Genmaicha is a Japanese tea style which combines brown rice with green tea during the roasting process to add a toasty, nutty aroma and flavor to the brewed tea. The style originated sometime in the 1920s in Kyoto, and is traditionally made with late-harvest tea (called bancha) which is typically of poorer quality and flavor than teas harvested earlier. This, combined with the toasted rice acting as filler, assured for many years that genmaicha was a drink of the lower classes—those who could afford better certainly would seek it out. However, in more recent years, genmaicha has undergone a shift in image, and it is now a very popular style among a diverse spectrum of drinkers. Like other green teas, it’s a good source of antioxidants, and this image of health combined with its more accessible flavor has gained genmaicha a wide audience among those who have not developed a taste for straight green tea. Seasoned fans of green tea also enjoy the style for its unique and refreshing flavor, and genmaicha using first-harvest sencha leaves or powdered matcha is now available. What I am sampling today, however, is Harney & Sons’ offering, which is produced, as the original, with the larger bancha leaves.
As a green tea, genmaicha should be brewed with hot but not boiling water, often cited between 160 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and brewed for a relatively short time, with some sources saying as little as 60 seconds. A more average duration is between two and three minutes, depending on who you talk to. Harney & Sons recommends both temperature and time to be on the lower end of the scale, but I personally prefer my green teas a little stronger, so I usually brew for two-three minutes and at around 170 degrees. The pot I am about to drink has been brewed in the manner, with a rounded teaspoon of tea for the single cup it holds. As traditional, I’ll be making several cups from the pot, each with their own distinct properties. That’s enough background, I think—on to tasting!
The first cup pours a very pale green, and has a delicate tea aroma behind a very strong scent of toasted rice. It’s a nice smell, comforting, but probably a little unusual to those unused to genmaicha. The first sip continues the theme, though the flavor is more balanced than the aroma, with a significantly increased proportion of tea to rice. It’s a mild flavor, as green teas go—only a few hints of the sometimes potent vegetable-esque qualities that certain blends posses. It is has a light feel to it as well, with very little astringency and a delicate body. After the cup is drained, the taste lingers slightly, the rice receding quickly to leave an aftertaste primarily of the green tea base.
My second pour is significantly darker, a more certain green and less pale. The rice aroma is somewhat diminished compared to the first, smelling much more like a standard green tea but still definitely scented with a comforting toasty grain. As I’ve been told, the second cup of green tea is the best, and this is no exception…the tea has more prominence, the rice still adds its complementary flavor, and it’s a very nice brew, at least to my somewhat undiscerning taste. If you’ve never tried green tea, this style is probably a good introduction, and if you have…it’s still tasty.
As you’ve probably guessed, this is not the first time I’ve prepared green tea…it’s something I’ve had throughout my late childhood and through the years since. It was my maternal grandprents that got me into it, albeit slowly…my grandfather was a neurosurgeon from Japan, and through him and my grandmother I was exposed to many imported treats and specialty goods. We shared sushi, udon, yakisoba, sukiyaki, and dishes I can neither name nor identify any componant of…and, of course tea. My grandparent’s friends in Japan often sent them care packages with excellent teas, and I was privileged enough to have some very good brews as my introduction to the beverage. It was a ritual, almost any time my family visited, to have tea, especially when I was too young for coffee. The small clay pot and cup you see in the picture above were his, from many years back, and they are the strongest reminders of his presence I possess. They’ve served me well through college and the time since, brewing and carrying fragrant teas that hearken back to our times together.
Here’s to you, Grandpa…I miss you.