Japan's relation with tea started in the 9th century when Emperor Saga got served a bowl of tea while paying respect to Buddha. The monk who prepared this bowl of tea was monk Eichū. It’s said that after experiencing his first bowl of tea, the Emperor ordered to cultivate tea in Japan with the seed brought by those monks.
Robin Schmidt - one of our Teaists at Paper & Tea Berlin - loves Japanese language and culture, and of course tea, so much that he took a three month break to live on a tea farm called Obubu in the tea town of Wazuka, Kyōto in Japan. Wazuka has a tea cultivating history of more than 800 years and thus was the perfect place to fully immerse himself into the world of Japanese teas.
As - even today - only about 5% of Japanese Tea is exported, there are many questions about it. We are delighted that Robin got to experience three months of tea farming and production in one of tea’s most important countries, so now, back in our stores in Berlin, he is always more than happy to share this newly found Japan knowledge & passion with yourselves, our customers at P&T. Come say hello if you get the chance...
...and read more about what Robin learned about Japanese Tea here. Be warned - this is tea nerd territory, but we love it:
About 95% of all tea production in Japan is green tea. The two biggest areas for tea cultivation are Shizuoka and Kyūshu, which together produce around 70% of all Japanese tea. Except for the location of the tea field, there are two cultivation methods for tea in Japan to differentiate: Shaded and unshaded green tea. When unshaded, obviously the tea receives more sunlight and produces more tannins such as catechins, which act as an antioxidant, but also contribute to the astringency of tea. A green tea with these attributes is our „Mighty Green“. A Sencha that fully immersed itself in sunlight and therefore gained a lot of catechins and a strong aroma with a gentle fruitiness, that warmly lingers in your throat for some time.
When tea fields get shaded, the tea plant prevents amino acids to transform into catechins. These amino acids, especially L-Theanine, contribute to the famous umami flavor in Japanese Tea. To conclude: Shaded green tea has less astringency, but more umami. An example of an unshaded tea is a variety called Kabusecha. Like Sencha, a Kabusecha has the same processing steps but got shaded for approximately 2 weeks before harvesting the leaves. At P & T, we call our Kabusecha „Daikoku“ - the perfect tea if you’re looking for less astringency, but more present umami flavor like fresh tomatoes.
Another factor to differentiate tea is by harvest season. Conventionally in Japan, tea will be harvested in spring, summer, and autumn. Since there is usually no harvest in winter, the tea plant can regain important nutrients, which create a fresh and strong flavor profile. The later the harvest the fewer nutrients are inside the tea, but more trace elements like iron. Tea from later harvests, or using older leaf material, is called Bancha and is often roasted to make a delicious Hōjicha. Our „Daily Toast“ is a deep roasted green tea with a mellow coffee roasted flavor, and therefore perfect for any time during the day. It warms your body and contains less caffeine than other teas, so you can drink it even in the evening. Traditionally, Hōjicha is a welcoming tea you got served visiting someone else’s house or even sometimes when you go to restaurants.
Another tea made of Bancha is called Genmaicha, like our „Grain of Truth“. This tea is blended with roasted rice, bringing a popcorn-like aroma with it, gently roasted, without overpowering the freshness of the green tea.
The most important day in Japanese Tea culture is the 88th day after the beginning of spring (hachijū hachiya), referring to the Japanese lunar calendar. Traditionally around that time, there is no frost anymore so that tea farmers start harvesting and rice farmers start planting rice. The first tea of the year is called Shincha, which literally means „new tea“. Serving Shincha presents you with good luck and much health. Shincha is a pretty limited and exquisite tea, so definitely look out for P & T news, so you don’t miss the day we can provide delicious Shincha for you.
For processing green tea, the leaves are brought to the factory right after harvesting them. For smaller fields and mountain fields, Japanese tea farmers use a portable lawnmower-like machine, which automatically blows all the cut leaves into a big collection bag. In the factory that I worked in, we emptied the bags onto big conveyer belts with fans attached, to cool down the leaves and slow down the oxidation.
Beginning the process of green tea will always be fixation, which means killing the enzymes needed for oxidation with heat. The Japanese method uses steam with around 100°C and takes only a few seconds (usually 20s-90s). After steaming, the tea leaves contain more than 100% water but have to dry down to 3% to 5% moisture content. To achieve that, the tea leaves get kneaded in machines with dry hot air. After drying, the next step will be a shaping machine that will roll the tea into its final needle-shaped appearance. Afterwards, the tea goes into the drying machine for about one hour until it reaches the final moisture content.
Technically, the tea would be ready for consumption now, but not in Japan! Japanese tea goes even further and is now sifted to separate bigger leaves, smaller leaves, stems, and dusty material from each other, to either do further processing or for blending it into the final tea we are drinking.
Thanks to this sifting, a tea full of stems called Kukicha is created. It is still not very common in Japan, but we at P & T very much recommend for you to try our „Kumano“ and form your own opinion. It has an aroma of fresh grass and provides a lot of umami, since the function of the stem is to send all the amino acids to the young leaves.
Which one is your favorite?
Follow more of Robin’s journey on Instagram: @komadori_tea