The Best Japanese Teas to Use in Cocktails
Matcha tea is pretty near perfect. It has a unique, velvety texture; an instantly recognizable day-glo green color; an unparalleled, earthy-sweet taste; and it is remarkably versatile. It fits in at both tea shops and cocktail bars. The vivacious green powdered tea has found its way onto cocktail menus from shore to shore and, proving that it’s really, truly made it, matcha is now an official Starbucks Frappuccino flavor.
But there are many Japanese teas equally as special as matcha, just waiting to be discovered and appreciated as much as their celebrated sibling. To learn about the unsung heroes of Japanese tea, we talked to Zach Mangan, the owner of Kettl Tea in New York.
Since starting the company in 2013, Mangan has spent a lot of time in Japan developing relationships with some of the country’s finest tea growers, cultivating a selection of rare and unique teas. So we asked him for recommendations for Japanese teas that we should be drinking—and mixing into cocktails. Here, four teas every matcha lover needs to try.
Mangan discovered soba on his first trip to Nagano, Japan, in 2010. After attempting a marathon fresh off a plane with serious jetlag, he stumbled into a local noodle shop to recuperate from the race. There, he was served his first cup of soba tea—it was life saving. Three years after trying the tea and starting his brand, Kettl, Mangan went back to the noodle shop in Nagano and consulted with chef Nakamura San to create his Soba Cha blend.
Made from roasted buckwheat kernels, which are used to create soba noodles, soba tea has been served for centuries in Japan and China. It is extremely forgiving: If oversteeped it doesn’t become astringent or tannic, and hotter water temperatures don’t have adverse effects on the tea’s flavor. Naturally caffeine-free, soba can be sipped all day long without any negative side effects. With a rich, golden hue and an inherent, honeyed sweetness, soba’s taste, in Mangan’s words, is “like Sugar Smacks cereal.”
How to Brew: Soba can be brewed with hot water or cold extracted over a 24-hour period. When brewing it hot, we recommend your water temperature to be 190-203 degrees Fahrenheit. The optimal steep time for soba (brewed hot) is anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes.
How to Spike It: For a quick cocktail, brew a mugful of soba tea and add two ounces of a whiskey of your choice. For something more complex, make a batch of cold-brewed soba tea, then pour it into a highball over ice with Japanese whisky, Irish whiskey or scotch. Scotch and soba, anyone?
Houjicha is a roasted tea typically made from bancha, a lower grade green tea picked during the summer season when the last teas are harvested. Fired at high temperatures, the tea leaves take on a slightly smoky, caramelized flavor and a deep, reddish brown hue. Charcoal roasting gives the tea its distinctive flavor, lowers the tea’s caffeine levels and reduces astringency.
Incredibly fragrant when brewed, houjicha is rich and mellow, with flavors of roasted hazelnut, pipe tobacco, burnt brown sugar and light smoke. A natural palate cleanser, houjicha is a wonderful accompaniment to both savory and sweeter foods. In Japan, the tea is often served alongside sushi, or enjoyed after a meal.
Brands to Buy: Try Mangan’s Ryuouen Houjicha from Kyoto’s most famous tea shop, which is unavailable anywhere else outside of Japan. The tea took Mangan three years to procure. After repeatedly visiting Ryuouen in Japan and a lot of persistent pestering, Mangan finally convinced Ryuouen to let him sell the tea in the United States. For a more readily available houjicha tea, we also recommend Harney & Sons or the Art of Tea’s blend.
How to Brew It: Properly brewing houjicha requires more tea than water, with a ratio of 1.5 parts tea to one part water. It also calls for a double steeping session. For the first steep, use water that is 190 degrees. When steeping the tea the second time, use a hotter temperature. The optimal time for brewing a perfectly balanced cup of tea is with a steep time between 75 and 90 seconds for the first round, and 90 seconds for the second steep. If you prefer a more astringent, tannic tea, brew your houjicha for closer to three minutes the first time and five minutes for the second round. For cold-brewed hojicha, use three tea bags for every two liters of cold water, and steep overnight in your fridge.
How to Spike It: Houjicha’s savory, mesquite flavors pair perfectly with demerara rum's dark molasses flavors or with smoky mezcals. For a tea-inspired take on the classic Daisy, add two ounces of mezcal, half an ounce fresh lemon juice (strained), three-quarters of an ounce of agave syrup, and four ounces of cold brew houjicha to a shaker tin with ice. Shake the cocktail, then strain over ice into a rocks glass rimmed with lemon juice and smoked salt. Top with a splash of soda water.
