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Autumn Bancha of Takeo Farm

Today I tasted a special tea from Japan. An organically grown autumn harvest  bancha of the Takeo family farm in the Mie prefecture. Takeo produces organically since 1993 and has been certified in 2000 by JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standard).

Autumn bancha

Autumn bancha

Bancha liquor

Bancha liquor

I am not as experianced with Japanese tea as I am with Chinese, especially oolong. I have therefore prepared the bancha, please forgive me, in a gaiwan. The water temperature was probably about 60, maybe 70 degrees celsius and I used a teaspoon of bancha. The amount of water I have chosen like I am used to: fill up till all tea leaves are covered with water.

I allowed the  first infusion to steep about one minute and poured then the liquor into my celadon tea cups. The infusion is clear and of a intense green. For Japanese green tea, this is the rule but if one is used to Chinese green tea as I am that is quiet surprising. The flavor is fresh with a mild sweetness, clear and unobtrusive. Inevitably thoughts on Zen style with its distinct and minimalist forms comes in my mind.

Teeblätter nach dem Aufguss

Infused tea leaves

Remarkable for this tea is that it’s completely free of tartness. Despite repeated and also prolonged infusions the tea didn’t get astringent. This mighty be a bit disappointing for those who expected a cup with a little more punch. I could also taste something vegetal and, astonishingly for me, a touch of seaweed. Anyone who knows me is familiar with the fact that seafood and seaweed, which I count to the same category, isn’t for me. However, this taste in the tea doesn’t bother me at all. More than that, it completes the picture that I have of Japan and Japanese products like this tea. My impression of this tea is extremely positive especially so since I had my prejudice against machine processed tea. In addition, this tea is rather located in a low price range. Overall, I can really recommend this tea and it makes appetite for more Japanese teas.

 

Feng Huang Dan Cong – Po Tou Xiang

This time I had the opportunity to taste a very special oolong. It’s a Po Tou Xiang dan cong from Feng Huang. The tea sample was kindly provided by Phoebe Lin and derived from the tea farm of her family in Feng Huang. This oolong is heavily oxidized and twisted in contrast to Taiwanese oolong which are mostly only light oxidized and rolled into beads. The tea reveals only on closer inspection that the tea leaves are not only black or brown but have many different shades of color. Since these tones are difficult to see on normal photos I shot a series of HDR images of the leaves.

Setup für die Po Tou Xiang verkostung

Setup for Po Tou Xiang tasting

Gaiwan und zwei Yixing Kannen

Gaiwan or yixing teapot?

For this special tea I have considered for some time how to infuse it. The proven Gaiwan or rather a Yixing teapot? I decided to infuse this Dan Cong in a Yixing teapot. I should not regret my decision as the tea already revealed his potential at the first infusion.

Aufguss eines Po Tou Xiang Dan Cong

Liquor of Po Tou Xiang

From the beginning the tea pleased by its fruity aromas. But, like other oolong this dancong also revealed his whole potency only upon the second infusion. The flavors remained for several infusions and the orange-yellow color of the liquor remained the same throughout. I didn’t count the numbers of infusions but there were a few more than I did with other oolong teas. I sought the ginger flower fragrance which I suspected because of the teas name, Po Tou Xiang translates as ginger flower fragrance, but couldn’t find any. It’s alright with me!

Po Tou Xiang Teeblätter

Po Tou Xiang tea leaves

The infused tea leaves confirm that this is a dan cong of highest grade. The leaves are largely undamaged what indicate that they where hand picked. Only one or two leaves were taken and therefore are only a few twigs contained. The leaves are small and soft, a indicator of an early harvest where the leaves are not fully grown.

HDR Bild Po Tou Xiang

HDR picture of Po Tou Xiang

Finally, the promised HDR image of the Po Tou Xiang tea leaves. In the enlarged view one can see that not only black and brown but also red, yellow, purple and many other colors cover the tea leaf. Overall, this is a top class dan cong but it also quiet pricey.  Due to the high yield the price relativizes a bit but nevertheless it might be difficult to find buyer. We are currently evaluating whether we should take this tea in our assortment or not. The retail price would be approximately 27.– Swiss francs for 50g. Interested parties are welcome to register by mail and may so influence our opinion. 

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Umami – The fifth taste

L-Theanin (Bildquelle:Wikipedia)

L-theanin   (Source: Wikipedia)

Sometimes one can hear the expression umami used by tea enthusiasts. This term is used especially in conjunction with high-quality Japanese and Chinese green teas. Although umami was already discovered in 1907 by Japanese scientists Kikunae Ikeda it’s quietly unknown to a huge part of the population. In addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty umami is another flavor and is therefore also known as the fifth taste. Umami means a savory or meaty taste and serves to detect protein-containing foods.

