Category Archives: Tea

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 The Association believes that the tea auction as it is conducted yearly after the spring harvest, has become outdated.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

Three Faces of Nature

The temperatures in Kyoto are at a rise. June, extending into July, is typically the rainy-season. The continuous downpours raise the humidity in the country, adding to the allover heat. This year, for a change, June hasn’t been very wet, and temperatures have been at an average of about 30 degrees Celsius in the Kansai region, which is still manageable. It is only since the past few weeks that weather conditions have begun to transition into a standard ‘tsuyu’- season.

Murinan is a traditional Japanese garden in Kyoto, selected as one of the few registered cultural landscape heritages by the city. The garden was constructed in the 19th Century by an elite government official, and today the care-taking company of the garden is endeavoring to not only open the garden for sightseeing, but also to allow visitors to partake in cultural activities, in a similar way as was envisioned by its original founders. As one of the first activities held in this fashion, I was invited to teach a 5-section course on Japanese tea, which is held in the main building, gazing out over the garden itself.

Not only is it an honor to share my knowledge and vision on Japanese tea in such a traditional environment, it is also the most suitable atmosphere to speak about one of Japan’s oldest cultural heritages, tea, while in a relaxed way savoring tea and a moment with different people in a way that is likely to be similar to how the facilities were used after their initial construction.

When yesterday’s session commenced, the mid-day sun was strong. The previous days too had been dry, and the moss in the garden was about to turn crisp showing signs of dehydration. It was indicative of the heat that we all had to endure, and thus the perfect atmosphere to begin the lesson with a cup of cold-brew Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea. The session was themed around Japanese ‘fragrant’ teas with a focus on Oolong-type and black teas manufactured in Japan. By the time we had reached a second kind of oolong, suddenly lightning and thunder struck, followed by a long awaited intense squall.

The rain was a gift from the heavens. For an instant, it cooled the air, but what was more important, was that it provided the nourishment that the garden was in sore need of. With all participants standing perplexed at the mystical appearance of the garden in this heavy summer rain, we paused the lesson briefly to gaze out. The care-keepers of the garden complementarily explained that the originator of the garden, Yamagata Aritomo, too enjoyed looking at his garden most when it was raining. In this sense, it was one of the most unique experiences, and a valuable addition to our cultured afternoon.

After approximately an hour, the air had cleared. The garden, bathing in a revitalized green with thick raindrops on the surface of the leaves, sent a scent of wet but warm plants upward into our classroom; a pleasant addition to the delicious aromas of the teas we at the time tasted. This made me realize that the aromas and flavors we experience with a cup of tea are not always strictly from the brew itself. The scents of the surroundings do too play a large role in how we taste an experience a tea, and in addition, make it only possible to have the same cup of tea once.

In just two hours, we had tasted 5 teas, and watched 3 different gardens. I couldn’t have thought of a more unique tea tasting myself. The taste of the teas we savored may never be the same again; and the occasion, shared with all attendees, will never return. This afternoon has turned into a treasure to be kept in our hearts forever.

Visiting The Shapers Of The Japanese Tea Of The Future.

Last month, a tea expert from Belgium consulted me regarding a visit of the most renowned tea producing regions in the Kansai area. The three-day tour we put together was not what you’d call the most conventional visit of tea manufacturers the region has to offer. What we did was instead to see Japanese tea in a broader perspective, looking to what it has to offer in terms of future opportunity and progression on a global scale.

The way Japanese tea is contemporarily seen in Japan – and simultaneously how it is introduced in the West – is but a narrow focus on ‘green tea’ categorized in a handful major variations, while leaving a large group of products in the dark, or alienated as mere byproducts. While this focus on what tea in Japan has to offer today has allowed tea production to survive and expand on large scale, it is my belief that in this process the true tradition of Japanese tea has become disregarded.

Since approximately 60 years ago, machinery has accelerated and simplified the mass production of tea. Additionally, in order to maintain the production output and maximize the outcome, farming has become dependent on the use of artificial fertilization. And in effect, by means of protecting the crop from bugs and diseases, this demands from growers to rely on mostly chemical products. While this vicious circle of maintaining levels of produce has affected contemporary farming standards, it has also influenced our preference of taste. Nowadays, a green tea must contain high levels of umami flavor to be considered delicious, and any hint of fragrance due to withering or oxidization in the leaf is considered a fatal flaw to the quality of the crop.

But, considered that prior to the industrialization of tea production in Japan, unnatural fertilizer didn’t exist, and harvest and manufacturing was done by hand, and thus took much longer, it is difficult to accept that the tea we drink today is a righteous representation of Japan’s centuries old tea tradition. To me this is the main reason why I look to naturally produced tea products, and also seek out native cultivars for the teas I offer at The Tea Crane. Naturally produced teas rely on no unnatural fertilizers, and in effect obtain their flavor and aroma directly from their immediate precincts. In addition, native cultivars have grown in a particular region for decades, having thus become adapted to the specifications of the surroundings, which allow us insight in the qualities such an environment has to offer.