Sencha Green Tea
One of the most popular green teas in Japan, sencha’s quality, value and flavor are contingent on where it’s grown, who grows it, and what time of year it is harvested. The most prized sencha (aka first flush sencha) comes from the spring harvest in April or May, when the tea plants begin to bloom after sitting dormant over the winter. Spring harvested sencha is known for its light, almost transparent jade color (with a tinge of yellowish chartreuse at the edges) and refreshingly bright flavor.
Sencha’s vivacious flavor and freshness are not only a direct result of its harvest time, but also the way in which it is processed. Unlike Chinese green teas, which are pan-fried and dried, Japanese sencha is steamed, rolled and dried, then left in refrigeration.
With a delicate, toasted aroma, first flush sencha has notes of fresh, green grass, oceanic umami and a sugar snap pea sweetness. Lower quality sencha tastes less fresh and light on the palate. It can be richer, and more tannic and astringent, with a hint of grass and vegetal notes on the finish. Easy to brew (especially in tea bags), sencha is easy to pre-batch and, according to Mangan, “naturally produces high levels of vitamin C, which acts as a preservative and keeps the teas fresh for up to five days in refrigeration.”
Brands to Buy: We recommend Ippodo's sencha teas (their Hosen is a good place for beginners to start) or Kettl’s Sencha Jou, a vibrant, spring-harvested tea from the Fukuoka prefecture. For something more extravagant and rare, try In Pursuit of Teas Sencha Okuyutaka, a briny, umami rich small batch tea from the Shizuoka prefecture in Japan.
How to Brew It: When using loose leaf sencha tea, use equal parts tea and water (one gram of water to one gram of loose tea). Your water temperature ideally should be on the lower end of the spectrum—anywhere from 170 degrees to 176 degrees Fahrenheit—with a brew time of one to one-and-a-half minutes. The hotter the temperature, the more astringent and bitter the tea will be. For cold brewing, Mangan recommends using three tea bags for every two liters of water. For optimal flavor, allow the tea to steep for up to 36 hours in your refrigerator.
How to Spike It: For a refreshing, non-alcoholic sipper, simply mix cold brewed tea with half an ounce of fresh lemon juice and three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup. To make a boozy tiki-inspired Long Island Ice Tea variation, add two ounces of rhum agricole, three-quarters of an ounce of absinthe and three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup to a highball glass with ice. Top with cold brew sencha and stir. Garnish with a lemon wedge.
Gyokuro Green Tea
With a name that literally translates to “jade dew,” gyokuro is one of the rarest and most coveted green teas in Japan. Grown primarily in the shade, similar to matcha, gyokuro is harvested by hand only once a year at the beginning of spring. Steam dried and rolled, the finished tea resembles pine needles. With the excessive amount of care and attention that goes into the growth and production of gyokuro, Mangan describes it as the “Wagyu beef of green tea.”
Unapologetically savory, this tea defies everyone's expectations of what a green tea should be. On the palate, the tea is say-vor-eee. It’s a heady mix of brine, oyster broth, kelp jerky and seaweed snacks. You’re hit with a lip-smacking dose of umami immediately after the first sip. According to Mangan, this unique flavor profile creates “a green tea for people super into unique ingredients, floral liqueurs and amaros.”
In Japan, the gyokuro tea leaves are eaten. Traditionally, the tea is steeped three times—each steep longer and hotter than the last. This three-steep process cooks the leaves and makes them soft, pliable and easy to digest. After the tea has been brewed, the leaves are served as a snack, traditionally garnished with black sesame seeds and a smidgen of ponzu sauce.
Brands to Buy: We recommend Samovar Tea’s Gyokuro tea from Uji, the oldest producing region of gyokuro tea, and Kettl’s Competition Grade Gyokuro from the village of Hoshino in the Fukuoka prefecture.
How to Brew It: Mangan uses approximately 10 milliliters of water per gram of tea. According to Mangan, this ratio would usually “create a cup of tea that is cloudy and supersaturated.” Gyokuro, however, “maintains its clarity and has a vibrant, almost electric hue.” The tea can also be made as a cold brew extraction with a similar ratio of tea to water, left to brew in the refrigerator for 36 hours.
The optimal water temperature for gyokuro is on the lower end, from 145 to 155 degrees Fahrenheit, with a steep time no longer than one and a half minutes. If you brew the tea in a tea pot, make sure that you shake out every last drop, as the most concentrated tea is found in the last dregs at the bottom of the pot.
How to Spike It: To play up the savory elements and vegetal nature of the tea, mix two ounces of aquavit with equal parts tomato water and gyokuro tea. Add a pinch of sea salt as garnish and slurp down a new spin on a Blood Mary.