Quiz: Which is the better Houjicha?

Quiz: Which is the better Houjicha?

Posted by Yuki on 13th Mar 2021

Today, we'll be talking about the color of Houjicha.

The quality of tea is sometimes more than meets the eyes - but it's still good to know about some visual quality indicators. Take a look at the picture of the 2 Houjicha below.

Which is the better Houjicha, A or B?

Let’s do a quick infusion to take a look at the water color of the two Houjicha as well. I've infused both teas exactly the same - by using one heaping teaspoon of Houjicha to 200ml of boiling water, brewed for 30 seconds.

Here's how they look.

So this is part 2 of our "Quiz" series. I'm doing this again as I felt this is a fun way for everyone to learn more about Japanese tea. The previous one we did was "Which is the Good Matcha Powder?" which ended up being an extremely popular article! Please take a look if you haven't.

Now let's get back to these Houjichas.

Taking a look at the visuals

Firstly, let's dive into the details of how these two Houjichas look.

Looking at the leaves, I think you can tell that the parts of the tea plant used for the Houjicha are quite different. Houjicha A on the left seems to be using strictly the small twigs of the tea leaf, while Houjicha B on the right looks to be using the leaves more, but is basically a very heterogenous mix of different parts.
The color of the leaves are vastly different as well. Houjicha A is a very light brownish yellow - and you can actually still see glimpses of green remaining in the leaves.
Houjicha B is more of a darker and defined brown with a subtle reddish tint. To the naked eye, there are some shades of green in the leaves for Houjicha B as well, but I'm not sure if that's evident enough for you to spot from across your monitor or smartphone screen.
Let's also consider the water color. The Houjicha A on the left seems to have a lighter shade compared to the Houjicha B on the right. Houjicha A has a light golden yellow glow, whereas the Houjicha B definitely has a darker brownish shade.

Which is the better Houjicha?

So, without further adieu, the answer to the quiz.
The answer is....

If you chose "Houjicha A" to be the better Houjicha, well Congratulations! That is correct.

In this case, the Houjicha A on the left is the better Houjicha. (When I say "better" here - it means it is considered a higher grade. Probably a higher chance you'll like it "better", but of course this always depends on your taste!)

Did it come as a surprise that actually the lighter colored Houjicha with some green remaining is better?
The greenish color remaining in the leaves indicate that the Houjicha is only lightly roasted during production. The light-roasted Houjicha is sometimes called an "Asa-iri Houjicha" in Japan, literally meaning "light roast". This methodology is often used when high-quality leaves are used to produce Houjicha.
The reason why light-roasting is applied for high quality tea leaves is to preserve the precious rich umami content of the tea leaves.
Remember that Houjicha is a type of tea that takes normal Sencha or Bancha leaves, and basically - just roasts them. This roasting extracts and amplifies the fantastic aroma associated to Houjicha, but in turn reduces the umami of the tea.
This is why Houjicha is actually perfect for taking low quality green tea leaves and turning them into something much more pleasant. In fact, historically this has been the positioning of Houjicha in Japan.
This is also why, actually making Houjicha with high quality leaves sometimes is a bad idea!
When high-quality tea leaves with rich umami content are roasted, they produce exceptional Houjicha aroma. This itself is great - but it still would feel that the value of the tea is wasted as the precious umami will reduce.
The richness and umami are precisely the value of quality green tea, and it wouldn't make sense to roast them away!
The light-roasting methodology of Houjicha is a way to maintain some of the umami, while producing the fantastic Houjicha aroma. This gives the Houjicha the best of two worlds. It gives the tea a combination of the smoky, floral aroma of the Houjicha, while still giving it a nice substance to the taste of the tea.
This only works and makes sense if the quality of the tea leaves are high.
Therefore, when looking for quality Houjicha at a tea shop, one indicator is whether it has less brown and some green left in the leaves.
*As usual, this is a broad generalization and not all Houjicha perfectly fall in line to this concept.

The actual products in the picture

Houjicha A:

For this Houjicha, I used the Kaga-Bou Houjicha from Koudoen from our online shop.
This is a twig-tea based Houjicha, originating from Ishikawa prefecture of Japan. It's also called a "Kaga-Boucha". In fact the concept of "quality Houjicha" actually originated from this area roughly a century ago. They are the pioneers in taking Shincha (or first flush) tea leaves and using that to produce quality Houjicha.
Only twigs are used for their Houjicha. It is said that the aroma substances produced are much higher when using twigs compared to the leaves. You can say that this is another quality indicator for Houjicha.
The taste of this Houjicha is truly fantastic. You get astonishingly dynamic aromatics while being able to enjoy a good punch in the taste. Please do try if you have an opportunity.

Houjicha B:

This is a Houjicha we don't carry in our shop - but it's a normal grade Houjicha by Taniguchien.
We do have Houjicha from Taniguchien, but the ones we carry are of higher grades compared to the one pictured as Houjicha B.
Nonetheless, Houjicha B is actually a pretty good Houjicha in its own right. (I do think that Taniguchien produces really good quality Houjicha regardless of the grade.)
I really like the flavor of Taniguchien's Houjicha and they are evident in this normal-grade Houjicha as well. This tea allows you to enjoy the good flavor of Houjicha.
However, outside of that, when you drink this tea you won't find any obvious characteristics sticking out. It's just a solid, plain Houjicha. It will not have the amazing aroma that bursts up that can be found in the Kaga-Bou Houjicha by Koudoen.

If you're looking for a Houjicha, it's relatively hard to go terribly wrong with this tea in the first place.
You might find a Matcha powder that is just not edible, or a Sencha that's really stale and bad that you can't finish. However for a Houjicha, a certain level of quality control is there. At the same time, there may be a perception that it's a "low-risk, low-reward" kind of tea.
With this article, I hope this sheds a little light to the range of quality Houjicha has as well. There are actually great quality Houjichas out there too, definitely worth a try.
It's always fun to discover new types of tea. I hope you try and experiment different ones as well!