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.

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