Monthly Archives: September 2017

I Tasted 187 Teas In One Day.

From the day I opened The Tea Crane, tasting tea has been on my list of daily activities. In search of the most pleasurable naturally produced teas I continuously seek to discover new products and producers. Luckily I am right at the source and have easy access to a wide variety of Japanese tea. Some days I only assess one new tea, and on others I may inspect between 5 and 10 products. But an opportunity as the one I was presented with on September 9th is absolutely rare.

Since 4 years ago, the Nihoncha (Japanese tea) Instructor Association has developed a new kind of competition for producers of tea in Japan. The Association believes that the tea auction as it is conducted yearly after the spring harvest, has become outdated. Due to its exclusivity to members of the tea industry only, the assessments have become terribly biased by the preferences of members of this select group. This unfortunately pushes the production of tea in one single direction, rendering it a monotonous product, excluding possibility for variation and innovation.

The Association exclaims that the industry needs more input from the consumer side in order to identify what the consumer prefers as to taste, in contrast to what members of the industry believe the consumer should like. The competition is therefore devised to reflect those beliefs. At first, the judges of the contest are selected from people with a varied background, with the only requirement that they should have at least obtained the ‘Nichoncha Instructor’ license as an indication of their acquisition of at least a basic understanding of Japanese tea. Their varying backgrounds and preferences are considered as a representation of the likes of the consumer. The tea thereby receiving the highest scores is thus a tea that can be appreciated by a variety of people.

Secondly, the competition is open to the public, whereas the auction is closed to non-members. And, third, the teas selected for assessment are divided into categories that represent the wide variety of tea that Japan has to offer. Also, since the production of sencha is currently inclining towards production methods whereby the bushes are covered with black sheets for a period of days in order to render the color of the leaf darker and its taste sweeter, the Association has divided the selection of sencha in two categories. The first category only accepts entries of sencha teas that have been grown without shading in representation of ‘how sencha should be.’ The second category allows anything, including shaded production and blends.

For the past three editions of the competition, selections were exclusively held in Shizuoka. This year, however, for the first time Kyoto was taken as the venue for the selection of half the teas for the first round, thereby allowing members from the Kansai area to participate in the selection process. On this day, the selections for both sencha categories, gyokuro, oxidized teas, and other oxidized and fermented teas was held in Kyoto, and I was invited as one of the 10 judges.

The task I was presented with however exceeded my imagination. From 9am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon I tasted 98 different kinds of sencha, 14 types of Gyokuro, and 75 variations of oxidized and fermented teas. In total, I tasted 187 teas in about 7 hours, more than I have ever tasted, and more than I ever believed I was capable of doing in the span of just one day.

I have postponed writing about this event since I was not allowed to expand on the contents of the contest until the results were made public. On September 19th, the results of the competition after the second selection were made public, and the final round will be held in December. From a personal perspective, I was astonished by the amount of oxidized and fermented, in other words ‘black-teas’ and related teas that were submitted to this selection. I have long believed that there is great potential for Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea, when produced with green tea cultivars. This produces a variety of black tea that is uniquely Japanese with traits that are light of taste and easy to drink, with a delicious fragrance, and a variety of aromas.

However, such teas are still few in number, and although I was glad to see such a number of entries in the competition, there were only few that truly appealed to my vision on black tea produced in Japan. In addition, I see great potential in Japanese produced lightly oxidized (oolong type) teas, and put a lot of effort in sharing the appeal of such teas with my audience. Although I know that only a handful of producers in Japan are currently experimenting with the type, and that there are even less products of the kind available on the market, I was disappointed to see how few entries of this kind had actually been submitted.

It was an honor to have been asked as judge to this competition, and thereby having been considered as a representative of the preferences of the consumer. The experience in itself was a great opportunity to see a wide variety of teas, and extend my own horizons. It also allowed me a better insight in what is currently being produced in Japan, and where improvements could be made. It also provided me with the opportunity to see how the production of oxidized tea is growing, and the potential that there in fact is for such teas of Japanese production.

