Behind our Matcha and Hōjicha

The single-origin Japanese teas we use in our new matcha and hōjicha lattes

Hojicha fields in Wazuka where we source our Uji tea

Hojicha fields in Wazuka where we source our Uji tea

The average matcha latte is made with matcha of unspecified origin. Not ours.

Matcha and hōjicha lattes are ubiquitous in Japan; the very best are served at kissaten, traditional coffee shops. Blue Bottle’s President of Asia, Saki Igawa, encouraged us to add the tea lattes to our menu. Our Japan team connected us to a Kyoto tea company, Rishouen, that approaches tea as we do coffee: As a fresh crop, to be sourced from the best farms, served at its peak. Their matcha and hōjicha come from the Uji tea fields in Kyoto Prefecture, which is considered among the finest origins for tea anywhere.

But even Rishouen was surprised at the level of quality we ultimately landed on. “Normally with matcha lattes, the quality of the matcha isn’t that important,” Saki explained. “But we do care and can taste the difference. For both our matcha and hōjicha, we ended up going with a premium grade.”

We were so impressed with the tastes, we started to explore the history of Uji teas— and discovered some surprising commonalities between them and coffee.

Fields of sencha that will become matcha.

Fields of sencha that will become matcha.

UJI: THE ETHIOPIA OF MATCHA

Uji is to Japanese teas what Ethiopia and Yemen are to coffee—where it all began. The first teas to arrive in Japan were brought to Uji in the ninth century by Buddhist monks returning from a trip to China to an Uji monastery near the Kyoto imperial court. The teas they carried were finely milled, following Chinese fashions of the times. The monks started cultivating their own, what became known as matcha, combining the Japanese words for “rubbed” and “tea.” Matcha quickly made its way from the monastery to the court and the noble warrior class, the samurai. 

Meanwhile back in China, milled teas fell out of favor by the end of the Ming Dynasty. But in Japan, matcha not only flourished, by the sixteenth century it had become the crucial ingredient in the meditative Japanese tea ceremony. 

Today, matcha production remains largely unchanged—with a few key exceptions. Modern high-powered mills can now generate ultra-fine matcha powder cheaply—with far harsher, less nuanced flavors. Higher-quality matcha such as ours yield richer and more rounded flavors, grown and milled with care.

Grinding sencha into matcha.

Grinding sencha into matcha.

FIRST-FLUSH MOUNTAIN MATCHA

Just as the best coffees start with the reddest, ripest coffee cherry, the best matcha are stone-milled from Uji sencha tea grown at elevation. Sencha is sometimes also referred to as “first flush,” the tea term for the sweet spring buds that tea plants push out as the weather warms. Mountain sencha tastes that much more complex from growing that much more slowly in the cooler air—also true of high-altitude coffees.

Hōjicha after it’s roasted.

Hōjicha after it’s roasted.

HŌJICHA: AN EARLY SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVE IN TEA

Hōjicha is a far more recent tradition, born of ingenuity and frugality. It was invented in the 1920s as a means to conserve the larger leaves and stems caught up in the blades of new mechanical tea harvesters. Hōjicha is made from bancha, the Japanese tea term for the larger, more coarsely flavored leaves that emerge just two or three weeks after the sencha harvest (sencha is usually hand-harvested, only lesser-grade bancha by machine). It is roasted to give it a rich toasted flavor. Hōjicha is often brewed whole, but we had a hunch it would taste particularly delicious in a latte in milled form. Our hunch was right—when combined with lightly sweetened milk, the tea almost tastes caramelly.