Written by our guest blogger tee_katee.
A short disclaimer: I’m not a professional sommelier and any opinion on the taste of tea is a record of individual perception. I make pictures with a basic Huawei smartphone and don’t use color filters. I drink oceans of tea and encourage everyone to do the same.
About 15 years ago I tried a Japanese sencha for the first time. In love with Japanese greens (preferably of single origin) to the present day. The course of my university studies brought me to Japan, where I spent one summer as a tea shop apprentice. With the basics learned, I started an instagram account to share tea drinking experiences.
There is a wealth of philosophy and spirituality behind the the tea rituals. At the start I was in it just for the taste. But the taste was followed by a lot of aesthetic insights and delightful socializing.
When Isilay invited me to write a tea review for her blog, I was excited! It had to be about something special and rare but still typical for Japan. Like this one.
This tea is special and unique for multiple reasons. It is hand-picked as well as hand-rolled, and it is made from the Yabukita cultivar, which is representative for the Japanese greens as the first established cultivar (selected in 1908 in Shizuoka but registered only in 1956 under Nr.6) and is known for the balanced taste combined with decent cold and disease resistance of the plant.
It is also personally special to me as it was produced in the town of Wazuka, where I spent the summer 2019 to learn the basics about Japanese tea farming and trade. I’ll be probably right to assume that I met in person some of the people who participated in rolling of these very needles.
As for the needles... they are beautiful. Longer and more glossy than the common sencha leaves, they also bear a great added value. Hand-picked (“tezumi”) and hand-rolled (“temomi”) is the ultimate class of processing. This is just as far as a tea can go as loose-leaf in Japan.
Hand picking of tea requires a certain skill. You have to pick the young bud and 1-2 tender leaves under it. You should not use the nails to detach them: this would traumatize the plant and impede the regrowth. So you need to learn a bit of technique to perform this.
Then it comes to hand rolling: directly after steaming a hot mass of leaves is placed on a hot metal table, and the temomi master shapes and kneads them against the metal surface to perform thermic fixation - to seal the leaves from the further oxidation. People work in shifts at the rolling tables. For hours. 5-6 hours to be more precise. You might guess how exhausting this labor must be! Only a small batch of tea can be hand-rolled within a working day.
Choosing the default Yabukita cultivar for this traditional process has a refined touch.
It is believed that steamed green teas should not be stored longer that one year. This is not entirely true. Drinking the spring tea in spring is nice. Drinking crude aracha fresh from the factory is a fantastic experience. But if the leaves are stored properly, they can retain most of their chemical components for 2-3 years with minor, almost undetectable changes in taste. Properly stored means: cool, dark, preferably vacuum sealed. A dedicated plastic container in your fridge is fine too.
So here we got a small package of this rare treasure, a 2017 vintage creme de la creme hand-processed green tea from the spring harvest.
The needles are almost black, with a metallic gloss, flexible and sleek. Uniformity is a good thing: the leaves of equal size and shape will release the taste and flavour with one speed and intensity. Sometimes you see broken parts of leaves and dust on the walls and bottom of the package when you are finishing it. Not here. The appearance is exemplary. The smell is reserved but sweet and full of promises.
The package had just 30g of tea. The high quality of the leaves allows a wide range of temperatures and brewing methods. But now I’m just precisely following the brewing guide from the shop. At least in the beginning.
I place the utensils on my balcony table. Preheating the teapot releases a wonderful nutty flavour from the leaves.
Starting with low temperature (40°) to wake them up. The water is barely covering the leaves. The infusion is highly saturated due to the concentration and longer steeping, and the low temperature releases only the sweet and savory amino acids such as theanine (opposed to astringent catechins and caffeine that come into play with higher temperatures).
This leaf to water ratio, temperature and steeping time are similar to gyokuro brewing. Surprisingly a shincha reacted in the same way. The needles released generous sweetness that softly expanded and lingered on the palate. Smooth. Delicate but substantially present. Vegetal. This is what you call an “umami bomb”. The liquor is clear, pale yellow.
The first infusion is elegant. The leaves are slightly uncurling and changing the color from very dark to bright green as they take in some water. This is pure spring green, fresh, young, full of sun and nutrients.
In the second infusion the colour intensifies a bit. The body is full and has a lot of nuances. There is no astringency, just some sheer salty notes complimenting the overall sweetness.
In the third infusion the edges of the taste begin to round up. Still savoury and very present on the palate.
The fading of taste and presence continues in the 4th and 5th infusions. The prescription suggests to keep it at 55°C maximum, but I pushed it a bit with 70°, 80° and, to squeeze out the last bits of taste, with 100°C. Just some delicate hint of astringency in the 4th infusion, very fleeting. The 5-7th infusions were rather weak but clear and sweet, reminiscent of white tea. The 8th surprised me with intense golden colour, but had no taste anymore.
As I mentioned above, the uniformity of leaves matters in the multiple brewing rounds. If there were small broken leaf parts that are drained faster than the big needles, they would mess up the taste after 3-4 infusions. Here all leaves had the same pace in extraction, and this allowed more infusions.
All in all, a delicious high-end green tea of rare beauty. Rather overdressed for everyday drinking as it requires some attention in brewing and is legitly expensive.
Origin: Japan, Kyoto, Wazuka
Harvest time: Spring 2017
Leaf colour: Long,dark green needles
Liquor colour: Transparent light yellow to intense yellow
Tea aroma: Sweet, grassy, vegetal
Tea taste:round and savory, generous umami, with notes of green grass and flowers, no astringency, long sweet aftertaste.
Steeping/brewing:suitable for hot, cold and ice brewing. Dry needles are delicious. Seriously, try some. If you finish at the 4th or 5th round of brewing, the used leaves can be eaten as a salad with a drop of soy sauce. Not as tasty as the used gyokuro leaves though.
Brewing as suggested by the importeur, Yutakatee: 5g of tea with 50 ml of water.
1st infusion: 40°/120 seconds
2nd infusion: 45°/30 seconds
3rd infusion: 50°/50 seconds
4th infusion: 50°/70 seconds
5th infusion: 55°/90 seconds
This tea is a special treat. Most senchas and shinchas endure just 3 rounds of brewing.
Shelf life:1 year normally, can be extended for few years in a sealed package and cool storage. Use as soon as possible after opening, preferably within a month. For slow drinkers, tea shops allow up to 3 months before the taste and flavour decline significantly.