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A lesson on Bancha at a Prime Minister’s villa

Bancha is one of those categories of Japanese tea that brings about many questions among its drinkers. What is it? How is it different from the roasted type of tea that is called Hojicha? Why do we get a different type of tea when we ask for Bancha in varying areas in Japan? It cannot be denied that this class of Japanese tea is an ambiguous one, and that it in fact covers a wide range of different teas that share one specific similarity; they do not belong to one of the major classes in which Japanese tea is being divided. In short, Bancha is the ‘and other’ class.

Most commonly Bancha is considered as tea that is drunk on a daily basis, and is thus therefore supposed to be ‘inexpensive’. The most widely available types of Bancha are produced from a leaf that is obtained in intermediary seasons when the bushes are pruned in between actual harvests. These leaves cannot be employed for the production of sencha or gyokuro because they are too large and coarse, and thus cannot function as material for high-quality tea products. Manufacturing them into Bancha is a way to repurpose those otherwise useless leaves.

These products become available amass, because the leaf is obtained in large numbers from a variety of fields. To produce Bancha leaves are hardly ever sorted out, and very often no consideration at all is given to which cultivar or which field they have been obtained from. They are a heap of useless leaves from a variety of gardens, and therefore become available in rather large numbers at comparatively low prices.

But this is not the case for all kinds of Bancha. A wide range of teas available under the Bancha label are not necessarily obtained from in-between harvests, but from bushes grown for the sole purpose of producing Bancha. These teas have traditionally been manufactured by local families for in-house consumption only, and hardly ever became obtainable outside of the village. Bushes were cultivated on the road-side or at the back of the house in a natural manner, and leaf was, and still is, obtained and manufactured solely through hand-processing.

Some of you may have already gathered that produce of such a tea is scarce, and contemporarily, since fewer and fewer young people reside in the countryside and partake in farming activities, such traditions are maintained at only a handful of households per region. Nevertheless, Bancha is a term that is very common in Japanese speech and has unmistakably the connotation of an inexpensive light tea. But from the perspective of someone with a profound interest in tea, such teas are not in the least invaluable due to the insight and information they provide in traditional practices and flavors.

Japanese Banchas are indicative of local culture varying for each and every region in which they are being produced. Most teas are still hand-processed according to strictly traditional manufacturing methods and are grown for purposes that not at all focus on mass-production or the aspect of financial gain. They are obtained through natural growing methods, and for the pleasure and consumption of the growers themselves and their relatives.

I believe that if we wish to understand tea production and consumption in Japan from a traditional and historical perspective, it is these Bancha teas that provide most insight in, initially local tradition, and in extension in the development of tea production in Japan as a whole. But, since the manufacturing population is aging and gradually shrinking, these traditions could soon go extinct. It is for this reason, and because I feel that we don’t yet understand Bancha enough, that I for the first time hosted a Bancha tasting during my most recent tea lesson at Murinan (the villa and garden constructed by Japan’s 3rd prime minister) in Kyoto.

I presented eight Bancha teas from different regions, all with different specifications. Some were fermented and others were roasted; some were simply steamed and dried; and another type was compressed in square cubes. The idea was to provide a wide range of teas to taste in order to indicate the diversity of Bancha available, and to break with common perceptions. With each tea, I provided background information, revealed manufacturing methods, discussed contemporary issues with production, and narrated brief historical backgrounds.

Bancha is a truly varied and interesting area to study. But, the teas I presented were not in the least easy to obtain. It in fact took quite some effort, not only because production is declining, but also because the demand is growing. In Japan, these teas are gradually being discovered by tea connoisseurs, and have come to be referred to as ‘maboroshi’, which can be translated as ‘the chimera of tea’ (for lack of better understanding of the English language), alluding to its scarcity and rarity. I will be studying these teas further and will continue sharing information on the subject in various forms, through tastings, writings, etc.