Pronounced with a hard ‘G’ like game or gold, genmaicha (玄米茶 — ‘brown rice tea’) is a traditional Japanese tea blend made of green tea and roasted brown rice.
It’s mild and sweet, toasty flavour makes it one of the most drinkable and accessible green teas out there. Perfect for a burgeoning tea fan. The sugar and starch from the rice makes you feel warm and full. It’s also great if you’re sick and is easy on the stomach. It’s nickname is ‘popcorn tea’, because of the rice that sometimes pops during the roasting process.
My first genmaicha
The first time I ever had genmaicha was at a Japanese restaurant in Halifax on Dresden Row. It’s now called Suzuki, but in 2006 its name was Doraku. I was around 15 years old and went with my friend for dinner. I ordered a tea with my food. After the waitress set down the tea pot, I lifted the lid and friendly little puffed brown rice kernels greeted me. I stuck my nose in and deep a deep breath. It smelled good enough to eat.
The history of genmaicha
Like all good teas, genmaicha has a mythical beginning. It’s said that on a fateful morning in 15th century Japan, a group of samurai was meeting to discuss a war campaign. While a clumsy servant, called Genmai, was pouring the tea, some grains of rice accidentally slipped from his sleeve into his master’s cup.
Angry at the servant for ruining his tea (a luxury at the time), the samurai lord beheaded poor Genmai on the spot, only to sit back down, drink his tea and then realize the roasted rice kernels actually added a nice flavour to his morning libation. Feeling remorseful and to commemorate his late servant, he named the tea ‘Genmaicha’ and a legend was born.
Another version of the genmaicha origin story says that Kyoto merchants in the early 20th century would combine their tea with roasted rice during the war to cut the price of tea and make it stretch further. This is probably closer to the truth.
In any case, we can say that the tea was originally drunk by the poor in Japan starting about 80 years ago, but quickly became popular as no one can resist its toasty, sweet taste.
Genmaicha’s green tea base used to commonly consist of bancha, or late-season, less-refined green tea pickings in Japan. Nowadays though, you’ll commonly find the earlier harvest (and more prized) smooth sencha green tea as its base. This is likely due to its modern popularity.
The rice in genmaicha is toasted white rice, not brown rice. In Japanese, genmai can refer to both brown rice and toasted white rice, so it’s a bit confusing. The pieces of popped rice that looked like popcorn are called hana and are usually added for decoration, not flavour.
Fun Fact: There is a similar tea in Korea, called Hyeonmi nokcha (현미녹차), ‘brown rice green tea’
Cook your water to 80-85˚ C. Steep time is as short as 30 seconds or as long as 5 minutes. Experiment to find your sweet spot. Mine’s around 3 minutes.
Because genmaicha is not entirely green tea, you can steep it longer without fear of vegetal bitterness that hampers many green teas.
The hallmark genmaicha is a nutty, toasty flavour. It’s almost like drinking a rice cake. It might remind you of plain popcorn. There are grassy, fresh and sweet undertones from the sencha green tea base. The liquor is a pale yellow.
It’s healthy, smooth and toasty taste makes it a tea for any time of day and one of my personal favourites. It’s popularity also means it’s not hard to come by. Any tea store should have it.
Are you a fan of gemaicha? Let me know in the comments below.
Cheers and happy steeping!