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 The Association believes that the tea auction as it is conducted yearly after the spring harvest, has become outdated.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.