Hojicha is a style of roasted green tea we haven’t sourced for quite a few years, but it’s one that we regularly get requests for and it’s no surprise why. When it’s good, Hojicha is – I think – the closest tea ever gets to liquid caramel. In fact, I fell for its caramel sweetness, smooth texture and warming, roasted depth a few years ago. It’s an easy kind of tea to drink and this batch, with its huge aromas and deeply comforting depth is, one we’re very happy to have found – and even more so given the challenges of not being able to travel during lockdown.
The world events have, disappointingly, kept us grounded, but with technology on our side, we’ve been able to virtually visit gardens and catch up with farmers as they prepare for spring 2021. To write this deep dive, I sat down with the skilled craftspeople of Kagoshima as they took me on a behind-the-scenes of how our Organic Hojicha was created, from garden to cup.
As well as sharing those conversations, I’ll also be sharing my top tasting notes and the recipe I like to use for infusing this tea, plus a quick tip on how you can tweak it to accentuate different flavours and find your own perfect cup of this mellow and supremely comforting Organic Hojicha.
Origin: Yamaguchi en, Ijichi Seicha and Kumada Seicha Gardens, Kagoshima, Japan
Cultivar: A blend of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Yabukita’ and ‘Saemedori’
Name: ‘Hoji’ is a term that comes from the Japanese Houjiru, meaning ‘to roast’, while ‘Cha’ means tea.
Style: Hojicha is a style of roasted green tea that is typically made from the stems and broken leaf left over from the processing of bancha green tea. These stems can also be enjoyed as an unroasted tea which is known as kukicha (lit. twig tea).
Terroir: The gardens for this tea are fairly high elevation for Japan, making them slightly more remote and easier to control the organic farming practices without contamination. As Kagoshima is at the southern tip of Japan, the climate is mostly sub-tropical with dry winters and humid summer months.
Altitude: Picked between 200-350m
Picking Season: Spring/Summer 2020
Leaf: Russet brown roasted stems and stalks of organic tea bushes.
Infusion: A darker reddish-brown and translucent infusion.
What is Hojicha?
Hojicha is a type of roasted green tea that was innovated in Kyoto in Japan during the 1920’s. It was first discovered by a Japanese tea merchant who wanted to make use of the stems and rough-cut leaves that are often removed from the production of other green teas like Sencha and bancha. He trialled roasting the green stems and found they became highly aromatic, with a dark, very sweet caramel flavour. With a warming richness, roasting tea stems became an instant big hit with tea drinkers in Kyoto. Hojicha’s popularity was also down to it being inexpensive to create, so for many it was a common, everyday alternative to the more refined Gyokuro or Sencha green teas that are prized in Japan. The fact that it’s made from the leftover stems also means that nothing from the production of green tea is wasted, it can all be blended together and roasted to make a delicious tea.
Why did we source this batch from Kagoshima?
Kagoshima was an obvious choice to look for this Organic Hojicha. We’ve sourced excellent green teas from there before, like our smooth and grassy Organic Ceremonial Matcha, and the area also has a growing reputation for gardens being organic. Unfortunately, due to demands in yield and production and local taste preferences, many Japanese tea farmers have tended towards using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so it is a challenge to source high quality and organic. But using his connections in the Kagoshima area from previous trips there, Tom (our Head of Tea) was able to find this rich and roasted Organic Hojicha from a distance.
Who produced this Hojicha?
Hojicha is most often a blend of tea from different gardens, created using the stems from the production of other green teas. Our batch of Organic Hojicha has been crafted from the stems leftover after the production of bancha green tea in three specific organic gardens. The process for making Hojicha happens in a few distinct phases. To get a better understanding of how it all works, I sat down for a (virtual) cup of tea with one of the garden owners, Mr Yamaguchi, who brought his son along too and tea roaster, Mr Sakamoto, to learn how this tea was created.
During the roasting the tea stems go through a pre-heating phase at 110 degrees, before being fully roasted at 300 degrees for only a few seconds.
The Yamaguchi family have 11 hectares of tea gardens spread over two separate fields where they grow both the Yabukita and Saemedori cultivars, known for their rich flavour and deep green leaves. Growing around 200 to 350m in altitude, the gardens are set amongst the remote cedarwood forests in the mountains of Kagoshima. You could say that Yamaguchi-san is somewhat of a pioneer, having made the switch to organic farming 25 years ago after suffering an illness – and seeing his father and uncles fall ill – and so questioning the true effect of the pesticides on the health of farmers, and then of everyone who drinks his tea.
“I want the tea I make to be healthy for the people that drink it” – says Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi’s son shares this passion for organic growing and as he has become more involved in the garden in the past two years, he told us he’s focused on working out how to most effectively harness the power of nature – and look after their bushes. This means testing out new machinery, logging wildlife and taking time to notice what else is growing and living among the bushes.
During the later spring and summer months, the Yamaguchi family will harvest the tea leaves with a small trimmer machine, which is typical for most Japanese tea. The trimmer will cut the top portion of leaves and stems from the rows of tea bushes and gather it all up. Each harvest will then be semi-processed to become ‘aracha’ or crude tea. This means using hot steam to stop the tea leaves from oxidising and then rolling and cooling them to reduce the moisture content, eventually ending up with a half-finished tea. During peak season Yamaguchi-san will wake up at 5am, the morning after an 18-hour long day of tea harvesting, to load trucks with shipments of his aracha – making sure it’s passed on as fresh as possible. His aracha will go on to be refined and sorted at a separate facility into bancha – a green tea made of coarser, more mature tea leaves. It’s during this refining process when the tea leaves are separated from their stems, which can then be roasted to create the transformation of flavour in our final Hojicha.
