In Japan to visit with our growers and say Happy New Year. I always find myself here during holidays (Golden Week, New Years, Obon). While nowhere near as cold as New York City currently is, Fukuoka was chilly today and the fog was drifting on top of the mountains between Jouyou and Hoshinomura. Amidst the exchanges of holiday wishes, we found several exciting new teas - and ordered them on the spot. A winter release shincha which was aged in cold storage for 8 months, two new sencha, a very high grade limited release matcha, and two new Dento Hon Gyokuros - one being the 71st grand prize (we had these same leaves earlier this year, but they were finished by a different producer) which we will be offering again at a lower price point. We are reworking on pricing and hoping to bring greater value to our customers by tweaking our operational approach. Thank you for reading and keep an eye out for those teas to hit the site within the next 10 days.
The question I get asked about at the shop most frequently is in regards to properly making matcha. A sense of frustration and slight embarrassment often foreshadows the question - “So how do you make matcha?”
I say most simply that making a good bowl of matcha requires just a few tools but does take practice. People often become frustrated that their first and second matcha aren’t beautiful and they throw in the towel. Like anything, getting it right is a process and may take you more than a few attempts before you are satisfactory.
A few thoughts before we get started.
So many matcha companies have sprouted up over the last few years and they are vying for your purchase. I am a major proponent of trying as much matcha (this applies to anything you want to invest your time in learning) as possible. The practice of drinking matcha from multiple vendors will help you develop your own palate - so you alone can distinguish what pleases you. Now there is so much marketing and hype around these "rare" and "ceremonial" matchas. Does that mean they are all good? No. But developing your own "flavor bank" will equip you to make choices based on your own experience of quality and what you have found you like. Not what someone else tells you. I really feel this is key.
I am confident that Kettl sources pinnacle grades teas, transports (airshipping) and stores (cold storage) them with freshness in mind - and we have our point of view sourcing teas that are fresh, sweet, savory and incredibly fragrant. But I would never tell someone they should only buy from us. Especially right off the bat. I would rather sell tea to someone who has tasted what is out there and decided they appreciate what we do rather than trying to steer them from the competition. In my mind the best teas I have had in Japan are from the least salesy growers. I take my ques from them. Generally speaking, avoid tea gurus. They are hiding something.
Now Lets get started.
1. Boil your water. It is true that a water temperature below a near boil (208-212F) is ideal for matcha but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t boil your water. Always bring fresh spring water to a boil and then allow it to cool. Don’t turn the kettle off before a boil - the actual process of boiling the water makes a significant difference in teas overall character. As water moves toward the boiling point, the dissolved oxygen in the water changes and while I can't explain it scientifically, it enhances the flavor of the tea. Once the water is off a boil, pour a small amount into your tea bowl - allow the water to sit and heat the bowl for about a minute. You can then pour that water off and pat dry the bowl. The act of preparing to make tea is naturally relaxing if you are in the right environment and frame of mind. There is something about making matcha that naturally lends itself to calming the mind and creating a sense of space - I experience this much more with matcha than other types of tea. Of course, your practice of making tea is your own.
2. You now want to portion out about 3 spoonfuls of matcha with a chashaku (Japanese bamboo matcha scoop). The total amount of matcha should be around 2g. It is important that the matcha is sifted to avoid clumps and to improve mouthfeel. You can pre-sift into a canister or sift directly into the bowl. Do note, pre-sifting large batches can sometimes prove pointless - clumping in matcha most often happens due to static electricity that builds up between the small particles of tea. If the tea is sifted and sits for an extended period, the clumps may return. Use your judgement.
3. I like to pour the water from the kettle (likely now around 195-200F) into an intermediary pouring vessel like a Yuzamashi or even just a tea cup. This allows the water too cool slightly to a perfect 190°F. Don’t allow your water to become to cool - this will hinder the matcha foam “coming together” and will do more harm than good for the outcome of your final matcha.
4. Use a bamboo whisk (chasen) to fold the water and tea together. Begin whisking in a rapid “Z” motion. You want the whisk to be touching the bottom of the bowl and have some friction, but please don’t smash it into the bowl either. Use your wrist in a paddling motion (the motion of shooing away a fly) and aim for the widest lateral movement possible. I try to whisk from one edge of the bowl to the other. Avoid a short pattern that just stays in the middle of the bowl - go for it! (But avoid whisking a circle).
