You are familiar with types of Japanese teas such as Sencha, Matcha and Genmaicha. However, there is a type of Japanese tea called "Tamaryokucha". It means "ball green tea." As the name implies, this tea is not shaped like a needle, instead it is somewhat coiled or comma shaped. There are 2 types of Tamaryokucha. One is Kamairi-cha and the other is Guricha. Both are roughly the same shape, however, Kamairi-cha is produced by pan-firing and Guricha is produced by steaming. Currently only 2 prefectures produce these teas. Ureshino City in the Saga prefecture located in the southern island of Kyushu produces both Kamairi-cha and Guricha. Additionaly, a few cities in Shizuoka prefecture produce Guricha. The total amount of both productions is less than 1% of all Japanese teas. So "unique" is a good descriptor for these teas!
Where does the name "Guri" comes from?
We have often said that "cha" means tea in Japanese. So you may be wondering what "guri" means. If you know more Japanese, you probably know that "guri" by itself doesn't mean anything. And we really don't know how the name Guricha came into existence. But, of course, there are various theories about the origin of Guricha:
A name representing its shape which looks like "guri guri" or a round lump.
A name describing its shape, like "Kuri Kuri" meaning big and round. We often say a child's eyes are cute like Kuri Kuri.
Named after a Japanese Guri pattern which is similar to a western paisley pattern.
Choose whatever origin appeals to you. More importantly, enjoy the flavor of this unique tea.
Guricha is produced in a different way than traditional Japanese tea. Normally after picking, tea leaves are steamed, kneaded and rolled. Just before the last kneading process, the tea leaves are rolled like ball. A final kneading process makes tea leaves straight, as in Sencha. For Guricha, that final process is omitted which leaves the tea the shape of a in a "comma".
Surprisingly, Guricha was originally produced to export to Russia around 1930. In the early 1900s Japan exported green tea much more than it presently does and most of all Japanese teas were exported to the US, but that market declined while black teas from India became popular. Consequently, the Japanese tea industry looked for other tea markets abroad. It found that some exported Japanese teas were mixed with Chinese tea and sold in Russia. So, they made a tea with a shape similar to Chinese Gunpowder tea which was popular in Russia. This opened a new market for Japanese tea manufacturers. The tea was Guricha and it became popular there. Unfortunately, the export did not last long because of WW2. After the war, some Japanese tea exporters found another tea market in North Africa, especially Morocco, and started exporting Guricha to compete Chinese Gunpowder tea. Guricha became popular because it was considered an important vitamin C source in the desert areas. But again, it only lasted several years because of an unstable political situation while Chinese and Taiwanese tea remained strong in that market. Guricha eventually became popular domestically in Japan and, fortunately for us, is still produced even though production has diminished.
The key to Guricha's flavor comes from the production process. Since the final kneading process is omitted, the fibers of the tea leaves ae not broken as much as a Sencha. Thus, the extraction of the flavors including bitterness is slower than other Japanese loose-leaf tea. This develops a milder flavor. See for yourself; try Guricha and a good quality Sencha side by side.