In the process of making sencha, the very first step is to steam the picked tea leaves at a high temperature. This process of steaming stops the oxidation of the tea leaves and drives off the not so pleasant aroma of the fresh tea leaves. The tea leaves that have been softened through steaming are then rolled and dried in several stages to create the sencha that we then drink. Whereas a regular sencha requires 30 ~ 40 seconds of steaming, fukamushi sencha refers to tea that was steamed for about a minute (of course, the time will vary depending on the producer and may exceed one minute).
Distinct characteristics of fukamushicha
In comparison to lightly steamed sencha, deep steamed tea has been noted to have the following characteristics:
- Less shibumi (bitterness)
- Mellow, rich in flavor
- When steeped, darker/deeper green color
- Not too aromatic
- Tea leaves are finer and appear to be broken
These characteristics are owing to the fact that by steaming for a longer period of time, the bitterness and aroma of the tea leaves is somewhat suppressed. On the other hand, the outcome is a flavor rich tea (Japanese: 濃くのある茶; koku no aru cha). Additionally, because the cells of the tea leaves are destroyed from the longer steaming period, the tea leaves more readily break apart in the drying and rolling process. If you are familiar with the dry leaves of a fukamushi sencha, you have probably noticed that while slender tea leaves are present, it often appears powdery and broken. When steeped, the water becomes a deep, opaque green with the suspended leaf particles. Some may even note that it is a cloudier green color (but don’t be surprised, this is what fukamushi sencha looks like when steeped!). That being said, with deep steamed tea, one is actually drinking much more of the leaf and its components - catechin, cholorophyll, theanine, vitamins, minerals (see: Nutrition Chart for further details).
As a side note, asamushicha or light-steamed tea refers to a typical sencha. Generally, the highest quality teas are light-steamed for a duration of about 30 seconds. In contrast to deep steaming, light steaming will preserves the shape of the leaf. One may also come across a description of “chumushi”, which refers to mid-steamed tea. With mid-steaming, the tea leaves are again broken down making it easier to draw out more flavor but not to the point of deep steaming. Below, I provide a table highlighting some of the key characteristics of an asamushicha, chumushicha, and fukamushicha. The table may make it easier for you to note the differences.
Side-to-side images of the leaf shapes of light steamed tea from Obubu Farms (Sencha of the Spring Sun 2023; Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture) on the left and Murata Tea Garden’s Tsuyuhikari cultivar fukamushicha 2023; Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture). For chumushicha (mid-steamed tea), one would see leaf shapes of somewhere in between.
Typical Color of asamushicha (left) and fukamushicha (right).
History of deep steamed tea
If you are up to date with Japanese tea history, you may recall that sencha was invented 255 years ago in the year 1768 by Nagatani Soen in the Ujitahara region of Kyoto Prefecture. Soen, known as the father of Japanese tea, invented the method of steaming tea leaves instead of pan-firing them. Deep steaming tea leaves however, is likely to have begun in the Makinohara Plateau of Shizuoka Prefecture in the 1950’s.
This story is picked up on the fukamushicha page on the Yunomi site but we'll repeat it here, too. During the feudal period in Japan (or the Edo Period ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1600-1868), travel in this area required employing ferrymen to cross the Oigawa River. When a bridge was built over the river by the Meiji government that took power from the Tokugawa Shogunate, the entire ferrying industry turned towards farming. And, at the start of the new Meiji era in 1872, a 500 hectare site was set aside for farming tea. There are various theories about the establishment of the process for making deep-steamed tea and it cannot be pin-pointed to any particular town due to the lack of historical documents. Still, it is said that the process was established in the Makinohara Plateau area from the 1950s through continuous trial and error. Currently, four neighboring cities in Western Shizuoka Prefecture - Kikugawa, Makinohara, Kakegawa, and Shimada -claim to be the birthplace of deep steaming.
