Day 24. What it means to evaluate tea. #1
First and foremost evaluating tea is hard. Looking at high quality tea and low quality and identifying one as “good” and one as “bad” is far from really evaluating it. While visually understanding the quality of tea is important, many other factors determine whether or not what you brew is great tea (including the brewing itself). Since most people assess a tea first by looking at it, I want split up this post in 2 parts. Factors affecting quality before you would have looked at it, and after you have looked at it.
So today, Before.
I am speaking directly about Japanese green tea, but most of this applies to teas of every style and origin with some cultural/stylistic exceptions. Heres a quick list of factors:
Soil composition, date of the last frost of the year, days of rain during growing season, date of picking, added fertilizers, proximity to the ocean, trees/shrubs growing near tea, varietal, time between picking and steaming (firing), drying time, firing time, temperature of firing, if elements of teas where fired together or seperately, rolling time…the list goes on! It’s overwhelming but totally amazing. All these elements are in play long before we open and package and claim it to be great tea or bad tea. To me this chaos is thrilling. With the incredible amount elements in play, its a wonder how tea produced year after year has any consistency at all. This is where the incredible sensitivity of the farmer, tea estate manager, buyer, blender, and all the other employees shine. Our manager tastes up to 600 aracha samples A DAY at auction and can know immediately what teas will blend well to create a tea consistent with last years offering (what the customer has grown to know and expect). The farmer must know the exact day to pick. Too soon or to late can mean the difference between good and great, and money.
Once tea is picked, processed, evaluated and bought at auction, it is blended and finished. The process of blending requires skills absolutely on par with the finest sommeliers. Like grapes in wine, each tea in a blend is there for a reason: to provide sweetness, umami, astrigency or to heighten or temper elements of other teas in the blend. Rememeber too, all high quality Japanese tea comes from the first harvest of the year and must be bought all at once. Slight miscalculations or errors in judgement mean you have a years worth of tricky or unblendable tea.
Pause and take it in. Heavy, I know.
Then on to finishing which requires another unique and prodigious set of skills. Consider this: Aracha, or unfinished tea, consists of large teas leaves (honcha), smaller pieces, or meccha, and very fine particles known as konocha. Our team takes the tea and seperates all the parts from the whole, fires them separately at varying temperatures for varying times, removes stems and impurities, and recombines them to create award winning teas. Damn! We are the only ones in Japan doing that! And the difference is incredible.
This post is really a way of letting everyone know the how exceptional the men and women of Japan’s tea industry are, and that when you are taking a look at your tea, consider the journey it has been on.
Post #2 in this series will focus on evluating a teas dry leaf and brewed liquor.
Thanks for reading and all of our award winning tea is available at http://shop.teawing.co