What fragrance would you expect in a perfume named "Green Tea"? What impression would you get from an actual whiff? Some may find such a perfume not really that suggestive of green tea, or feel that while it isn’t quite what they’d imagined, it does have a nice, refreshing scent. Green tea is an intimate part of Japanese life and culture. The Japanese therefore have a very definite idea in their minds of what green tea smells like; so when someone who isn’t Japanese creates a scent inspired by green tea, it may strike them as odd. We once conducted a survey of Japanese housewives in their twenties to forties asking what aroma came to mind at the mention of the term "green tea" in Japanese (ryokucha) and in English. What we found was this. The word ryokucha brought to mind things like "green tea in a plastic bottle" and "green tea components," and failed to conjure up much in the way of fragrances - "Japanese scent" and "pleasant aroma" being about it. The term "green tea" in English, by contrast, was strongly associated with fragrance - "enjoyable scent," "an herbal, refreshing impression," "a stylish impression" - and elicited a rich range of aroma-related descriptions: "faintly sweet scent," "invigorating," "refreshing," and so forth. These findings suggest that green tea fragrances and products that harness them have penetrated daily life, and people are receptive to the idea of "green tea" as a scent. Green tea fragrance isn’t something extroverted meant to appeal to others; it’s something that refreshes your own emotions. As such it seems to have been readily accepted by the Japanese thanks to its familiar name and suitability to their tastes, and thus achieved the status of a popular scent. This article traces the history of green tea around the world and examines the historical background - the perfumery trends - within which green tea fragrances emerged. It also surveys some of the best-known green tea fragrances.

History of Green Tea in the West

Tea first reached Europe in the sixteenth century, when green tea was brought from Japan to the Netherlands. It spread from there to Britain and then, in the eighteenth century, from Britain to its colonies. Europeans meanwhile came to prefer black to green tea, and today black tea is the most commonly drunk form of tea in the world. Several reasons can be cited for why the English developed a predilection for black tea. There was the problem of the quality of the water in Britain: it was so hard that when used to make green tea it diluted the flavor and fragrance. The English liked the rich, floral scent of black tea. And the delicate aroma of green tea deteriorated after months and months at sea, so that it was no longer a match for highly fragrant black tea.

The Spread of Japanese Tea

Once tea became an essential of life in the West, the global tea market was monopolized by China. After the Opium Wars, however, the European countries grew concerned about the supply of tea from China, so they turned to Japan, which had just opened its doors to the world and was able to supply tea at low cost. At the time Japan did not have that many commodities it could sell to other countries. Tea thus became a vital export second only to raw silk. As production levels rose, Japanese tea spread across the globe. But then cheap, inferior varieties of tea came on to the market, and by the beginning of the twentieth century tea cultivation was in full swing in India and Ceylon, so that exports of Japanese tea slumped. Having initially won acceptance as a quaint, healthy beverage from the Orient, green tea was now relegated for a time to the shadows, eclipsed by black tea, which better suited western tastes. Another probable reason for green tea’s decline was the fact the vitamin C and catechins it contained became severely oxidized, and its color and aroma deteriorated badly. By the 1990s, though, virtually faultless technology for preserving green tea had been established; and propelled by the health boom and Japanese food boom that emerged at the start of the 2000s, it has again caught global attention as a health drink. A survey of the history of green tea reveals that it became established for a time in the West as a favorite drink. But its delicate aroma evidently failed to make the same impression on Europeans, who drank primarily hard water, as it did on the Japanese. Fragrances may be perceived differently depending on climate and environment. It seems hardly surprising that the subtle aroma of green tea should elicit different responses in East and West.

Green Tea Fragrances

Perfumes with a green tea note first appeared in the 1990s - an era when humanitarianism and environmental issues first entered the popular consciousness, and ecology and a preference for the natural came to be priorities. Fashions became more casual, with the focus on ecology and the natural. Brands like Gap and Benetton achieved popularity with their low prices and commitment to quality. New trends also emerged in perfumes, driven by a preference for the natural and the increasing diversity of people’s lifestyles. Thanks to growing interest in the environment, aromas inspired by new ideas caught on: fragrances of the sea, air, and water that exuded a natural feel and were devoted to the concept of getting back to nature; transparent fragrances, delicious fragrances, unisex fragrances. Then, in the late 1990s, aromachology fragrances designed to be relaxing or uplifting emerged in response to the stress of contemporary society. It was during those years that marine notes came onto the scene. New West For Her (1990) was greeted with wonder thanks to its bold use of the chemical Calone to create a marine note. Other perfumes typifying this trend include Escape (1991) and L’eau d’Issey (1992). Then followed the golden age of the transparent note - ozone notes, aquatic notes, and such. Acqua di Gio (1994), Pleasures (1995), and L’eau Par Kenzo (1996) all possessed a lucid floral note with a natural green or fruity accent. Meanwhile a whole series of perfumes with a gourmand or fruity note were released in the wake of the success of Angel (1992). Fragrances showcasing food aromas, which instinctively soothe the mind and put it at ease, won acceptance, and flavor ingredients came to be used more extensively. On that backdrop the scent of tea became all the rage, with products like BVLGARI Eau Parfumée (1992), Green Tea (1999), and Aroma Tonic (1999) appearing on the market in rapid succession. CK One (1994), a unisex fragrance with the same tea note, proved a huge hit in Japan as elsewhere, especially among the younger generation.

