Shining the Spotlight on Great Japanese Cultivars
- Holly Helt
When I was young and living in Nagoya, drinking literally gallons of Japanese green tea, I didn’t know there was a difference in green teas and the word cultivar certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary. It wasn’t until later in my tea-drinking life that this topic became almost an obsession.
Cultivar means plant variety; like with tomatoes where you have Roma, Hillbilly, Brandywine, and let’s not forget Mortgage Lifter (google it!). It’s the same in the tea world.
Camellias have over 50 varieties but there is only one Camellia sinensis, the most famous of the flowering plants, which is the tea plant. OK, that’s not exactly true because of the Camellia sinensis, there is the sinensis strain so Camellia sinensis sinensis (small leaf, cold climate), which is found in Japan and China, and the Camellia sinensis assamica (large leaf, semitropical climate) found predominantly in India.
Even though Camellia sinensis is the tea plant, there are more than a whopping 3,000 varieties! Enthusiastic farmers up and down Japan are experimenting with creating their own hybrid cultivars all the time. Some make it to “registration” after rigorous scrutiny by the plant police, while others are tossed on the scrap heap never to be heard of again. Currently, there are approximately 80 certifiable cultivars on the Japanese registry and most come from Kagoshima, the hotbed of creative cultivars!
Let’s now take a look at some of the most popular cultivars.
Asatsuyu truly has a memorable taste yielding a brew with a deep shade of green. It’s a pretty fragile variety, you could even call it shy, and more often than not, it produces a relatively powdery finished product. It has gentleness about it and its sweetness really shines through. While not a brilliant one for Fukamushi steaming because it’s so delicate, masterful craftsmen can create a Fukamushi out of this, and when they do, it’s stunning! Asatsuyu is a favorite of many tea aficionados, whether they can identify it in the sip or not.
Synonymous with Japanese tea, this cultivar has clout! It’s known for its hardy productivity and adaptability to soil and climate conditions. Because it’s strong, close to 90% of tea farms cultivate this variety. Being so stable, farmers can expect to rely on it for fairly high-profit margins. Yabukita, however, tends to lose its quality fairly quickly, so the prudent farmer watches his crops like a hawk and swoops in with clippers at exactly the right moment for harvesting. Large estates tend to use a number of different cultivars to extend their harvest since Yabukita’s quality is so short-lived, but this daddy delivers a rich taste and refreshing aroma.
Crossed between Yabukita’s strength and Asatsuyu’s charm, is precious Saemidori. Introduced around the 1970’s, it didn’t become popular until 1990 when it was finally registered as an official variety. Producing prized Matcha, Gyokuro, and premium Sencha, this variety is mostly used in organic farming where creating superior tasting organic teas is often a challenge. It has a stronger aroma than Asatsuyu and is known to be an early bloomer meaning it has a short harvest and therefore produces smaller yields. The good news for farmers is that, like Yabukita, there is a good profit margin with this cultivar.
This variety is a cross between Yabukita and a native Shizuoka variety called Zairai. With flavor notes, a deep green color and an aroma similar to Yabukita, this gem is widely cultivated, especially in Yame, the famous Gyokuro region. Often in partnership with Yabukita, this slow bloomer allows farmers to harvest the Yabukita first and the Okumidori next, making full use of the harvesting season.
This elite variety is reserved for Gyokuro and is not widely grown. Seen mainly in the Uji region of Kyoto and some parts of Shizuoka, Gokou has a very distinctive sweet taste and characteristic Gyokuro fragrance. This is premium at its best! Because it’s a slow grower, it has a longer harvesting time, perfect for shade-grown cultivation.
Predominantly hailing from Kagoshima, Yutaka Midori is grown for Sencha and Bancha production. Bless this variety because it gets a bad wrap! Most Yutaka Midori is grown in non-organic conditions where it’s easier to bring the fuller flavors front and center. Organic teas, on the other hand, have a challenge with finding the best flavors and aromas. Because of being conventionally cultivated, it can yield larger quantities. It is often sold as Aracha for tea shops across Japan to “finish”, and is blended with other varieties to alter the taste, aroma and color, meaning the true Kagoshima essence is eventually lost. It’s a profitable commodity and is widely traded. When you get an authentic, organic, unblended Yutaka Midori, the pure, fragrant brew is heavenly. When you have the chance, try this in its organic form as it might just be the best organic tea you’ll find.
Incredible Sayama-midori gets a round of applause for really kick-starting the whole registration of cultivars in 1953. This slow grower develops incredible nutritional components and is famous for producing great Sencha.
First developed in Saitama Prefecture, Sayama-kaori is often compared to Yabukita. This hearty, strong variety is an excellent one for high productivity. “Kaori” means fragrance in Japanese, so it’s no wonder this variety scores high on aroma as well as having a strong taste to match. Producing a tea with a very strong floral nose and a sweet and creamy taste, Sayama-kaori is the Eau du Parfum of the Japanese tea world.
Not to be confused with saEmidori, Samidori is often regarded as one of the best varieties in Japan. This treasure produces some of the most remarkable Gyokuro and Matcha there is. With a characteristic sweetness and a brew that is on the yellow side, Samidori is a slow grower with a precious yield. This charmer is grown mainly in the Uji region of Kyoto but certainly has a presence in Yame.
The subtle elegance of Asahi is perfect for creating Matcha and often celebrates First Place in tea tasting competitions across Japan. With a short harvesting period, this variety commands a high price tag for its rarity and award-winning quality.
About Holly Helt
Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.