5. After about 20 seconds you can bring your whisk the surface and gently and slowly whisk away any large bubbles. The surface should look like a tightly woven microfoam - think espresso or meringue.
6. Drink directly from the bowl in roughly 3 sips - savor the moment but don’t wait too long. A matcha is a suspension of tea particles and water and doesn’t not improve over time.
Some final thoughts on matcha:
MADE FROM SHADED GREEN TEA LEAVES ————-
==+++ SERVED IN A BOWL USING ABOUT 2OZ OF WATER @ 190F AND 2-3 GRAMS OF TEA.
—— MADE WITH A CHASEN, OR WHISK…
—-MODERATE TO HIGH IN CAFFEINE AND A INCREDIBLE SOURCE OF L-THEANINE, AN AMINO ACID THAT PROMOTES RELAXED FOCUS ######
< THE TEA THAT INSPIRED CHA-NO_YU, OR JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY…
——- MATÉ ——-
—— A CURE ALL ——-
/// AS EXPENSIVE PER SERVING AS PEOPLE THINK.
—- GONNA DRINK ITSELF***********************************************!
Idea #1. If you find yourself with a morning on your hands, capitalize! Brewing gyokuro kouridashi style, also known as cold brewing, takes a bit of time, but is an incredible way to distill the essence of your tea.
2. add 8 grams of gyokuro to a cold teapot / 5 grams for sencha
3. add 3 medium sized ice cubes.
4. cool a bit of boiled water, add maybe half an ounce of hot but not boiling water over top the ice to aid in melting.
5. Play with your cats for 15 mins. Tea can be steeped much longer this way as cold water will not draw our the natural astringency like hot water does.
6. slowly pour out the tea making sure to shake out the last drops.
7. Enjoy the essence of the tea. The quality and character of the tea will indicate the experience. I used our Ayame and found it buttery, floral and completly free of astringency. I can’t get enough. Additional notes were:
steamed greens, cherry, cola, pine and lillies (lillies were once in the same family as asparagus so they get referenced frequently)
Again, this is a great way to observe how brewing plays such a major role in a teas flavor profile. One tea is really many teas. Brewing can draw out several versions of the teas flavor. Have fun.
Use code ICEBREW for 15% off orders of $75 this weekend only!
The very first stop on our 2017 sourcing trip was a a visit to Ureshino township in Saga prefecture. Saga is nestled to the west of Fukuoka and Ureshino is celebrated for two things: hot springs and tea. Heaven on earth. Ureshino is a relatively small production area with roughly 1,350 tons of raw tea produced in 2015. That would place it seventh in terms of total production in Japan. While on the smaller side, Ureshino stands apart from most other production areas in that it produces two distinct styles of tea: Tamaryokucha and Kamairicha.
Tamaryokucha is a steamed sencha that (basically) does not undergo a final rolling stage. The leaves are left curly and "comma shaped" - this style is sometimes referred to a "goishicha" in other places in Japan. Kamairicha on the other hand is a cultural hold over from teas introduction from China in that the leaves are pan fired (dry heat) as opposed to the common steaming method (wet heat) used throughout Japan. When tea arrived from China it was introduced through the ports of Nagasaki, Saga and Miyazaki so you still see the remanents of that influence throughout southern Kyushu.
Throughout the the year we feature several from this area - last year (and again in a month or so) we featured two Kamairicha, both from unique varietals, and an oolong. We were impressed to find one of the more unique shinchas we've ever had, our Tamaryokucha. This wonderful spring harvest tea is grown from 100% Saemidori cultivar. Saemidori has become increasing popular due to its hardiness, high yield, early maturation, and natural sweetness. While Saemidori can sometimes express itself in an overly "sweet" way in the hands of certain producers, we found this one, made by the venerable Oota san, to be just a plain joy to drink.
Grown in the hills of Ureshino, tucked away from the "town" center, Oota san uses no inorganic fertilizer or pesticides. His fertilizer of choice consists of "aburakasu" - the left over plant materials after soybeans are pressed for their oil. For insect repellent, Oota san uses a combination of water and sugar to protect the leaves and provide an alternative menu to the bugs - eat the sugar, not the leaf. He is one of just three farms in the area (there are over 300) that chooses to farm this way, aligned with nature and allowing the plants to express themselves naturally.