Eau Parfumée (1992)/BVLGARI

Eau Parfumée was the first perfume released by BVLGARI, and its success lead the company to expand into the perfumery business in earnest. It has since been rechristened BVLGARI Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (thé vert being French for "green tea"). The trailblazer of the green tea boom, this scent evokes green tea by combining citrus notes of bergamot, mandarin, etc. with herb and spice fragrances like clary sage, nutmeg, and cardamom. BVLGARI has since released numerous perfumes incorporating the scent of tea, including additions to the tea series like Eau Parfumée au Thé Blanc (white tea) and Eau Parfumée au Thé Rouge (red tea, i.e., rooibos tea), as well as BVLGARI pour Homme, in which Darjeeling tea is the keynote, and BVLGARI pour Femme, in which jasmine tea is the keynote.

GREEN TEA (1999)/Elizabeth Arden

This can fairly claim to be the best-known perfume named for green tea. It is an aromachology fragrance blending essential oils of orange, bergamot, mint, jasmine, etc. with green tea, widely known as an herbal healer. It resembles the perfume above in that it evokes green tea by combining citrus with herbs and spices. With its transparent middle note, distinctive blend of spices, and base note of oak moss, this clean, refreshing scent has achieved popularity in Japan as well. A whole series of such scents has since appeared: Spiced Green Tea (2002), Iced Green Tea (2002), Green Tea Tropical (2007), Green Tea Lotus (2008), Green Tea Exotic (2009), and Green Tea Lavender (2010).

Aroma Tonic(1999)/Lancome

An essential-oil-based fragrance inspired by the aromachology concept. It leaves you feeling refreshed and energized with its accord of fresh citrus (bergamot, lemon, lime), herbs and spices (clary sage, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger), plus a fruity note.

Eau de The Vert(2000)/Roger & Gallet

This scent with its top note of citrus and transparent floral base note remains within the overall tradition of green tea fragrances. But it particularly emphasizes the green note of green tea. It possesses a top note of a sharp leafy green that isn’t spicy, and a middle note of violet green emanating a fresh, raw astringency like that so pronounced in gyokuro (fragrant green tea of the highest quality) and matcha (powdered green tea).

Many other green tea fragrances went on sale during these years, including Green Tea/H2O+ (1997), Thé Vert/L’Occitane (1999), Fujiyama Green/Succes De Paris (2001), and H2Eau Green/Jeanne Arthes (2001). Later perfumes with a green tea accent also appeared in stores, like Eclat d’Arpège Lanvin for Women (2002), SERENITY/Ghost (2003), Paul Smith Rose Paul Smith (2007), Tokyo by Kenzo Kenzo (2007), and Eau De Fleur de Thé Kenzo (2008).

Other Products with a Green Tea Scent

Let me also touch briefly on other products featuring a green tea scent. The number of such products on sale in Japan is truly impressive. The fragrance of green tea, being so quintessentially Japanese, is familiar and well loved in Japan; moreover, it is perceived as having disinfectant and sterilizing properties, and as being soothing and putting the mind at ease. For those reasons it has found its way into quite a wide range of air fresheners, dish detergents, and bath products. There are many different green-tea fragrances out there to enjoy, some of them perfumes like those described above, others redolent of the beverage as the Japanese actually know it. In early 2000, products began to appear made with agents found in green tea and trumpeting its deodorant, disinfectant, and cleaning properties. Then came the green tea boom around 2005-2006. But the boom has now passed, and though green-tea fragrances have carved out a definite category for themselves, consumers are eager for the next new thing, for a fragrance embodying a fresh perspective.

Closing Remarks

Japanese tea cafés and flavored Japanese tea are very popular these days. Some of these establishments are run by non-Japanese. A Japanese tea café run by a French proprietor was featured in the media; seeing a report on an utterly new way to enjoy Japanese tea is a real eye-opener. Japanese tea comes in many different varieties - high-quality gyokuro, powdered matcha, ordinary sencha. There are teas known by where they are produced or who they are produced by, and teas only available at certain seasons of the year. Also important factors are the procedures for brewing the tea, the temperature, the water used, and the tea utensils employed. The deeper you delve into the art of Japanese tea, the more profound it gets. Interest in green tea and matcha has grown steadily in recent years, and the allure of Japanese tea has come to be recognized around the world. New trends in green tea could well emerge under the stimulus of contact with other cultures and other aesthetics, breathing new life into the dormant vogue for green tea in perfumes and other products. As one involved in developing fragrances and as a Japanese, my ambition is to help bring green tea from Japan to the world by tapping its magical aroma.

Sachiko Okajima (2011)

Bibliography (all in Japanese)

  • Victor H. Mair and Erling Ho, The True History of Tea. Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2010.
  • Basics of Japanese Tea. Ei Publishing, 2010.
  • VENUS Vol. 21. International Society For Fragrance & Culture, 2009.
  • Takeshi Isobuchi, A Global History of a Cup of Tea. Bunshun Shinsho, 2005.
  • Masamitsu Takau, Green Tea Crisscrosses the Globe. Chikumashobo, 2006.
  • Masamitsu Takau, I’m a Japanese Tea Sommelier. Chikumashobo, 2002.
  • The Takasago Times No. 150, 2004.
  • World Perfume Collection. NOW Kikaku.