But what is most important, is that such a tea also allows us a glimpse of what it traditionally tasted like, and what it as a natural product has to offer. This is why the tour we designed mainly focused on young organic farmers, breaking with the status quo and through their vision and belief continue to offer a solution and an out from contemporary standards. It is this group of producers that is shaping the future of Japanese tea, and that will put it on the map as a diverse and culturally correct product, meeting the standards and interests of Westerner consumers.

I believe that tea is not suited for mass production. On the contrary, it must be savored and treasured with great care and compassion, as it is the life and energy of the bush that we are allowed to receive.

Identifying The Crux To True Tea-Farming

Tsukigase Kenkō Chaen a farm situated in Tsukigasé, Nara Prefecture.  The farm has been producing organic teas since 1984.  The owners nurture their bushes without using either pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and thus provide teas that are both safe and unsullied: free of anything known to be unhealthy, and uncontaminated as to flavor.

After thirty years of serious experimentation, and having realized that Camellia sinensis (the plant from which green tea is obtained) needs no artificial nourishment, they have in short rethought the essentials of tea-cultivation – these farmers concluding that it cannot but be a healthy environment and naturally-supportive soil that together can best encourage tea-bushes to put forth truly-delicious leaves.

In 2011, however, in quest of an even greater purity of quality, these growers abandoned use of animal-waste as fertilizer, thenceforth employing only forest-litter.  Since then, this unusual tea-plantation has – gradually yet steadily – become transformed.

A dense blanket of natural litter is now spread along the harvesters’ paths running between the rows of bushes, this there left gradually to reach that degree of decomposition which allows tea-plants to absorb the nutrients thus provided.  In other words, having managed to reject false agricultural “common sense”, and having instead learned indeed to trust even robust branches to decompose of their own accord, and into a source of sustenance for whatever grows nearby, these devoted cultivators have by now identified the crux to true tea-farming.

Two further factors, both decisively characterizing the region in which this tea is cultivated, are the length, and the sheer severity, of its winters.  These decree that harvest is appropriate only a fortnight – or sometimes even a whole month – after the rest of Japan has started to pick its tea.  These hardy plants are, however, deliberately left without the slightest of artificial aids that might insulate them from the damage that frost can inflict.  Hence, they are left to rely upon their own, natural powers of resistance; and this only strengthens their innate sturdiness.

To specify, nurtured in this Spartan manner, the twigs supporting the leaves grow more densely, and this is how each tea-plant is encouraged to utilize less energy, increase in robustness, and put forth leaf that does that plant – and the eventual drinker – full justice.

 

Iwata Fumiaki – President at  Tsukigase Kenkō Chaen

Tea Doesn’t Need Us To Help It Grow.

Wazuka, a small country town in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture is where there is annually produced approximately half of Kyoto’s renowned Uji-cha tea; in addition, because most of its mountainsides are covered in row upon row of tea-bushes, the area has been officially registered as offering one of the Prefecture’s most notable landscapes, thus constituting part of Japan’s national heritage. And this is where, on the outskirts of the town, the Chaburaya tea-farm is to be found.

The name ‘Chaburaya’ punningly alludes to this farm’s two main agricultural activities, one which is production of tea [cha], and the other cultivation of sunflowers as a source of sunflower-seed oil [abura]. Here, both types of plant are cultivated employing exclusively natural methods.

While what use of the terms ‘natural methods’ and ‘organic farming’ tends first to bring to mind are the benefits thus afforded to the environment and human health, Mr. Noike, the owner of this farm and its chief cultivator, has chosen natural production primarily because he believes that, in order to bear a delicious leaf, the tea-bush has not the slightest need of human interference. Moreover, he points out that, while many may believe that producing a tea according to natural methods involves increased labor, this is far from the truth.

Eschewing use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides means that the work required by spraying bushes and tampering with soil-composition is eliminated, thereby not only reducing labor but also avoiding the expense of purchasing unnatural additives for the tea-bush. And it happens that this approach at the same time results in an unaltered product notable for purity of flavor, and endowed with the traits and strength of nature itself.

The farm comprises five separate tea-gardens, together constituting an area of 7000 square metres, but located in different areas of the mountains slopes above Wazuka, at heights that range from 300 to 600m above sea-level. The soil in which their bushes grow is rich in minerals, and contains a large amount of rock and pebble, these allowing air and water to flow through the soil freely. In addition, since this farm produces both natural sunflower oil and oil derived from tea, the lees that remains after extraction provide the only fertiliser that Mr. Noike sees fit to add to the soil, to further nourish his tea-bushes.

The cultivars grown in these gardens are the following three types: Yabukita, which is the most common Japanese tea cultivar; Okumidori, which produces a dark green leaf with a deep and lingering flavor; and Gokō, which is popular among the tea-growers of the Kyoto area, is mostly used in producing Gyokuro and Tencha, and is often said to resemble Okumidori, but has a slightly deeper and stronger flavor.