Looking at the leaves - they have an unpolished "rawness" about them - not perfectly crafted as many teas boast. But the flavor and aromas of these teas are incredible - rich, deep, compelling. The harmonics are not always in the obvious "major chord" stacking of Fresh - Sweet - Umami that you see in many teas now in Japan created to please the modern palate. The land, air and unblended character of the tea plant comes through. I feel Oota san truly lets the tea work through him. He is a minimalist in production in a sophisticated sense. His personality is soft spoken and polite - but he is also an experienced Judo champion. His teas seem to follow the same path - a quiet combination of humility and simplicity with a inner depth and excitement that is so compelling.
Oota san's production amount is low - but we will continue to feature his teas and sell them until they're sold out for the year. We invite you not to miss out. They're are truly not that many people continuing to make tea this way in Japan anymore. When asked why, in the spite of an already difficult industry, Oota san wants to make such unique and challenging tea - He just calmly replied "I think this way is best". So do we.
After an immense break of nearly two years, I am committed to bringing life back to the "blog". I can be heard day in and day out extolling the importance of "telling the story" - so it seems all-the-more important to be using this venue to do just that. In the upcoming weeks it will be easy as the amount of contact with exciting content is virtually endless (I am currently in Japan meeting (primarily new, but many old as well) producers and tasting 2017's very first harvest. Please check back often and tune in for plenty of photos of tea plants, tea farmers, me in a field, me next to a river, etc. But moving forward I also hope to have more to write about as it relates to Kettl's ongoing evolution with tea, food, education, design, and the sharing of our community.
I apologize for being gone so long, and I couldn't be more happy to be back.
Buy One Thing Once
Purchase something useful that you love, and use until it is broken, stolen, or lost. In the case of this tea bowl - treat it with respect. Use it daily. Handle it. Wash it. Dry it. Display it somewhere safe where you can view it throughout the day and appreciate it. Simply, enjoy your time together.
We are more than excited to announce we will be partnering with the wonderful folks at Okonomi / Yuji Ramen to bring you Kettl's very first retail outpost. We are big fans of Okonomi and have watched them evolve from a pop up store to Brooklyn's premiere Japanese eatery. Kettl will be running our small shop out of Okonomi's second story gallery, omiyage, and will be the only place in NYC where you can find our full range of teas - as well as Okonomi's line of pottery.
Come by and taste some tea and learn more about Kettl. We look forward to meeting you.
Kettl x Okonomi Pop Up Tea Shop, 150 Ainslie St. Brooklyn, NY SATURDAYS 11-3pm
Kawane, the jewel of Shizuoka
Shizuoka is vast area that includes cities, flatlands, and forests perched steep on the side of mountains. Mount Fuji stands adjacent to Sagura Bay and quietly stands as a beacon indicating south for half the prefecture and north for the other half. The prominent hills of Mount Daimugen, Mount Shiomi, and Mount Notori dissect Shizuoka at the middle. Out of these peaks runs the Oii river that feeds into the famous village of Kawane. Kawane nestled high in Mount Maru and Mount Hakko, is perhaps the most coveted plot of tea real estate in Shizuoka. Kawane remains so famous that many teas are marketed just as "Kawane Cha" leaving out Shizuoka all together. Why is this? Well, its a lot of reasons.
Having a tea farm on the side of a mountain is complicated for the obvious reasons: tilling, fertilizing, picking and transporting the tea can be treacherous as well as down right hard work. Many tea plots in Kawane are so precariously positioned that a special monorail system must be ridden up the steep hills just to get there. And the same goes for getting the tea back out - down the monorail. Useable land for tea farms is also limited to due to restrictions on land use, forestry laws, and the amount of sunlight available at different locations. So in short, having a healthy and legal plot and the energy to use it is rare. Luckily for us though, there is a network of dedicated farmers producing some of the finest sencha in Japan.
What is it about Sencha from Kawane thats so special? Well, the varieities of tea leaf (tea is like apples and can be grafted to create distinct varieties like granny smith or macintosh apples) grown in this region is vast and many aren't produced (at any scale) anywhere else in Japan. For example, upwards of 75-80% of tea grown in Japan is of the Yabukita cultivar. Yabukita was developed in Shizuoka and is now propagated from Saitama to Kagoshima. Popularity grew due to it being hearty, consistent, and producing a color and flavor preferred by many of Japanese tea drinkers. But in Kawane you'll find unique "mountain" varieties. For example, this year we received the following samples all grown by one farmer: Saemidori, Harumidori, Midori, Akogare, Harukaze, Sahohime, Yamakai, Tsukusumi, Koushun, Tsuyuhikari and Soufou. Many farmers elsewhere grown only a few and sometimes even one variety. Having access to great tea from Kawane means you can taste a whole new spectrum of flavors quite different from the bulk of teas on the market.