How umami gets into tea?

What gives umami taste in green tea is the amino acid L-theanine. This amino acid is formed in the leaves of Camellia sinensis. But, during growth a large amount of L-theanine is transformed by sunlight into catechins and other substances. Umami can therefore only be found in young tea leaves or leaves that are protected from direct sunlight. A good example are teas like Lu Shan Yun Wu (cloud and mist tea) and other teas from foggy regions. Japanese tea growers however, have developed a special technique: Kabuse. High quality green teas such as Tencha, Gyokuro or Kabusecha are artificially shaded and achieve the same effect as fog and clouds.

Why is there no umami in black tea?

In black tea and, to a lesser extent, in oolong, yellow and white tea the L-theanines are degraded or transformed by oxidation. Since at the same time bitter substances such as catechins are also degraded those teas are not more astringent than green tea but, on the contrary, even more wholesome.

How to get the umami experiance

As mentioned before young leaves with little exposure to solar radiation are subjected to a high proportion of L-theanin. Typically, these are green teas from the first harvest in spring when the sun is still very weak. These teas are also known as First Flush or Shincha. Also highland teas such as Lu Shan Yun Wu or Meng Ding Gan Lu, which are protected by a thick layer of fog from solar radiation contain large amounts of L-theanine. Another category are teas grown in shadow. These includes particular Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Tencha and the Matcha (which is made from Tencha). A shaded First Flush tea such as a Shincha Gyokuro should have the highest L-theanine content. In order to get maximum umami taste these teas should be brewed around 50°C warm water. At higher temperatures more bitter substances are dissolved and thus diminish the umami experience.

Insider tip

Korean Woojeon green tea is characterized by a special umami flavor and is favorable in price. Through the combination of steaming and roasting, this tea combines features of Japanese and Chinese green tea.

Sencha – Japan’s green tea

Sencha aus 2. Ernte

Second flush Sencha

Sencha (??) is Japan’s most consumed and also the most produced tea variety. This green tea owes its popularity due to the refreshing taste and the numerous variations. Depending on the time of harvesting a Sencha can either get a sweet or tarty taste. For Sencha is usally the outstanding variety Yabukita used which makes up about 77% of all cultivated tea cultivars. But, depending on terroir, are also completely different varieties such as Yutakamidori or Asatsuyu used.

Varieties of Sencha

Sencha can be divided into many different categories. But mainly, it is is distinguished by harvest time and steaming duration. A very early harvested Sencha for example is generally of a higher quality and the tea leaves are finer than a later harvested (eg. Bancha).

  • Asamushi (??), Sencha which was only slightly steamed (about 30s).
  • Chumushi, Sencha with medium steaming (30-90s). This is the standard steaming time.
  • Fukamushi (???), deep steamed Sencha (1-2 min). It is often marketed as Fukamushicha.
  • Jo Sencha (???), fine Sencha.
  • Toku Jo Sencha, (????), extra fine Sencha.
  • Hachijuhachiya Sencha (????), tea that was harvested 88 days (literally nights) after Risshun, the beginning of spring.
  • Shincha (??) is the first harvest of a year.
  • Kabusecha or Kabuse Sencha (????) is like Gyokuro a shaded tea. It’s often regarded as a own tea variety.

Production of Sencha

Sencha is nowadays mostly harvested by machine and immediately steamed in order to prevent oxidation (kill green). This method, also called the Japanese method, ensures that the tea tastes very fresh. However, when the Chinese method is used the tea leaves are roasted instead and taste therefor rather nutty.

After the steaming process the leaves are rolled into needles and dried. The technique of ??rolling green tea into needle shape derived from Uji.

Preparation

The easiest and safest way to prepare Sencha is to use a Kyusu teapot. Thoes tea pots have a fine sieve which restrains leaves and small particles. Experienced tea drinkers however may also use a simple Gaiwan. The water temperature should be depending on the quality of the leaves between 60° C and 80° C. Very fine teas such as Shincha or Kabusecha should be rather infused with a lower temperature while standard Sencha can also be prepared with higher temperatures. The steeping time should be  about 1 – 2 minutes for the first infusion and about 30 seconds for each sequential. As a standard, 5g tea leaves per pot has established. But, depending on personel preference are various other amounts possible.

Which Sencha is the best?

What’s the best Sencha is needs everybody to decide for themselves. Sencha from Kagoshima for example, tends toward a sweet taste because there are often special varieties such as Saemidori or Okumidori grown which do not  grow in the north because of the frost. Also, Sencha from a earlier harvests or from shaded tea bushes taste sweet while Sencha from summer harvests taste rather tart and bitter. Sencha from Korea (Jeoncha) is produced using the Japanese method and is a favorable alternative. Also, a friendly tea farmer from northern Thailand grows Yabukita cultivar as well. But, as his tea isn’t steamed but roasted it tastes more like a Chinese green tea then Sencha.

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Gyokuro – The Shaded Tea

Gyokuro

Gyokuro

Gyokuro (??) is one of Japan’s finest green teas. Literally, Gyokuro means “jade dew” or “jewel dew” and was introduced in 1835 by the company Yamamotoyama. Yamomoto Kahei, the owner of the company, traveled the same year to Uji in order to learn the technique of tea shading. This technique is used for producing Tencha, the base for Matcha. However, the new learned technology led to a different tea – Gyokuro!

Production

Sae Midori

Saemidori tea varietal

Basically, Gyokuro can be made from any tea varietal. However, some varieties have been proven particularly suitable due to color, taste and aroma . Some varieties particularly used for producing Gyokuro are: Asahi, Asagiri, Asatsuyu, Gokou, Okumidori, Yamakai and Saemidori. The latter is particularly recommended due to it’s beautiful deep green color. By the way: The Japanese word “midori” (?) is the word for the color green. To prepare the tea bushes for Gyokuro they are covered for about 20 days before harvesting with nets or with straw. This leads on one hand to an increased production of chlorophyll (leaf green), and on the other hand, the L-theanine contained in tea leaf is protected from UV radiation. The UV radiation otherwise converts the L-theanine, which is responsible for the tea’s sweetness and umami, in the bitter substance catechine.

Compared to Kabusecha, which is also a shaded tea, there are two differences to Gyokuro. First, the shading period for Kabusecha is only about two weeks while Gyokuro is shaded 20 days or longer. Second, for Kabusecha is only 50% of the sunlight filtered while for Gyokuro it’s between 70 and 90%.

Shading technique

For Gyokuro are two different shading techniques (Kanreisha) use: Tana or Jikagise.

Tana technique

Tana

Tana technique (Source www.pref.kyoto.jp)

The Tana technique requires the establishment of frames for the black nets and is therefore very expensive. The advantage of the Tana technique is that you can move freely and the tea bushes can be examined easily. Furthermore, the distance of the nets to the shrubs allows optimal air circulation and waterlogging in tea leaves can be prevented.

Honzu technique

Honzu

Honzu technique (Source: www.pref.kyoto.jp)

A variation of the Tana technique is the traditional Honzu technique which uses bamboo and straw to cover the tea bushes instead of plastic nets. The organic material of the cover also nourish the soil with minerals and has a positive effect on the tea’s taste.

Jikagise technique

Jikagise

Jikagise technique (Source: www.pref.kyoto.jp)

The Jikagise technique uses either nets or bamboo mats which are placed direct on top of the tea bushes. This technique is also used for Kabusecha. The benefit of this technique is that it’s simple to use but has the disadvantage that waterlogging can form which can lead to mold. Furthermore, an examination of the tea bushes is more laborious compared to the Tana technique.

The tea leaves for Gyokuro are after harvest the same way as Sencha processed by steaming, rolling and drying.

Preparation

Kyusu

Kyusu teapot (Source: Wikipedia)

Ideal for preparation of Gyokuro is a Kyusu or a Shiboridash teapot. Of course, a Gaiwan or any other teapot will do but it’s easier with the right tools. The brewing temperature should be between 50 – 60 ° C to achieve a maximum umami taste. At higher temperatures are more catechins released into the brew and the tea gets bitter. In case you don’t own a thermometer I recommend this trick to estimate the temperature: If the water is cool enough that you can hold the teapot in your hands then is the water about 60° Celsius.

Gyokuro can be infused about three times. In my opinion the the second infusion tastes the best. 5g of tea leaves per teapot is just fine. If a larger amount is used then the brewing time can be shortened and more infusions can be made. For the last infusion it is recommended to raise the water’s temperature in order to get the all the remnant out of the tea leaves .

Update

Gyokuro is now available in our shop as Shincha Gyokuro. The used variety is Gokou.

Gyokuru – The Shaded Tea