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Genmaicha – tea with a history of blood and remorse

Genmaicha (Popcorn tea)Those of you who have visited our teahouse before will probably have heard us telling some of the legends surrounding a specific tea’s origin. The truth is, most teas (especially Chinese teas) have a colourful story depicting their historical roots. I found that knowing a tea’s legend helps deepening one’s appreciation for that tea. That’s why I decided to share some of those stories with you here on our blog.

I want to start with a Japanese tea which – despite its great popularity in Japan – is surprisingly unknown to most kiwis: Genmaicha or dark rice tea. The discovery of Genmaicha has all the parts that make a good story: blood, remorse and a host of colourful characters.

The legend of Genmaicha

It is said that the origins of Genmaicha can be traced back to one fateful morning in 15th century Japan. A samurai, whose name has since been forgotten, was in a meeting with a group of fellow warlords to discuss a military campaign.
Green tea was served as a refreshment, as was the custom then. A servant of the samurai – by the name of Genmai – was in charge to pour the tea. When he came to his master’s cup to pour the tea, a few kernels of roasted rice fell out of his sleeve into the cup of the samurai. The rice, which he had put into his sleeve as a snack to nibble on during the day, proved to be a blessing for many generations of tea lovers to follow. But not so for poor Genmai.
In a sudden fit of anger about the “ruin” of his beloved tea (which was an expensive luxury at the time) he drew his katana (sword) and beheaded his servant. Ignoring the blood and corpse, he sat back down at the table and proceeded to drink his tea.
Much to his surprise, he discovered that the rice had transformed the tea and – rather than ruining it – had given the tea a flavour far superior to the pure tea. He felt instant remorse about the cruel injustice he had done to his servant and ordered this new tea to be served every morning in commemoration of his late servant. To honour his servant, he named the tea after him: Genmai-cha (lit. tea of Genmai).

A different explanation about the origins of Genmaicha

Not too long ago, tea was a luxury item in Japan that most people couldn’t afford for daily consumption. It was excessively consumed in the class of the samurai, but it was too expensive for the common people.
The rumour is that some clever housewives stretched the precious tea by adding toasted rice (which was abundant and very cheap) to the leaves and make it affordable for everyone.

The true origin of Genmaicha

So, which of the two stories is true, then?
None, actually. At least not fully, although the second story comes close. Genmaicha was invented about 90 years ago by a small tea shop in Kyoto, Japan. Most likely, one of the original motivations was to create a more affordable tea for mass consumption.
The reputation of being a cheap tea has stuck with Genmaicha until very recently and tea connoisseurs wouldn’t have touched this kind of tea. It was mostly made with low grade tea leaves from the late harvest (bancha) and the rice was used to mask any off-flavours.
In recent years, many kinds of Genmaicha have been refined into an exquisite tea, indeed. Replacement of cheap bancha leaves with much higher quality sencha leaves or the addition of matcha (tea leaves ground to a tea powder) have helped to re-define Genmaicha’s image.

Our Organic Genmaicha-Matcha-Iri ($11.50 per 100g) is a well balanced, smooth and highly aromatic genmaicha. The addition of matcha introduces a slightly sweet note, while the lightly roasted rice kernels add a nutty/toasty dimension to the tea.

2 Responses to Genmaicha – tea with a history of blood and remorse »»


  1. Comment by Azumi | 2013/05/15 at 09:41:01

    Blood, remorse, and colourful characters cannot enhance one’s appreciation of the tea when the story is completely made up
    You should certainly know better, yourself.
    I’ve seen this “legend of Genmai” repeated on several sites, but at least yours you suggest that it’s “not fully” true.
    Genmaicha 玄米茶 means “brown rice tea” about as literally as you can come. There was never a servant named “brown rice” nor a tea named in his honor, and readers should not be fooled by the ridiculous story, wherever they read it.

  2. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2013/05/30 at 08:02:58

    Hi Azumi,
    As with most teas, stories about their origin are colorful and often shrouded in myth. Like with Genmaicha, there are usually a ‘most likely’ and several mythical stories.
    I personally enjoy the aspect of storytelling and I do believe that any story (just like a good fictional novel) can help us find a greater enjoyment.

    I do agree, though, that storytelling is something different from education. But for the subject of tea, I believe both are integral parts to further our understanding and appreciation for tea.

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