Mugicha: A Short History of Japanese Barley Tea

Mugicha: A Short History of Japanese Barley Tea

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Mugicha (Japanese barley tea)
Picture: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It's been a staple since Japan's Heian era. Learn about the history of mugicha (Japanese barley tea) and why it remains so popular today.

It’s Japan’s inescapable drink, especially come summertime. You’ll see it for sale everywhere in vending machines. Go to a restaurant and you’ll be served so much you float. But how did Japanese barley tea – a.k.a. mugicha (麦茶) – become such a staple of Japan’s culture?

Mugicha’s history

Historians suspect that barley has been in Japan since sometime around 300 to 200 BC. Barley can’t be eaten directly without cooking, so many reason that barley tea drinking started around the same time that humans began harvesting it for food.

The first written record of drinking barley tea dates back to the Heian era. A description appears in a Hein-era dictionary, the Wammyouruijujou (和妙類聚抄), describing a drink created by drying barley, grinding it into powder, and stirring it into hot water.

The drink made its next appearance in 1517 (Tenshou 15 by the Imperial Calendar). The drink receives a shout-out in a record left by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Toyotomi loosely ruled Japan before his vassal, Tokugawa Ieyasu, subjugated his enemies and unified the country.) Similar records describing hot barley drinks exist from Japan’s Edo era. The drink has been a staple of most households since the Edo Era[2].

June 1st is marked as “Mugicha Day” (麦茶の日; mugicha no hi), as June is when farmers begin reaping barley. It also marks the start of “mugicha season”, when people in Japan begin drinking large volumes of the cold beverage to stay hydrated during the country’s insufferable summer months[3].

Yakan no Mugicha from Coca-Cola

To say that mugicha is a popular drink would be an understatement. According to a survey by Internet polling company MyVoice, barley tea is the summer drink of choice for over 40% of respondents. The next popular drink, mineral water, garnered a mere 9%[4].

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You can easily buy cold mugicha from one of Japan’s ubiquitous drink vending machines. About USD $1B of the stuff is dispensed from vending machines throughout the year.

Barley tea is so popular that even foreign companies can’t resist the opportunity to grab a slice of the market. Last year, Coca-Cola started selling its own brand, Kettle Mugicha (やかんの麦茶; yakan no mugicha). To date, it’s sold over 500 million bottles[7]. That’s a lotta barley.

So why the immense popularity? One reason is that it’s just plain good for the body, especially in the summer months. Barley tea contains potassium, which gets depleted quickly in the steamy heat of Japan’s rainy season. In Chinese medicine, non-fermented teas like mugicha are thought to help cool the body.

Mugicha is also rich in alkapyrazines. These chemical compounds may be effective at eliminating blood clots and can confer additional health benefits. Alkapyrazines are also found in other foods that are thought to carry special health benefits, including cocoa and natto[4].

What foreigners think of mugicha

If you don’t live in another major Asian country, then you likely had to adjust to mugicha when you first visited or moved to Japan. It’s one of those things like natto (sort of) that, if you didn’t grow up with it, falls into the “acquired taste” category.

(I’m led to believe root beer is like this for non-Americans, many of whom swear it tastes like a degenerate cough syrup. My US bubble was burst the day I heard this. The things you learn by hanging out on the Internet, man…)

What about folks outside of Japan who have had it? In a completely scientific (cough) survey, we asked Unseen Japan’s Twitter followers – a good chunk of whom live in Japan – what they thought of mugicha. The results were interesting. (Keep in mind these results are very highly skewed towards residents of non-Asian countries.)

Unseen Japan on Twitter: “Poll for an upcoming article: What’s your opinion of barley tea (mugicha)? / Twitter”

Poll for an upcoming article: What’s your opinion of barley tea (mugicha)?

There’s not a lot of outright hate of mugicha among our audience. Only a small minority swore they wouldn’t drink it if it were the only potable liquid in a 10 kilometer radius. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.) A sizable chunk, however, rave about it and swear it’s better than diamonds.

For the majority of our followers, however, mugicha falls squarely into the “take it or leave it” category.

How to drink mugicha

If you live in Japan and haven’t had mugicha yet…well, hats off. I’ve no clue how you managed to pull off that astounding feat. Go to a vending machine or restaurant stat and have a new life experience.

For those who haven’t had it, bottled mugicha is readily available outside of Japan from major Asian and Japanese grocers. You can also buy it online from Amazon, which sells the Ito En brand in tea bags (affiliate link). Just One Cookbook has the deets on how to pull off a cold brew.

How long does mugicha last?

An unopened pack of loose mugicha tea is a long-lasting product. If stored properly, it should last you up to 12 months without losing much of its flavor. You should store it in a cool, dark place to preserve its flavor as long as possible.

If you’ve opened the pack, it will most likely be fine if you’ve stored it properly. However, if you’re in a high-humidity environment, it will degrade more quickly.

It’s a different story if you’ve already made it, however. Barley tea is best consumed the same day it was made. The starches in the boiled tea will grow bacteria the taste if you leave it sitting a day or longer. Green tea and oolong tea don’t have this problem, as they have catechin, a natural phenol antioxidant and antibacterial agent. Sadly, mugicha lacks this crucial ingredient.

If you place mugicha in the refrigerator to drink it cold, verify that it’s still good after you take it out and before you drink it. If it appears to have mold, has an odd smell, or if there’s slime or viscosity when you pour it, then pour it directly into the sink.

References

[1] 麦茶の歴史. Mugicya

[2] 麦茶のお話. 日本生麦株式会社

[3] 夏の飲み物の代表格! 日本人にはおなじみの「麦茶」のあれこれ. TV Tokyo Plus

[4]【夏に飲むものに関する調査】夏に飲みものを常温で飲むことがある人は4割強。そのうち、「水、ミネラルウォーター」を常温で飲む人は5割弱、「緑茶」が約35%、「麦茶」「コーヒー、コーヒー飲料」が各20%台. PR Times

[5] 清涼飲料水の生産量・販売金額(2021年). JSDA

[6] 「やかんの麦茶」累計5億本、発売から1年4カ月で達成/コカ・コーラシステム. SSNP

[7] 麦茶の賞味期限はいつ?作った後に日持ちさせるポイントと保存方法. Tealife

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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