Sunday, March 15th marked the 9th annual "Zenkoku Gyokuro no Umai irekata kontesuto / 全国玉露のうまい入れ方コンテスト" or "All Japan Contest for Brewing Delicious Gyokuro". This event was held in Fukuoka City and was a celebration of the cultural importance of Gyokuro as a drink and a celebration of the historical importance of its preperation. It was also a PR event to rally support for the waning tea industry in Japan. But most importantly it was a chance for professionals (and serious enthusiasts) from around Japan to congregate and showcase their own personal styles of Gyokuro brewing. Contestants came from the major tea regions of Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Yame and Uji - as well as various other places in Japan. I was eager to participate.
Arriving, the place was buzzing with young and old alike carrying kyusus, houhin, yuzamashi's, thermometers, scales and other things that resembled various drug paraphernalia. The main hall at Shoufukuji Temple was setup with a dozen or so tables with five seats, placemats and six cups. The rules of the contest were: You are at a table of five people and have 10 minutes to brew six small cups of gyokuro. Best tea as judged by your fellow contestants moves on. The last round is Judged by a field of experts. Yame Dento Hon Gyokuro was provided and we were allowed to use as much tea and water as we desired. I had been working on my routine for a while, but my plans changed about fives days before when I learned of the 10 minute format: The tea needed to prepared in a window of 10 minutes. I had a sure fire method....that only took six minutes. That meant my tea would be sitting for at least five minutes before being consumed - cold tea. So with the help of my friend and expert in the field, Shinya Yamaguchi, we reworked my plan and got it down to finishing in 9:50 - just 10 seconds before the deadline. I practiced every day and felt pretty good. But hearkening back to my days of T-ball, no matter how prepared I felt, the other guys always look more prepared. Always. No matter that I had been brewing gyokuro nearly daily for five years, doubt reigned supreme.
The first round was split into two groups of 50 people. Only one person from a table of five would move on. So by the time I went (I was in the 2nd half of the first round) 40 people had already packed up their kyusus and said goodbye (さよなら!）.
My method was this: 12 grams of tea into a cold kyusu, 84CC of hot water cooled between six cups and two yuzamashi to a temperatures of 53C over the course of five minutes. At the five minute mark I slowly poured the water over the leaves and allowed them to steep for exactly two minutes. While steeping I filled the empty yuzamashi and cups with very hot water to keep them preheated. After two minutes I emptied the yuzmashi of hot water and poured the brewed gyokuro into it. I then poured the hot water out of the cups and proceeded to fill each cup with equal amounts of tea. The final serving size of each cup was about 11cc. Very small. Five cups were meant to be judged by other competitors and the sixth was for me to sample my own tea. I thought my first tea was good, but it looked exactly the same as the other cups of tea brewed at the table, so I was pretty unsure. Well, someone liked it, because the announced I'd won my table for the first round. Damn. Surprise.
The best part was the audible gasp from the crowd that a foreigner was moving on. It was pretty funny. There were actually two other westerners who made it through the first round. So in total, 15% of the second round was not from Japan. That is an interesting statistic. Japanese tea is most definitely generating a global audience and this was the clearest example I have seen of it. People are approaching tea with incredible interest and traveling to Japan in the pursuit of finding out more. I also have to add the other foreigners all had suits on and looked incredible serious. No judging but tey just definitely had the "tea sommelier" look. I went the Levi's route - comfort. Always comfort. And a like to think a little style.
The next round I sat out again. The following round was much like the first: I did my thing then looked around thinking "They all look good!" Well, again they called my name for the table - I had made the final five. At this point I think everyone was a bit surprised, myself perhaps the most. I was the only remaining foreigner. And the only remaining male - Just me and the ladies!
The best part of the whole day was the fact that many of our producers came to the event and were cheering for me from the aisles. At one point, someone pressed a phone to my ear with a farmer on the other end who was yelling "Omedetou Gozaimasu!" (CONGRATULATIONS). The other farmers had been calling him throughout the contest to keep him updated on my progress. By far, this was my favorite moment of the day.
The final round took place at a long central table in the center of the hall. For this round we would be using "Norin Suisan Daijin Shou" Grand Prize gyokuro. This was picked among all other teas as the finest produced in 2014. For many, this would be their first time brewing and tasting this tea. But Kettl has a great relationship with the producer and actually sold 500g of the total 3.9Kg to our customers in NYC. So it was special to get a chance to to make a tea I was familiar with. This final round was judged by a jury of five tea professionals from throughout Japan including the president of the board of "Japanese Tea Instructors". Yeah, these people knew a thing or two.
Same process: I did my routine and was feeling good until 45 seconds before the deadline of 10 minutes, I knocked over some of the tea with my elbow. While not many people noticed, I now had less tea and was in a pinch on how to deliver it in its proper amount to the judges. So I skipped the sixth cup (my own) and sent out all the tea to the judges. I never go to taste the tea myself.
After a lengthy break to tally the numbers, I was honored to take third place. I have to say the support I felt from the kettl team (three staff members came), our producers, and people I'd met that day for the first time was amazing. The prize was special but the feeling of going all the way to the finals in front of people who work so hard to make and promote such great tea was an amazing feeling. I'm always looking for ways to let them know I value what they do and am as serious about sharing Japanese tea culture with the west as they are about growing amazing teas. Somehow, I felt like this victory was a small way of showing them that and I felt like they understood.
I have to give a tremendous shout out to all the people that competed, especially the other finalist. I felt nothing but welcome the entire day and it was a special day indeed. And while I'm generally suspicious of contests, it felt like a reminder that we are on the right path with Kettl. And I intend to keep heading down it for a long time to come.