Perhaps, you are familiar with the Japanese tea, bancha and have even tried a few. But what exactly is a sannen bancha (i.e., three-year bancha) and how is it different from regular bancha and hojicha? Today, we hope we can help you discover a new tea, or become more familiar with one!
In general, Japanese tea (i.e., sencha) is made from harvesting, steaming and processing the new buds of tea bushes. These types of teas are considered best when drunk fresh. However, sannen bancha is a little different in that it comes from bushes that have been uncut for three years or from stems and leaves that have matured for three years. It is a tea that is considered to be friendly for all ages because; in comparison to sencha, it has less caffeine and tannins, which can be stimulating for some. In Japan, people enjoy this tea just on its own, or at times, by adding a hint of ume (plum), a little bit of soy sauce, and/or grated ginger.
Two Methods of Making Sannen Bancha Today
1. Aged for 3 Years
The first approach to make sannen bancha involves aging the tea for three years. Instead of harvesting the new buds from tea bushes, the harvested bancha (i.e., the mature tea leaves and stems) from the fall harvest are utilized. These tea leaves stems are steamed, as normal for aracha (rough, unsifted tea) and most teas, but then aged at room temperature for three years, which is what makes the tea a sannen bancha. At Yunomi, Tarui Tea Farm’s Sannnen bancha has been made this way as well as Uejima-san’s Sannen bancha.
It is said that the origin of this tea was heavily influenced by a monk who came to Japan during the Tang dynasty. Originally, this tea was made by cutting wild tea bushes in the cold winter months, keeping them in a tea-urn (cha tsubo:茶壺), then closing the lid and sealed with various layers of Japanese paper. The tea was then stored and matured for three years.
2. Growing the Tea Bushes for 3 Years
The second approach involves cutting leaves and stems that have not been cut or harvested for three years. The following steps to make this alternative sannen bancha are similar to the typical aracha process in that it goes through steaming, drying, and roasting, except that in this method the tea is roasted over a wood fire. Sannen bancha made using this method presents a pronounced and very different type of terroir due to the long growth period. Traditionally, all steps were done entirely by hand! Ayumi Farm’s Wha-ha-ha Sannen Bancha is made from tea bushes that were grown for 3 years without being cut.
Ayumi Farms' Wha-ha-ha Sannen Bancha is made from abandoned tea bushes, which have been growing naturally for three years. Together with friends, Ayumi-san cut down the branches of tea bushes that are more than twice their size. Then, the branches are taken care of (the intertwined vines and grass are removed) and loaded into a truck. These photos are from their full moon sannen bancha harvest from last February. Photos from Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu.
A Tea for Macrobiotic Fans
Japan has a unique macrobiotic food culture, partially influenced by traditional Chinese medicine that attributes hot and cold qualities to plants depending on their growing conditions. For people that are into this sort of perspective, sannen bancha has characteristics that are more similar to root vegetables because it is made from the lower parts of stems and even mature leaves rather than the upper, young, sun-soaked leaves. From a macrobiotic viewpoint therefore, it can have influences of warming up one’s body.
How does sannen bancha differ from bancha and hojicha?
Before we wrap up this blog post, we will touch on the differences between a bancha and hojicha and understand where sannen bancha fits in. Because sometimes, it seems like there are so many types of Japanese teas, we hope that highlighting these differences will help you to get more familiar with Japanese tea terminology!
Bancha is known as folk tea, and refers in general to tea made from leaves that have been allowed to grow to a very large size. Bancha is typically made from tea leaves that are larger than sencha and that have been picked from autumn to early winter. In contrast, sencha is usually made from the first harvest in the spring. The flavor of bancha tends to be astringent, but has a lower level of caffeine than spring harvested green teas.
Just as sencha differs depending on the region where it was processed, there are also various types of regional-based banchas. Overall, “bancha” refers to a myriad of folk/regional teas produced using a wide-array of methods although they are rather simple techniques. These folk teas are increasingly rare, and I’ve found that even those who live in a region known for a particular type of folk tea may not know about these gems! While some people hold that bancha is a lower quality tea in comparison to a sencha, the local history, culture and terroir that comes through in banchas should not be ignored. There are a diverse array of banchas that one can try, and they can also be great after-teas for matcha!
Furyu Bancha Shop's Awabancha, a rare folk tea from Kamikatsu-cho, Tokushima prefecture.
So, while people generally mention that bancha is a lower quality tea in comparison to a sencha (i.e., in that the cultivation and processing are identical to a sencha and the difference being the quality of the tea leaves utilized to make the tea), banchas should not be under-appreciated. There are a diverse array of banchas that one can try; plus, they are also great after teas for matcha!
Hojicha refers to roasted tea, generally roasted bancha green tea. However, it may also include roasted leaf stems, roasted spring or summer harvested tea leaves, unrolled roasted leaves (usually kyobancha), and other interesting combinations and variations. Owing to the strong fire over which it is roasted, hojichas have less amino acids (umami), catechins (shibumi), caffeine, as well as vitamin C. It is both an aromatic and refreshing tea, pairing well with meals or enjoyed afterwards. In Japan, it is an everyday tea that people drink both hot and cold, and is also commonly served in restaurants.
Dry hojicha leaves, photo by Yunomi.
In summary, what is the big difference between sannen bancha, bancha and hojicha? The main differences lie in the harvesting and manufacturing processes and of course, the three years growth or maturation period. Other than that, these teas are rather similar to one another. In fact, according to Japan’s Food Labeling law, sannen bancha would actually be categorized as a hojicha rather than a bancha because it requires roasting at the end of the manufacturing process.
Japanese Tea Types Diagram by Moé Kishida adapted from the Japanese Tea Test Official Textbook (日本茶の全てがわかる本；日本茶検定公式テキスト).
And what about brewing? Bancha and hojicha are brewed in the typical fashion using a kyushu tea pot, although the water can be hotter than for other teas. There are actually two main methods to prepare sannen bancha. One method is simply using a big kyusu and pouring in boiling water. A traditional way to prepare sannen bancha is on a stove top in a kettle. Just put some leaves in the kettle's infuser basket, fill the kettle up with water to cover the leaves, bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and simmer the leaves for around 5-10 minutes then turn off the stove. After that, remove the kettle's infuser basket which contains the leaves and it is ready to serve. If you make a big kettle full of it, you can continue to reheat it on the stove top or even just drink it at room temperature throughout the day. It can also be prepared and served cold in the summer months. Of course, personal preference is key.
What is your favorite bancha or hojicha? If there are other Japanese teas that you would like to learn more about, please let us know!
Feature image: Roasting the sannen bancha's branches and leaves slowly over a wood fire at the Peace Tea Factory where they processed their sannen bancha in Kawane, Shizuoka Prefecture. Photo by Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu.