Today, we touch on the history of hojicha, which in comparison to the other Japanese teas out there, is relatively new.
Hojicha making started in the 1920’s, during Japan’s early Showa Era (1926-1989). While there was rapid change and industrialization in this period parts of the rural economy actually suffered, and in particular, not much tea was being sold and thus, producers and merchants had plenty of leftover tea (For those interested in more on the history of tea on the global scale, see this previous article). Maintaining the freshness of tea was an added challenge during this time due to lack of equipment such as vacuum packaging and high scale refrigerators.
So the story goes that during these somewhat dire times a tea merchant took his leftover green tea to Kyoto University in search of some wise advice. There, he was recommended to try re-drying and roasting the tea. Before then, tea farmers and merchants had simply been discarding the leftover parts of the tea plants (camellia senisis) such as stems, twigs, and stalks. Having received this suggestion however, the leftovers were roasted over charcoal. And to a pleasant surprise, resulted in what we now are familiar with: the aromatic and earthy reddish brownish hojicha!
After this pleasant discovery in Kyoto, tea consumption grew nationwide and the roasted tea leaves quickly spread all throughout Japan as a means to utilize the entire tea plant. Others theorize hojicha to have been present earlier, in the Meiji (1868 -1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods. While there is evidence of a wide variety of Japanese folk teas, there does not seem to be any historical record of a tea that could be specifically described as hojicha and so the actual origin of hojicha remains to be a mystery…
Kaga-Boucha, the Famous Stem Hojicha
Nevertheless, there is an important historical record with respect to the *boucha (stem hojicha or kukicha) from Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture which stands out on the spectrum of Japanese hojichas. Boucha is primarily composed of stems from tea bushes, which are then roasted. In my previous blog post (i.e., Why Hojicha is Low in Caffeine), I touched on how the caffeine content is lowest in the boucha, or the stems of the tea plant. This type of hojicha is said to have specifically originated from Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture. This may take you by surprise as nowadays, tea production in Ishikawa is quite low.
During the Edo (1603 - 1867) and Meiji (1868 -1912) era tea became a valuable and expensive exported item in Japan and the stems of tea were all thrown away. In 1902 a tea merchant named Shinbei Hayashiya sought out ways to make use of the parts of tea that couldn’t be utilized. He decided to roast the stems making boucha, which is the start of this specific tea. Thanks to Shinbei, tea became an accessible item to the common people, and it quickly spread around to the surrounding regions. Today, when one thinks of boucha, they generally think specifically of Ishikawa Prefecture. This tea was even presented to the Emperor Showa and therefore deserves recognition as Meicha, top quality Japanese tea! (note: Today, Kaga-boucha is branded just like Uji-cha. If you are in Japan, you may even come across Kaga-boucha hojicha sold in the vending machines as one of the tea selections).
The Future of Hojicha
From its early days, hojicha has now evolved into a drink that is familiar and loved by the Japanese people. Moreover, just like matcha and green tea products, in Japan, the number of hojicha products has burgeoned over the years. One has access to quite a variety of baked hojicha goods (like Sachiko-san's hojicha roll cake), hojicha ice cream and lattes to even delicious hojicha sauce over a soft serve! So, perhaps one day, hojicha will be more popular and prominent overseas, too. We shall see...
*boucha – 棒茶 -Boucha or Bōcha (literally "stick tea") is another name for roasted kukicha (stem tea) and can be considered a subset of kukicha or hojicha. The stems used are USUALLY larger (either the center stems of large, mature leaves, or the stems to which the leaf is attached) and give the tea the appearance of sticks. May also be called Kuki Hojicha.
Have additional questions about hojicha? Please don't hesitate to post comments and/or questions below. Or directly contact me (Moé Kishida): email@example.com.