How Is the tea roasted?
Mr Sakamoto oversees the Hojicha roasting at the tea refinery. It’s the most skilled position on site and even though it’s physically done by machine, the process is precisely controlled and takes a lot of practise and attention to make sure it’s done correctly. After a quick air-shower, vacuum and donning his hair net and face mask, Sakamoto-san entered the factory floor, with me on the other end of his phone, and gave me a tour of the refinery processes. Here, they don’t just make hojicha, but also sencha, tencha (which is ground into matcha) and wakoucha (black tea). Even via our virtual chatroom the first thing that struck me was how loud it was in the refinery, as big machines connected by conveyers and precision control panels are used for refining, rolling, steaming and roasting tea. The modernisation behind the production of tea in Japan has seen a lot of innovation in machinery for tea making, but absolutely without the loss of an expert artisan touch.
Sakamoto-san showed me the roasting process starting with a large oven, which is fed by a conveyor belt of fresh green stems from the organic tea gardens. Firstly, the stems go through a preheating phase through a hot oven at around 110˚C where the temperature will be closely controlled. The stems are then slowly transported into the roasting phase as they travel through a large rotating drum with a gas-flame heater beneath. At a temperature of 300˚C, it only takes 30 seconds for the stems to pass through the roaster and turn a golden brown. This phase is key as the roasting will produce the true flavour of Hojicha, while removing any bitterness, astringency and reducing the caffeine content of the final tea.
Keen to achieve the perfect flavour, Sakamoto-san will be extremely attentive to this phase, he’s constantly checking the stems for the correct smell and colour as they come out of the roaster – adjusting the temperature and speed of the drum rotation depending on many factors, like the humidity in the factory, bulk of the tea and depth of roast. There’s a low tolerance for error and when the machine is in full flow, Sakamoto-san can roast up to 60kg of Hojicha per hour. Being in charge of the roasting is a skill that he’s proud of and has dedicated serious time to honing. He joined the factory with a love for machinery and although he didn’t grow up with a passion for tea, the two have now combined and he has grown a deep appreciation for the taste of the tea he creates – telling me he couldn’t choose between his passions now!
What is this Hojicha like to drink?
When you take your first sip of Hojicha, you’ll notice the aroma from the cup first – this is a highly aromatic tea. The aroma has notes of some iconic Japanese flavours, hints of sesame oil, dark soy sauce and the supremely satisfying umami of miso broth. The taste however is much sweeter than you might expect. There are no distinct grassy notes of green tea, even though this is technically a green tea. But the roasted stems take on this caramel and toffee richness with a supple, smooth texture. It has some warmer, roasted notes towards the finish with hints of umami throughout – ultimately creating a comforting infusion that is so easy to drink.
Where and when is this tea for?
Mr Sakamoto the tea roaster puts it best, “Hojicha is best drunk in cooler weather, because it uses hotter temperature than green teas”. I totally agree and a big mug of Hojicha on a cold day is so satisfying, with the perfect balance of roasted depth and caramel sweetness. It can also be a great tea to try as a cold infusion on a warmer day for a light, sweet taste with a refreshing finish.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
I tried a few variations on the recipe for this tea, trying to achieve a balance of sweetness and roasted flavours. In doing so I realised just how versatile Hojicha is, making it an easy tea to get a great flavour, but one that you can also tweak if you’re interested in exploring its depths. Most of this comes down to the temperature, so to start I tried 80˚C, which is typical for most green teas. This brought out tons of light toffee notes and almost a sweet, sticky rice flavour, which would go so well with my favourite Japanese dish, a spicy katsu curry. Upping the temperature to 100˚C will bring out more of the roasted notes, with a darker, almost burnt caramel sweetness and rich sesame oil flavours. I found the happy medium between the two at 90˚C, so you might want to start there and go hotter or cooler depending on what you’re feeling, so try them out and see what works best for you.
Here’s my go to: 3g per 250ml; 90˚C; 3min infusion – pour out all the liquid once infused.
Who is this tea for?
If you’re a fan of Japanese tea or Japanese cuisine but have never tasted Hojicha before, then this is one you have to try. Fans of Genmaicha – a green tea blended with toasted rice – will find some similarities in this tea, but Hojicha has much more of the roasty warming umami, like the toasted rice, just with none of the grassiness of fresh green tea. Also, anyone looking for a low-caffeine tea or coffee alternative that has its own unique flavour and doesn’t compromise on richness and texture will find Organic Hojicha is the perfect fit!
What does organic tea mean in Japan?
The term organic is something that’s very important to us as we work with tea farmers and tea drinkers to create a more sustainable environment for places, people and tastes to thrive. In Japan (and in all the origins we work in), this means finding organic producers and sharing their teas, as well as their stories and beliefs about why they choose to work in the way they do.
According to farmers in Japan, the traditional perception of organic tea is that it does not taste as good as ‘normal’, meaning chemically treated tea. So, although organic tea is perceived as having a natural flavour, teas that are treated with pesticides and fertilizers are considered to be enhanced and therefore more flavourful; this is an attitude that organic farmers – and we - don’t always agree with.
Things are changing within Japan, with younger generations more acutely aware of the health benefits of organic tea. With awarding bodies like the JAS certification (Japanese Agricultural Standards) established by the government in 2000, more and more farmers are seeing the benefits of being recognised for their organic methods, and with people like Yamaguchi-san junior getting involved in tea production, we’re confident we’ll be finding more and more amazing organic Japanese teas in the coming seasons.
A highly aromatic green tea with syrupy caramel sweetness, savoury notes and plenty of warming, roasted depth. A real comfort drink for any time of day.