So how would you categorize Kawane tea? Well its almost exclusively light steamed (asamushi) tea which makes for a more delicate cup on the whole. The needle shape of the leaf is stunning - Shizuoka in general and Kawane specifically are famous for the beautify of their leaves. These stunning leaves have a soft aroma compared to their deep steamed siblings. The "scent of the mountains" is often used to describe the dry leaf. The leaf can seem drier and a but stiffer as well - many of the varieties used are heartier breeds that do better high in the mountains. The cool nights can kill some of the southern growing species like Asatsuyu and Yutaka Midori that do so well in warm regions like Kagoshima. The liquor of Kawane tea tens toward golden, straw, yellow and sometimes even a orange in hue. The taste is light on the palate with a wonderful fresh aroma and very mild to non existent umami, depending. You'll often notice an almost spicy note that is similar to mountain herbs or wild greens - Kawane teas tend to be higher in catechin (adding spice or slight astrigency) due to leaf variety and abundance of direct sunshine. Intense mineral and floral notes are also common. It is really fun to taste these teas next to Yame's big, bold, umami driven senchas and note the differences. I guess the word gentle and fresh would sum up the impression that Kawane teas will leave you with.
I can't speak enough to the people working in Kawane. Many of the farmers are older and may or may not be passing their farms down to their children. It remains to be seen how long many of the currently operating farms will go on for. Not to sound dour, but there is no doubt 20 years from now less people will be farming this region than more. But today, we are proud to work with some of the most well known personalities from Kawane who have been working tirelessly for decades to bring these special teas to market. To be clear, almost all farmers we meet, whether we decide to work with them or not, are hardworking, committed, and take their jobs seriously. That being said, we have found some the most unique and creative people in this relatively small mountain side village of Kawane.
Shizuoka Tea Auction: Photos
The center of activity for nearly a month every spring is the aracha auction where thousands of tons of tea are bought and sold. Located in central Shizuoka, farmers, wholesalers and prefectural agricultural representatives gather to participate in bidding on lots of raw tea that will later be processed into finished products. The scene is lively and has, by Japanese standards, a relaxed and carefree vibe - formalities are at a minimum. The hat colors represent whether the person is a farmer (green), buyer (blue), or representative of the Shizuoka tea association (Yellow). The process is rhythmic - Inspect the dry leaf with one hand, raise to your nose and inhale, smell the wet leaf, slurp the tea. Everyone is focused. Everyone has tea leaves on their face. Everyone tallies with an abacus. It's heaven.
Use arrows below for full gallery.
Shizuoka Part 1.
Shizuoka, Chapter 1: An overview.
In the next few blog entries, I want take a close look at this region and showcase it's unique position as both a giant player in the industry and also home to some of the finest handmade tea in the world.
Shizuoka lies a little less than 200km south of Tokyo in the shadow of Mount Fuji. It has been and continues to be the heart of Japan's tea industry. By far Japan's largest production region, Shizuoka generates roughly 40,000 tons of tea each year. In addition to production, Shizuoka i some to the Prefectural Tea Research Center, which is ground zero for the study of tea farming methodolgy and cloning (tea varietals area created by grafting, the same as apples). Tea is everywhere in Shizuoka. And the industry of tea in Japan is firmly rooted here.
Historically tea was produced completely by hand - picking, steaming, drying, rolling and finishing. But as demand grew it was clear this method could not scale to meet the countries needs. Over the course of about a decade, the entire process was mechanized - teas could now be growing in the field on Monday and in the stores by Tuesday. Much of the machinery that was developed in Shizuoka continues to be made there and sold to producers throughout Japan and the world - most of it is still considered the gold standard. Without doubt, the machines steaming tea outside Kyoto, rolling it in Kyushu, and drying it in Taiwan were made developed in Shizuoka.
