Mugicha (barley tea) is the flavor of summer in Japan
From the archives: We apparently had the coldest spring on record in this area. It's finally getting warm again, and today I started my first batch of mugicha this year. Here is a slightly updated article about mugicha, or toasted barley tea, my favorite non-alcoholic summer drink. This was originally published on May 10, 2007, and updated on June 10, 2008. I've added another update at the end.
When we were growing up, my mother frowned upon most sugary drinks for us kids. So things like sodas were generally not stocked in the house - an ice-filled cup of Coke was a great treat whenever we went out to eat. Things like Calpis, or when we lived in the U.S. Kool-Aid, were strictly rationed. The cool drink we always had in the refrigerator was mugicha, or barley tea. Even when we lived in White Plains, New York, there were always a couple of jugs of mugicha in the large American refrigerator.
Mugicha is traditionally made by briefly simmering roasted barley grains. It has a toasty taste, with slight bitter undertones, but much less so than tea made from tea leaves. To me, it's much more refreshing to drink than plain water.
My anti-sugar mother always made sugarless mugicha, but my younger self craved the sweetened mugicha that most of my friends' mothers seemed to make. I always begged my mother to make sweet mugicha, but she always refused. Some day, when I am the one making mugicha, I'll put all the sugar I want in it, I used to think. So, when I reached my teen years, and my mother was back working full time, I used to pour rivers of sugar into the mugicha. My little sisters loved it. I'm not sure if it made them more hyper than usual, though I have vague memories of my younger sister sitting on my head when she got bored.
Now that I am nominally an adult, I much prefer unsweetened mugicha. I'm growing more like my mother as I get older, a rather scary thought.
How to make mugicha
You can buy mugicha in three formats. The most traditional kind is just loose barley grains that have been roasted to a deep, dark brown. The second, and most popular are mugicha tea bags meant for cold brewing. Then there are 'hybrid' type tea bags, which can be simmered or cold brewed.
Simmering makes the most robust tasting and dark mugicha. To make mugicha this way, bring water up to a boil, throw in the loose grains or a tea bag, lower the heat and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat off and let cool in the pan to room temperature, then strain and chill in the fridge. Allow one tea bag or 2-3 tablespoons of loose grains per liter (about a quart) of water.
Cold brewing is so convenient though that I tend to make mugicha this way most of the time. It's lighter in color and taste, but refreshing to drink nonetheless. Just put a mugicha tea bag in a jug of cold water and put it in the fridge; when it's nicely chilled, the tea is ready. You can also brew it in the sun, like sun tea, if you prefer.
As I've noted above, mugicha can be sweetened or unsweetened, to your taste.
Health benefits of mugicha
Many people in Japan believe that mugicha helps to cleanse the body. There have been studies done that may indicate that it helps to reduce stress and so on. I sort of tend to think that the rehydration factor plays a large part in this but it doesn't hurt anyway. Mugicha is naturally caffeine free.
One word of warning though - mugicha could be an acquired taste. The Resident Guy (who is not Japanese) for instance can't stand it - he says it tastes like hay to him. (He prefers fermented barley drinks (that'd be beer).)
Since barley does contain gluten, gluten-sensitive people should probably avoid mugicha. (I am not sure how much gluten is released into the water during the brewing process, but it may be better to be on the safe side if you have serious allergy issues.)
Buying and storing mugicha
Mugicha (or boricha as it's called in Korean) can be purchased at any Japanese or Korean grocery store, though some may only stock it in the warm months.
The one thing to watch for is freshness - since it uses whole barley grains, it can turn rancid. Once I open one of the foil packs, I put it in a plastic bag and use it up as soon as possible. Any left over is stored in the freezer. I try to use up any opened packs before the summer is over.
For U.S. readers: The reliable Uwajimaya sells House (that's a manufacturer called House, not Uwajimaya's 'house brand') brand cold brew type mugicha and simmering type mugicha via Amazon. You can also get mugicha that's been blended with regular tea and/or other herbs with various health or weight loss claims on them. For UK/Europe: Japan Centre stocks the House cold brew type. And elsewhere, you can order cold brew type tea bags from J-List, who ships worldwide.
You can buy bottled mugicha too, even a Hello Kitty one. You may want to try a bottle of mugicha first to see if you like the flavor, before going for the tea bags.
Update: June 2013 - Tea and me
A lot has happened since I first posted this back in 2007. We sold our house in Switzerland, spent more than a year as nomads before finally buying a run down house in Provence, France. And, after a couple of serious illnesses including cancer, I'm now a Type II diabetic. I don't know how to explain what it's like to be a diabetic to non-diabetics, but the short version is, it's a major bummer. Sugar and carbohydrates form such a major part of a typical diet - and when you have to watch your intake of both, it's just, well, annoying. It is not like having a sugary drink will kill me instantly, but it's certainly not good for me, and if I ignore my blood sugar and keep on drinking sugar-filled drinks the results will probably be dire. And while beverages with artificial sweeteners are available, I'm not really sure what the long-term effects of drinking tons of diet coke and the like are either.
I don't know what I'd do really if it weren't for tea, including mugicha. I have been trying more and more teas lately, from herbal teas sold at our local markets to splurging once in a while on the beautiful and expensive teas sold by Mariage Frères. I've always loved tea, but I appreciate it even more now.
As I wrote above, my mother never let us kids put sugar in our mugicha, so I grew up with unsweetened tea. When I take a good, long sip of mugicha, it brings me right back to my childhood. And unlike many other childhood food memories, this one is still good for my body.