Hojicha is one of two Japanese green tea drinks derived from late-season green tea leaves. This low-caffeine drink caught on in the 1920s, as a cheaper alternative to higher-grade and younger green tea leaves being processed around the country and throughout Asia.
At the beginning of fall, after two or three earlier harvests, the Sencha plant is stripped of more leaves and twigs, then processed for hojicha tea. This harvest produces leaves that make what is known as bancha tea leaves. This leaf is brewed in a specialized roasting process aimed at complementing the leaves' nuttier flavor. Since the leaves are picked so late in the harvest season, they have a tougher consistency and more rustic flavor, which is why bancha leaves are often valued less than other varieties.
The basic process for turning the large, late-season Bancha leaves into the rust-colored hojicha drink usually starts with cleaning, steaming and then drying the leaves in the sun. Once the residual moisture has evaporated, the leaves and twigs are roasted to a deeper brown hue over high heat, which lowers the tea's levels of caffeine and tannins. The hojicha is ready for brewing after it is mashed into small pieces to be filtered by sieves or filter paper.
Bancha leaves should be brewed in a specific way. For every cup, just 1 tsp (about 5 ml) of the leaves are necessary to impart the proper flavor. The water should be boiling when joined with the leaves, and the pot or kettle they share should be covered for at least a few minutes to trap the valuable steam inside during the steeping process.
Another drink besides hojicha that is customarily made with the bancha leaf harvest is called Genmaicha. This exotic version blends the roasted bancha with rice grain during the brewing process. This drink is also referred to as "popcorn tea."
The highest grade of green is considered to be gyokuro, which involves growing sencha, or decocted tea, in the shade. The lack of direct sunlight is said to produce the most nuanced green tea flavor. Several other processes all are considered more refined than hojicha and its bancha leaf.