A blank canvas transforms simply with an artist’s stroke. So, too, a plucked tea leaf.
With expertise and mastery, such leaves may retain their vegetal nature and striking green hue.
Or, they may evolve into complex black tea, their molecular changes proven by the reds, coppers, and browns of the cup. And while Japanese teas are generally thought to be green, black teas are also produced by some growers, albeit in relatively small amounts, and not necessarily every year.
For black tea, the leaves are allowed to wither, or oxidize, for several hours (as opposed to green tea, where steam is used to stop oxidization shortly after harvest). The leaves are then rolled, which slightly bruises them, increasing oxidation. After that, they are dried, although not with steam. In Japan, the same ovens that steam the green teas may be used to dry the leaves, just with reconfigured settings.
And when you drink a Japanese black tea, you immediately know there’s something very different about it.
Made with Japanese tea cultivars, the country’s black tea does not taste like that produced in other countries. Similar to other black teas, however, it is made with the older, larger leaves, which can withstand the production process.
Most countries commonly use Camellia sinensis var. assamica for black tea and Camellia sinensis var. sinensis for green tea. The Japanese, though known for green tea, did grow assamica in addition to sinensis at one time, mainly for export to Europe and the U.S. They also developed hybrids of the two, some specifically geared toward black tea production.
The first important cultivar was Benihomare, registered in 1953, followed by Benihikari (1969) and Benifuki, developed in 1965 (as a hybrid of Benihomare and Darjeeling var. Makura cd86) but not registered until 1993. This lag between development and registration reflects the lack of interest in black tea in Japan’s domestic market.
It wasn’t until researchers discovered that the Benifuki cultivar contains a lot of methylated catechins—which have anti-allergic effects—that it grew popular, but as green tea, so as to retain the catechins (which convert into theaflavins when the leaves are oxidized to produce black tea).
While people may have jumped on this apparently easy fix to seasonal allergies, research slogs on. Catechin content varies heavily, depending on when the leaves are harvested. How many catechins you ingest varies too, and seems to be at least partially dependent on brewing temperature (Wakamatsu et al. 7/28/19). And as I’ve said in previous posts, what’s in the tea you drink isn’t necessarily biologically available to your body. This field of study is complicated; still, it’ll be interesting to see what future study reveals.
Anyway, the Benifuki (Benifûki/Benifuuki) cultivar, developed for black tea, is now used for both black and green tea production, and it should be noted that C. sinensis var. sinensis is also used to produce both black and green tea in Japan. When the sinensis variety is used, the black tea is delicate.
And the Benifuki cultivar?
The leaves of Benifuki black tea, from TeaHaus, are long, matte, very dark brown to black in color.
I brewed a heaping teaspoon at 194°F for 3 minutes, getting a cup that’s a beautiful deep reddish-brown color, like a classic black tea (and perfectly matching my teapot and cup color). Its aroma is sweet and fruity with the faintest bread-like note.
This is a smooth tea. I get a mild astringency along with dominant stone fruit, which lingers long and pleasantly.
And somehow, this tea has an elusive something that does not say “black tea” to me. The way the flavor is absolutely full-bodied yet there’s that lightness and delicate nature. The way it doesn’t quite fit a black tea profile. Its forward fruitiness, and yet that subtle hint of vegetal.
Benifuki black tea is truly an intriguing tea—and I love its long aftertaste, fruity and refreshing. It’s an ideal tea for the summer!
–Brekell, P., The Book of Japanese Tea, Tankosha Publishing, Japan, 2018.
–Florent, Japanese Tea Instructor, “A brief history of Japanese black tea,” Japanese Tea Sommelier, 11/1/17.
–Florent, Japanese Tea Instructor, “Benifûki, the Japanese black tea cultivar,” Japanese Tea Sommelier, 1/21/21.
–Wakamatsu, M. et al., “Catechin and caffeine contents in green tea . . .,” Food Science & Nutrition, 7/28/19.
–Zavadckyte, S. Japanese Tea, Kyoto Obubu Publishing, 2017.