While Kyushu and Uji are the two areas of Japan that were most influential to Japan's tea history - it is almost without argument that Shizuoka is the place where tea was modernized and lives on today. The technology, training, and industry needed to support the rise of tea production in Japan happened and continues to happen throughout Shizuoka prefecture. Until 1960, roughly 90% of tea in Japan was grown from seed. Much of that tea was an "heirloom" variety known as "Zairai". Zairai is still grown today and can be likened to Flint Corn - an older species, a bit rugged, but almost identical in DNA to the advanced clones of tea produced today. This variety of tea does exceptional well in certain areas of Japan, but can be tricky to near impossible to grow in others depending on temperature, rainfall, and soil composition. Shizuoka is is the place were many of the first hybrid varieties of tea were developed, including the infamous "Yabukita" varietal which now accounts for over 70% of tea grown in Japan. These hybrids make growing delicious tea possible throughout the country. For example, Saemidori - a cross between Astuyu and Yabukita varietals, does exceptionally well in the warmer climates of Kyushu, while the hearty Yamakai flourishes in the cool mountain tops of Shizuoka. It's funny to think, but all the regions of Japan have Shizuoka to thank for their equipment, methods, and even the tea plants themselves.
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.
Kettl was lucky enough to be invited by the Yame City Council to a small gathering of 50 people to celebrate a rare occurrence: Yame took first prize in Japan's National Tea Fair in the categories of both Sencha and Gykuro in 2014. As our customers know, we were proud to have a relationship with the farmer who produced the prize winning 100% saemidori gyokuro. Only 3.9 kilos were made. Four Kilos is the maximum amount allowable under Japan's standards for "Shuppin", or "show tea". We were thrilled to be able to secures 520 grams of the prize winning gyokuro for our customers. Sadly, it's all sold out! But the GOOD NEWS: We have gained access to this years finest gold prize sencha and will be offering on our site soon. We had a chance to drink both teas and as far as the sencha is concerned, experiencing it was a revelation. It was laser focused with a hard-to-describe balance of power and subtly. The fragrance carried upwards through my entire head while an incredible umami anchored me to the floor. You could taste it with your entire body in a way I haven't experienced before. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.
Such a wonderful experience. Keep an eye out for the tea soon!
1. Prize winning gyokuro 2. Gyokuro dry leaf #2. 3. Gyokuro wet leaf. 4. Prize winning sencha dry leaf. 5. Sencha wet leaf and liquor 6. Award winners
Oh, and we were in the newspaper!
Spent the morning with Yuusuke Oota san. He is making traditional tea in Ureshino, Saga. An ex-wrestler, he has a focus and work ethic that is beyond admirable. Furthermore, he is about as humble and kind a person you could meet. His range of teas include the local favorite, Tama Ryokucha, but also veers into the more unique with offerings like a large leaf bug-bitten black tea.
Farm Visit: Nagasaki
Masatoshi Matsuo san grows award winning Tama Ryokucha on several plots of land in Nagasaki, just next door to Saga's famous tea town, Ureshino . Tama Ryokucha is a steamed green tea that is finished with a special rolling method that curls the tea leaf into a comma shape. The flavor can range from light and fruity to deep-green and full bodied. Matsuo san is famous for his whole hearted dedication to not only farming and making tea, but sharing his experience to the wider world. He was happy to host us and we were equally glad to learn about his tea, production methods and life philosophy. Keep an eye out for his new teas this Spring.
Sencha is a very simple style of Japanese tea. It is the most popular style of tea in Japan, accounting for over 80% of the countries tea production. It is drank all day long in many homes and serves to guests as well. It pairs well with food and can also be savored on it’s own. At its core, it is an unpretentious tea. Grown in full sunlight (kabuse, gyokuro and matcha undergo shading), the best quality sencha is picked in late April or early May as these early buds are the most desirable and flavorful of the year (tea plants can be harvested up to about 4 times a year starting in early spring and ending in late summer). These buds are usually harvested around the 88th day of the spring season, 八十八夜 (Hachi Ju Hachi Ya) in Japanese. Most sencha is a blend of the leaves of several farmer’s tea which are taken to a central tea market just after harvest. Tea producers and blenders will head to market to inspect the years crop. The process of choosing the tea requires an ability to evaluate the look, taste, aroma of each tea and how that particular tea will blend with other teas at auction. Generally a blender wants to create a tea to be similar to an offering from the previous year - a "house tea". Customers will come to know a tea and expect it every year. Depending on the quality, variety, and amount of the teas available, the blender bids on teas that will create the desired flavor profile.
