Tea Culture

Taking a Look At the World of Japanese Tea Cultivars

Cultivar by Definition

cultivar – “an organism and especially one of an agricultural or horticultural variety or strain originating and persistent under cultivation.”

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. Other cultivars, though, such as Okumidori, can have a bit more of a softer sweeter flavor which some sencha drinkers tend to enjoy. Not everyone wants a brisk cup of tea.

What can be interesting to do is to taste two of the same type of tea but made of two different cultivars. We’ve done this before in the form of a video, comparing two fukamushi-senchas, and you actually can taste the differences between the two teas. There are noticeable differences in flavor, mouth feel, and even color of the brew.

If you have the interest and the tea, investigate to see what cultivar your tea is made of. Some sites will not list it but might instead list the general area where the tea is from. This can work as well as, while you would not be parsing out the subtle differences between cultivars, you would be noticing differences between teas from two different areas. This side-by-side drinking experiment can really give you a sense of what terroir is and how it is present in tea culture.

Terroir is a term that can refer to the environmental factors at play when producing agricultural products such as tea or grapes, as in, the making of wine. It also plays a role in the world of coffee as well, where beans from different parts of the world will have noticeably different flavors. It’s reasonable: a plant that is under the influence of different weather conditions, is affected by and interacts with different flora and fauna, would have a different chemical composition than one of a totally different environment. Just like people, plants adapt to their environment or die in the process. As it relates to cultivars, you can grow a tea of two different cultivars in the same area so the terroir could be considered more or less the same. You could also grow two plants of the okumidori cultivar but one in Kagoshima and another in Shizuoka. The difference in environment might result in two teas that taste totally different.

While it was non-comprehensive, we hope you have enjoyed this look at cultivars and how it relates to tea. Especially in the video, you can see noticeable differences in the brew color. That being said, tasting is believing. We hope you do a side-by-side of the same tea type but of different cultivars so you can witness the differences yourself. Feel free to follow our instagram and tiktok. Let us know if you have tried comparing two different cultivars of the same tea type, we’d love to hear your feedback on the matter. Also, you can subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address in the designated space at the bottom of any page of our website.