Tea Culture

Wakoucha: Taking A Look At Black Tea Culture and How It Relates To Japanese Tea

Black tea, known in East Asian countries such as China and Japan, as “red tea” (wakoucha in Japanese, 和紅茶 lit. “Japanese black tea”), is a popular style of tea. One census shows that, worldwide, 84% of the tea consumed is black tea, 15% green tea, and the other percentages are oolong, white, and dark tea.1 According to O-Cha, the amount of green tea consumed in a year by the average Japanese person is 650g. Specifically, in Japan, green tea (sencha) is the most widely consumed type of tea.2 While the Japanese are known for their various types of green tea, Japanese tea culture isn’t really known for producing other types of tea.

This does not mean that the Japanese do not have a culture of producing, for example, black tea or oolong tea. It mainly means that the Japanese tea market is somewhat inflated with green tea and the sheer quantity of it seems to speak over the lesser known forms of tea in Japan. In a way, this is actually good thing as the less-consumed styles could potentially stick out more to Japanese tea drinkers who are looking for something different than more of the same (that is, consuming sencha.)

History of Japanese Black Tea

In 2021, Japan was the top source of tea imports by value, at $94 million, to the US. In 2022, the U.S. imported $81.7 million worth of tea from Japan. Interestingly enough, this is even true as far back as the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) of Japan.

Emperor Meiji, 1888 (Source)

At that time, green tea was one of the main Japanese exports with most of the green tea being sent to the United States. But the Meiji government was anticipating that black tea would be the next major resource to export because of the large demand in other western countries. The government sent Motokichi Tada, warrior turned business-man, to foreign lands to learn more about black tea production.

Motokichi Tada, known as the Father of Japanese Black Tea.

Motokichi started his journey in 1875, traveling to places in China known for their black tea. Motokichi took note of Chinese black tea processing methods and even bought back many seeds.3 A trial of Japanese black tea was produced but didn’t result in well-tasting tea. They again set off from Japan but, this time, to the culturally rich land of India. After a dangerous journey across the Himalayas, Motokichi traveled to Darjeeling and Assam, black tea producing areas which today have more or less become household names.

He and his team learned the ins and outs large scale black tea production. He also gathered Indian tea seeds to take back home. After visiting China for a period of time, he returned to Japan in 1877. When Motokichi returned to Japan, he shared his knowledge with several tea production areas, and Mariko in Shizuoka was one of them. It is now considered the center of Japanese black tea.

Since 1877, the popularity of black teas has risen and fallen, usually in response to the popularity (or lack thereof) of Japanese green tea. The Japanese were often competing with the Indian black tea market as well, and world events such as the Japanese Imperial rule over Taiwan, India’s struggle for independence, World War II, and the later trade agreements with foreign powers affected the production of Japanese black tea.4

Black Tea in the World

Black tea is enjoyed in many different places in the world. Japanese black tea is comparatively almost non-existent compared to some cultures of the world that almost exclusively drink black tea. Rize tea, for example, is a popular Turkish tea that often is combined with beetroot sugar. In Turkish culture, black tea is taken at different times of the day, notably in the afternoon with some biscuits known as kurabiye. The history of tea in Turkey, though we will not cover it fully here, is interesting especially in relation to the other popular turkish drink: coffee. Tea seeds were initially introduced from China and Japan into Turkey. Later, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to a rapid popularity in domestically grown tea (whereas coffee was grown in places such as Yemen, which they had lost possession over after World War II) Suffice it to say, Turkish folks drink a lot of tea.

A beautiful cup of Turkish tea, served in a tulip-shaped glass called ince belli. (Source)

There is also the aforementioned countries of India and China. Believed to have originated in the Fujian province of China, black tea is a somewhat popular alternative to Chinese green teas. Lapsang Souchong (Zhèngshān-xiǎozhǒng) and “Keemun” (also Qímén) are well-known names in gong fu cha tea circles. Lapsang and Dianhong black teas are probably some of the oldest Chinese black teas and, therefore, some of the oldest black teas in the world.

A European aristocrat enjoying her tea. (Source)

So far as India is concerned, it is thought that the British Empire introduced tea to India in the early 1820s. Tea was cultivated by the Jingpo people before the British had arrived. Still, the British are surely responsible for the large-scale production of tea in places such as Assam and Darjeeling. Overtime, Indian-grown black teas were enjoyed by the upper echelon of British society and progressively found their way into the hands of the common people as prices for tea fell. Tea was thought to be a better drink than beer by the Temperance Movement at the time, especially since you had to boil the otherwise not so clean water of that day in order to make the tea. In fact, A 2022 study found that rising tea consumption during the 18th century in England actually reduced mortality rates because more people began to boil their water which reduced their vulnerability to waterborne diseases.

Wakoucha and Its Potential

The development of the Japanese black tea scene will be interesting to follow as time goes on. As mentioned before, green tea seems to be the most consumed style of tea in Japan. This could mean that people would have grown accustom to it and are looking for a new Japanese tea experience. This is where wakoucha comes in. Underneath the mainstream of green tea enjoyers we are sure that there lies individuals looking to act as a catalyst in the evolution of Japanese tea.

We currently offer a wakoucha on our site and, while black tea producers in Japan are still developing different production parameters to find what works for them, wakoucha can very much in its taste. We found one that we have named Wakoucha Mariko. It is produced by Niroku Muramatsu, who grew up wanting to be part of black tea history and production in Japan. During his production career, he invented his own storage container for wilting and fermentation and even acquired patents for them. He is also particular to organic growing; however, the tea has not been certified as organic.

Interestingly, the Wakoucha Mariko tastes a bit sweeter than some other black teas you may have tried. Some black teas have a tendency to be astringent, which is basically the experience of dryness in the mouth. Still, black teas in other parts of Japan might taste different depending where it is grown and what methods were used. As mentioned above, Muramatsu-san developed his own storage container to process the leaves and other producers are probably finding their own ways to produce quality black teas. We enjoy the wakoucha we currently offer and look forward the future of Japanese black tea.

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  1. Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. Tea Fact Sheet — 2022. PDF File. 2022. https://www.teausa.com/teausa/images/Tea_Fact_2021.pdf ↩︎
  2. Japanese Tea Kinds – Global Japanese Tea Association. (2020, May 4). Global Japanese Tea Association. https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-kinds/ ↩︎
  3. GJTea. (2020, January 12). The History of Japanese Black Tea – Wakoucha – Part 1. Global Japanese Tea Association. https://gjtea.org/the-history-of-japanese-black-tea-wakoucha/ ↩︎
  4. GJTea. (2020, April 8). The History of Japanese Black Tea – Wakoucha – Part 2. Global Japanese Tea Association. https://gjtea.org/the-history-of-japanese-black-tea-wakoucha-part-2/ ↩︎