly tougher and naturally have less caffeine, but some Houjicha is “ichibancha” or first harvest, and commands a higher price point. It will often have a smoother taste, but this depends on the finesse of the roast master. The process of roasting also reduces the caffeine content, which is why it’s perfect for toddlers and elders, as well as a bedtime cuppa.
Ages ago, families thought nothing of roasting their own tea using a houji-iriki (as seen in the photo). Old tea that had lost it’s flavor, and sometimes fresh leaves, were roasted on an open flame but it required a master roaster to create a beautiful tea that wasn’t burned.
If you want to try this at home, simply put enough leaves in to cover the bottom of the houji-iriki. You can also try this with a skillet though I have never done it that way. Turn the gas flame on medium heat (I’ve never used an electric stove), and shake the pot continuously in circles, back and forth, zig-zag… be creative! You just need to ensure the leaves do not stand still otherwise they might burn. It will take a long time to get it roasted – it burns easily and if you see smoke coming out, it’s not the end of the world but take it off the heat immediately and shake shake shake! Initially some of the stems or leaves will turn yellow and then it starts changing to a light brown hue and then a darker brown. You can roast it as deeply as you want but remember, burned Houjicha is not pleasant so I suggest experimenting – make your first attempt lighter and then try deeper roasts once you perfect the technique. It’s quite rewarding to make your own!
Many producers prefer to use roasting ovens, complete with large drums that tumble, as opposed to traditional porcelain clay pots using charcoal to roast. These ovens are simply quicker and more efficient. Using the drum method, the leaves are mixed with volcanic grit and then roasted by turning like in a tumble dryer. The grit helps control the roasting process so the leaves don’t burn and the tea roasts more evenly. While it seems impossible, the grit and tea is then separated to reveal a lovely aromatic Houjicha.
Roasting machines before 1985 used a direct heating method so the tea often burned. Technological advances in roasting machines have made it much easier to control the heat which is of paramount importance in the process of roasting.
Let’s dive deeper here… the key point for the roasting master is to “plump” the leaf like a balloon. This yields a much sweeter, more caramel brew and is the benchmark against which to compare Houjichas. This swelling of the leaves means they are much lighter in weight, so packages are usually bigger and you need more in your pot… think of the joke “what’s heavier, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?”
When you make a lovely pot of Houjicha, the key points are:
• Use more scoops of leaves in your pot (or simply weight it to get the right amount)
• Use just off the boil water
• Steeping time: 30 seconds – a longer steep makes it very strong and a little bitter.
Houjicha teas vary in color, aroma and general appearance. Here are just three to compare the difference: roasted Aracha with a slight green hue, high-grade leaf Houjicha, a twig Houjicha, and now our very own and extremely rare MIKADO IMPERIAL WHITE HOUJICHA. One of the most famous and expensive twig Houjicha teas (called Boucha in Japanese), hails from Kanazawa, made exclusively of Gyokuro stems, and was created for the Emperor’s visit to this historic city. It looks and tastes remarkably like our own MIKADO - but ours comes without the hefty price tag!