 

Yuma Noike – Owner at Chaburaya Farm

The Maliciousness Of Agricultural Chemicals.

Kamo [加茂(かも)] is a small town situated on the southern flanks of Kyoto’s most meridional mountains through which the Kizu river [木津川(きづがわ)] makes its way smoothly-curving towards Osaka. As a former member of the Sōraku District [相楽郡(そうらくぐん)] (with member towns Kasagi [笠木町(かさぎちょう)], Minamiyamashiro [南山城村(みなみやましろむら)], Seika [精華町(せいかちょう)] and Wazuka [和束町(わづかちょう)]) this town is the final stop on the border of Kyoto before reaching Nara prefecture, and simultaneously the most southern tea producing area of Kyoto. It is in this area that Tokuya Yamazaki [山崎(やまざき)徳哉(とくや)] manufactures his naturally produced tea.

The name of the farm, Kamo Natural Tea-farm [加茂自然農園(かもしぜんのうえん)], resourcefully alludes to his stern belief in the use of natural methods only, and the specific area where this farm is situated. As the son of a tea farmer, he grew up amidst the tea gardens in this rural area, and quickly became acknowledged with the orthodox farming routines in this region. In between harvests, weeds should be extinguished employing ample extinguisher; in summer, bugs should be prevented bestowing plentiful pesticides on the bushes; and the soil should be kept thoroughly fertilized with artificial nourishment for the best results of harvest. Such approaches have become common sense, and as a young beginning farmer, aspiring to take over certain parts of his family’s plantation, he learned how to efficiently apply these chemical substances as part of his daily training.

It wasn’t for long however, before these practices started to take its toll on Tokuya’s health. During his youth, he had suffered various illnesses, some of which included acute stomachaches, or numbness and trembling in hands and feet. He frequented doctors, but was never able to gain insight about the source of these recurring issues. The puzzling thing was that they somehow appeared each year during the same period in summer; a period, of which he later found out, the application of pesticides, was at its peak. When he started taking over the methods of his predecessors, and began taking chemicals in his own hands, these issues and illnesses began to appear more frequently and more severely. His struggles now also included severe backache, stress, loss of sight, etc. Yet, doctors remained clueless as to what the essence of the problem was.

His issues became so troublesome that it had started to limit his quality of life, and continuously receiving the same response from doctors also started to work frustrating. He decided to singlehandedly look into the source of his suffering and, to his surprise, Tokuya discovered that others had also experienced similar symptoms. Furthermore, distinct research has pointed to one particular source as the reason of this suffering, a chemical component named ‘Dioxin’ [ダイオキシン] that could cause identical manifestations in the human body as he had been coping with. Digging further, he was able to identify this chemical as an active substance that is strongly represented in herbicides of the kind he had been using in excess. Further research pointed out that most of these symptoms were related to a chronic addiction or intake of an agrochemical [農薬(のうやく)] with the name ‘organophosphorus’ [有機(ゆうき)リン] of which the main component is ‘sarin’ [サリン]. To illustrate the poisonousness of this particular chemical, sarin is the substance that was employed by the attackers during the sarin gas-attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 [地下鉄(ちかてつ)サリン事件(じけん)], killing 12 people, severely injuring 50, and causing vision problems for nearly 5,000 other persons.

Having realized that the cause for his suffering was induced by the over-usage of chemicals by himself and the farmers in his surroundings, and having discovered that these chemicals contain absolutely deadly and dreadfully harming components, he felt urged to rid himself and his tea-bushes of these malicious products. As a means to detox and recover his body, he took up sports again and began to rebuild his muscle.

The impact of this discovery was so great that he immediately terminated the use of fertilizers, pesticides and any other sort of chemicals to his gardens, this however, to the discontent of the subjected plants. The abrupt lack of nourishment, which the trees were used to, made them weak and vulnerable. Moreover, the fertilization that was still remaining in the soil and thus in the leaf of the bushes attracted a variety of insects, which, since he had also omitted any kind of pesticide, were now free to indulge in a feast. In effect, this sudden act almost left one whole farm dead. Taking this as a learning experience, Tokuya opted for a more gentle approach with his remaining farms and decided to first quit the use of fertilizer, and only in a later stage omit pesticides as well. Now, all of his farms have been transferred to natural cultivation methods, and the farm that had almost gone extinct, has also revived to a healthy natural tea garden.

Today, Tokuya continues his efforts to produce a truly healthy and poison-free tea, and has begun to apply the same method on other agricultural products. His experience, and what this taught him is valuable information, which he thrives to share with others in order to raise awareness about the existence of the issues he suffered. His hopes are that this may aid more people to recognize the source of certain discomforts, and in the long run that no one more needs to endure similar hardship.