Withering Enhances Florals in Japanese Tea

Ichō or ichoucha translates as “withered” tea. Most Japanese green tea is processed by steaming the leaves as soon as they are picked to stop oxidation and keep their intense green color. However, by withering them first, the leaves undergo a slight oxidation between harvest and steaming, bringing out floral notes.

It’s a lazy Sunday morning with light spring rain tapping your window. You get up from the comfort of your bed, stretch your arms, and the first thought on your mind is to prepare a nice cup of tea. After pouring water into the tea kettle, you open the cupboard to pick one of your favorite cups for that peaceful occasion. You choose the tea. Looking at the loose-leaf tea on your spoon brings you joy; the dry tea is beautiful, though not many people can understand.

Fresh grass, vegetal notes, ocean breeze, and nori-like are words used to describe Japanese green tea, the world-known sencha. But this time, there is a floral note. The delicate scent of flowers is usually found in Chinese teas, but by using a withering technique called ichō, the Japanese are bringing out the floral, and sometimes fruity profile, in their green teas.

Ichō or ichoucha is withered tea. The first process in producing Japanese green tea is steaming the leaves as soon as they are picked to stop oxidation and keep their strong green color. However, by withering them first, the leaves undergo a slight oxidation between harvest and steaming, bringing out the floral notes.

The appeal of using the ichō technique is that it maintains the characteristics of good-quality Japanese tea while offering a refreshing floral note. Although it is a similar process to producing Taiwanese oolong, it is crucial for the tea farmer to develop this method according to the specific flavor and aroma profile they are after.

The withering process, ichō, can be done by exposing the leaves to the sun, leaving them to wilt naturally in a well-ventilated room, or by having them inside a unique greenhouse for withering.

Tea farmer sorting leaves for production
Tea farmers sorting leaves for processing.

Ichō tea range

Okutomi Tea Garden produces ichō sencha, or withered sencha green tea, from three different Sayama and Saitama region cultivars: Hokumei, Okuraruka, and Yume Wakaba. Cultivars refer to plants that are propagated using cuttings—they are bred to obtain specific characteristics, be it flavor or aroma—which makes it possible to preserve the qualities of such teas. From each single cultivar, the leaves wither slightly for a few hours to expose their floral aroma.

The tea farmer Tokuya Yamazaki produces the Kamo Kōcha black tea from Zairai tea trees, a tea that is reproduced from seeds. This style is not as productive as from cultivars because it brings genetic differences, although it may be more pest-resistant due to diversity. He causes the leaves to slowly wither, ichō, and depending on climate conditions or any other crucial factor, he needs to adjust the duration of this process. That said, each of his black teas develops a unique taste profile.

The Ichō Kamairicha—Fūshun cultivar—from Gokasechō, Miyazaki, won the Fine Product Prize at the 2021 Nihoncha tea competition. Japan’s National Association of Tea Production says Kamairicha is a rare green tea. It comprises only a tiny percentage of all tea production in Japan compared to more traditional ones like sencha and bancha.

Kamairicha loosely translates to pan-fired tea, not to be confused with hōjicha, roasted tea. To stop the oxidation of the tea leaves after harvest, the kamairicha is roasted and stirred in an iron pan instead of steamed like regular Japanese green tea. This process also gives this tea its curly characteristic, which differs from the needle shape of a regular sencha, but at the same time, it does not lose its greenish color.

On the other hand, the method to produce hōjicha or houjicha consists of steaming the leaves first, only then roasting them until they change to a brownish color. Made from sencha, kukicha, or bancha, hōjicha is heated to different levels and for longer or shorter periods during roasting, resulting in a lighter or darker color. Tea is aired between roastings. Shorter periods of rest result in a smokier flavor or a more intense aroma of the dry leaves, which can be seen in both high-end hōjicha and more affordable ones.

Applying the withering process, ichō, before steaming or pan-firing the leaves may be a standard practice in other countries, but in Japan, it is still rare to find those teas, which puts them in the semi-oxidized category.

Since the consumption of green tea continues to drop, some producers are experimenting with withering the leaves to reinvigorate the Japanese tea industry. The rate of withering, among other techniques, requires a skilled tea master. Producing white and oolong teas is also one strategy to attract more people to drink tea in Japan.

Ichō’s place in shifting tea preferences

Continued innovation can be seen in restaurants offering tea-infused cocktails, usually infused in rum, vodka, or gin, and shops selling matcha lattes. The latter is a worldwide phenomenon, with matcha promoted as a “superfood.” People started sprinkling matcha powder over ice cream and yogurt, blending it with fruits to prepare juices, and using it as an ingredient for baking cookies and cakes. Sometimes, people eventually tried drinking matcha in its traditional way. Those who found using a bamboo matcha whisk, known as the chasen, too complicated could always opt for an electric mixer. The quality of the tea may not be considered in those cases, but the optimistic perspective here is to have these foods and drinks as a start for tea consumption.

Another example of innovation is from the Asahi Soft Drinks Co., one of Japan’s leading beverage companies. It started 140 years ago with Mitsuya Cider, and nowadays, the company presents a large variety of drinks, including water, coffee, and tea, selling RTD (ready-to-drink) bottles worldwide. By launching the Asahi Sou drink, the company focuses on fragrance, the flower-like scent in green tea, to meet the needs – both in flavor and rising aroma – of the new generation of tea consumers. The tea master commissioned by Asahi reached the desired drink by withering the tea leaves first, an ichō green tea. The loose leaves were partially fermented for a short period, which enhanced the floral aroma. The consumer can read this information displayed on the bottle’s front label, and the marketing campaign is strongly focused on how the scent stands up and the fragrant aftertaste.

Since the tea master is from the highest rank—Yasuyuki Suda inherited the sixth generation of Higashi Genbei, a tea shop established in Uji for over 180 years, achieving the distinction of 10th Dan (the highest rank)—the RTD ichō green tea shows the commitment Asahi has in developing this new product to meet the growing demand.

Now, your cup of tea is ready. You patiently counted the seconds for that infusion while admiring the color of the tea against the white of the inside of your porcelain cup. That familiar scent is there, the grass, the vegetal note, now dancing with floral and muscat. It is new. It is exciting—a withered Japanese tea.

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