Tea Culture

From Bitter to Sweet: The Accidental Discovery of Shaded Tea That Created a Culture

Matcha and Gyokuro make up such a huge part of Japanese tea culture. The shading of tea itself is an art and seems to almost be exclusive to Japanese tea culture. The shading of the tea alters the entire character, bringing out more of the soft, sweeter notes of the tea as can easily be experienced when comparing the flavor of sencha and ceremonial grade matcha, for example. How did it all start though?

The Creation of Powdered Tea

Before their was shaded powdered tea in Japan, there was still powdered tea. Before their was powdered tea in Japan, there was powdered tea in China. Originally, in China during the Tang dynasty, people initially produced compressed tea. They would then break off a piece, grind it down and boil it with salt and other herbs. Later the development of steaming tea leaves came in the Song dynasty. The tea was still ground into somewhat of a powder (probably not like we see with contemporary matcha but more granular), whipped with hot water, and served without other herbs added.

So, compressed tea was used to make tea powder. It took a lot of effort to make this compressed tea and, because of this, it was pretty much only wealthy Chinese that could afford it. During the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu emperor, who was a beggar as a child and rose to power, banned the practice of making compressed tea probably because it was not accessible to common people. Loose tea was instead preferred as it was much easier to prepare. With the ban on compressed tea, powdered tea also became less consumed in China. The Hongwu Emperor, however, did not have dominion over Japan and the practice of making powdered tea travelled there.

Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as the Hongwu Emperor. A certified loose leaf tea enjoyer. (Source)

Powdered Tea Travels to Japan

The first documented evidence of tea in Japan dates to the 9th century. The Buddhist monk Eichū is thought to have brought some tea back to Japan on his return from China. This tea was the compressed type that was mentioned above. It wasn’t until around 200 years later that the practice of making powdered tea was introduced by another Buddhist monk named Eisai. Already, we have mentioned the names of two Buddhists monks. This is indicative of a theme that will continue to come up well into 19th century Japan: tea was mostly consumed by the clergy and the wealthy Eisai sought to change this and sought to spread the health virtues to the common people which would eventually happen.

Eisai, the Buddhist Monk who introduced the practice of powdered tea to Japan. (Source)

This powdered tea was still produced in the form of a “lump” but was ground down and consumed more or less as matcha. At that time, tea was considered as a medicine yet people did drink it for pleasure. The wealthy had enjoyed the production and consumption of tea but some had found that tea appreciation had become overly complicated. By the 16th century, around the time that tea had really come into the hands of common people, a more simplified, mindful form of tea consumption was starting to be practiced. This is also around the same time that people, intentionally or unintentionally, started to shade their tea.

Let the Shading Begin

It is believed that, initially, the tea plants were covered to prevent frost damage. Nowadays, large electric fans are used to protect the tea plant from frost damage, as seen in a tiktok video that we did awhile back. Of course, people at that time didn’t have electric fans and still needed to protect their leaves from frost damage so straw or reeds were used instead. Little did they know they would be creating an entire subculture of tea. An account of this shading process was mentioned by the Portuguese missionary João Rodrigues Tçuzu who wrote about it in his Historia da Igreja do Japão in 1604.

A Japanese Rendition of a Portuguese Black Ship, probably similar to what  João would have travelled on. (Source)

Another explanation for the covering of the tea plants follows that there was the practice of laying rice straw mats over tea plantations to protect them from volcanic ash. Either way, this shading of the tea resulted in the development of the Japanese matcha (first grown as tencha leaves), which was bright green, had a unique aroma and flavor, and had improved much in its quality. You may be asking yourself why the flavor changes when the tea is shaded. Well…

A Little Science

When the tea plant is prevented from receiving sunlight, photosynthesis in tea leaves is inhibited, preventing the transformation of theanine, a component of umami, into tannins, the source of bitterness and astringency. This means that the cultivated tea leaves have a higher umami content then unshaded tea.[26] In addition to this, a higher amount of caffeine is developed as a result of this shading. Chlorophyll in tea leaves also increases, resulting in a bright green color. This was different than the unshaded tea that people were consuming that developed a brown color.

A small cup of tencha leaves

Now back to our story…

This comparatively smoother tasting tea later became the preferred flavor profile among wealthy Japanese. The tea must’ve been pretty good because the matcha growers, specifically the matcha growers of Uji, Kyoto, were given the title of tea master (御用茶師, goyō chashi) by the literal Tokogawa Shogunate. Tea masters were allowed to carry swords at their waists like samurai, and they dealt exclusively with the shogun, the imperial court as well as feudal lords. They sold their tea to the upper echelons of Japanese society and did not sell tea to the common people. The shaded cultivation of tea was allowed only to Uji tea masters who, at this time, had monopolized the growing of the highest grade of matcha.

It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration (1868) that the tencha growers in Uji had started to lose their monopoly over the practice. Especially by the Taisho Era (1912-1926), people outside of Uji was growing their own tencha and making matcha. Probably from here too, you could assume that the production of gyokuro and kabusecha had also spread to different parts of Japan. Now other people were allowed to practice the art of producing shaded tea.

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