Although today, Makinohara is very highly regarded as one of the top tea producing regions in Japan, it was not always so. This is because the area itself had soil that was quite poor for farming rice and other food crops. It has long been thought that tea grown along mountain rivers with early morning mist and large day-night temperature differences produce the best quality tea. Conversely, tea grown around the Makinohara area, a relatively warm, flat area, tended to produce a strong, bitter and astringent flavored tea and was not popular amongst the general public. This has something to do with the length of daylight hours and temperature regime. Compared to mountains with morning mist, the tea growing environment in Makinohara has longer sunshine hours. Consequently, the tea leaves in the plain of Makinohara grew faster in the flat plain of Makinohara, became too thick, stiff and have a different chemical profile.
Deep steaming was therefore employed to soften the leaves, creating what we know today as fukamushicha. The initial site is now the famous Makinohara tea fields, some 6,000 hectares farmed by hundreds of families. The method of deep steaming gained its popularity in the 60s and is now utilized all over Japan. More recently, it also gained national attention when a television program spotlighted the longevity of the people of Makinohara city in the year 2011. The program indicated that the people of Makinohara city, from children to the elderly drank many cups of fukamushi sencha on a daily basis. Later on, there was again increased interest in the health benefits of the added nutrients of fukamushi sencha. Nowadays, deep-steamed sencha is produced all over Japan, and it is said that its production volume exceeds that of young steamed sencha (aka asamushi sencha).
Main tea growing regions of fukamushicha
As noted above, fukamushi sencha is grown all over Japan but there are several areas that stand out. Besides the four main cities mentioned above in Shizuoka prefecture, one will find that fukamushi-sencha is more common in certain areas of Japan, such as Kagoshima prefecture.
This is because in general, there are two types of tea farms in Japan. One is the tea farms situated on the slopes of hills and in the mountains. Famous tea producing areas for this first type of tea fields can be found in Kyoto (Ujicha area), Honyamacho in Shizuoka Prefecture, Yabe village in Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture and more. The size of these tea gardens/farms are smaller and harvesting tea with self propelled, tractor like machines is not possible, and the quantity of tea from harvesting will naturally be less. The other type of tea fields are situated on open flat farmlands (Kagoshima is a very good example), more suited for mass production. These will produce greater quantities of tea using large and efficient machinery.
Tea fields of Sueyoshi Tea Atelier in Soo, Kagoshima Prefecture. Tea farmer Mataki Tatefumi makes excellent deep steamed kabusecha, one being the multiple award-winning "Furusato no Hana" saemidori cultivar.
Fukamushi-sencha is better suited for the vast flat tea fields that do not have too many obstacles blocking the sunlight from the tea leaves. Thus, the tea leaves of these tea farms will naturally become thick. If these leaves are taken to make a normal sencha, the taste may not be as pleasant. The fukamushi sencha methodology allows these thickened leaves to become more delicate and more suitable for infusion. This is why in large production areas such as Shizuoka and Kagoshima Prefectures, the fukamushi sencha is indeed an important product.
Steeping tips for fukamushicha
While the origins of fukamushi sencha may have been rooted in improving less desirable tea, deep steaming has its own merits. Today, the methodology of making deep steamed tea is a very respected one. There are many producers who employ deep steaming techniques and they do an excellent job in making high quality, noteworthy tea. Further, regardless of the terroir of the tea, there are some producers that make both types of tea (light steamed and deep steamed) as the differing processing methods allows one to enrich one's tea offerings.
To wrap up today’s post, here are just a couple of tips to fully enjoy your fukamushi sencha. Because the tea leaves you encounter with this type of sencha are finer, it's important to keep in mind that the flavors are easier to extract. That being said, with fukamushi sencha, the steeping time does not need to be very long. Often, one will find steeping times around 30 seconds ~ one minute. In fact, oversteeping the tea will extract unnecessary/excess ingredients from the tea. Personally, for me, it is very easy to let my tea steep for longer rather than being too short. However, when preparing a fukamushi sencha, I try to be extra careful about oversteeping. Well, the most important aspect is to enjoy the tea drinking experience (so, no pressure!).