Picking tea is Japan is done one of two ways: Handpicking (tezumi) or machine harvesting. The majority of sencha is picked by machine. The shearing device is usually operated by 2 people and the leaves are clipped and blown into a collection bag, a lot like hedge trimmer. The higher quality teas are plucked by hand. Many times locals from the community will come help during the harvest.
Once picked, the tea undergoes a series of processing steps starting with humidifying the tea, steaming it, then alternating drying, rolling and finishing. After the processing is finished the tea is in a form called aracha, or crude tea. Aracha tea can be likened to unglazed and unfired pottery. The form and spirit of the tea is there, but a second and final finishing process is needed to bring out the full complexity and flavor of the tea.
A unique aspect of Japanese sencha is that it is usually blended and kept in this unfinished state deep in cold storage. As tea is needed throughout the year, it is pulled from refrigeration and the final steps are applied producing the final finished tea. This process keeps tea at its freshest.
Japan is known for it’s highly mechanized processing, but it takes the skill and hand of an expert to create great tea. All steps are overseen by the farmer or tea farm manager. A qualified expert uses their sense of smell and sight as much as the machines. The best teas must be observed from start to finish as an extra ten seconds on any step can mar the best tea. Sencha is finished when a secondary processing refines the tea to it's final state by removing stems, lowering the moisture level and firing the leaves to bring out the desired favor profile.
Photos / Interior : Tea Room, 3.04.2015. Kurume, Japan
Some photos of several wonderful producers we visited in Hoshinomura:
Hoshino is the coveted valley home to the finest producers of shade grown gyokuro in all of Japan. We are lucky to have many great friends in this town. We spent the day catching up with them, seeing some fields, drinking tea, and sharing some laughs. Hoshino is high in the mountains with ample access to spring fed water, optimal sun and rain, and it boasts some of the richest soil in Kyushu. The slow pace of life there is inspiring and the teas are beyond delicious. We were extra fortunate to get a chance to check in with Yoshiaki Miyahara, Japan's gyokuro champion and incense maker (!). A great day indeed.
Today was spent in the office. Amazing how much you can get done when there is nothing else to do but work. Heading to the farms tomorrow. Thank you for checking in.
Today I had a chance to meet with the wonderful Ichiro Matsuo, of the kiln 魚蓮 坊 (Gyorenbou) in the hills of Tosu in Saga Prefecture. Ichiro san is a 2nd generation ceramicist (and the brother of our lovely Japan side manager, Nanako san) who has been working, teaching and lecturing all over the world since...well, since as long as he can remember. You may recognize some of the glaze in these photos - Ichiro san worked with us to create our Houhin and cup. He has a serene sense about him- never in a rush, always open to talking, and incredibly hospitable. And he has every reason to be in a hurry - he's quite in demand. This month alone he will have an opening celebrating his new paper sculptures, a full schedule of teaching at University, preparation for works that will be fired in April, and volunteering his time at the local hospital teaching a ceramics-as-stress-relief course. An inspiring guy indeed. Did I mention he loves to eat and drink? After a tour of the Kiln, he took us all to his go to Yakitori spot where a full menu of Chicken sashimi, chicken skin, Chicken hearts and countless other gems were enjoyed. And if I didn't love the guy enough already: After our feast he insisted we go for Ramen. He wanted to show us an "interesting" style of Pork broth ramen which was incredible indeed. We agreed its the "blue cheese" of Ramen...Ok, maybe that is hard to understand if you weren't there. But If there was ever a cure for jet lag, that was it.
We are excited to filming a short documentary on Ichiro san, which will include his upcoming April firing. Stay tuned.
I arrived back in Japan just 2 days ago. This is my first time in Japan during Winter - although with the Plum blossoms just emerging, I guess it is truly early Spring. I landed on a Friday which allowed for a bit of rest over the weekend. Things in NYC have been humming and the rest this weekend feels wonderful. The next 3 months are the culmination of my plan to come to Japan to spend time with my partners, colleagues and a network of producers, farmers and artisans in the hopes of sourcing new items, finding inspiration and implementing the next steps towards the growth of kettl. If the feeling of New York City can be likened to a deluge of activity and excitement, the experience of returning to Japan feels like a fine mist. Its a slower pace, a quieter environment, and the days somehow feel longer. I am grateful for the chance to be here doing what I love with people I love to spend time with. I am also very grateful to our new colleague Jeff Ruiz for helping with the work load in NYC while I'm away. Please come back and check in on what's happening here in Japan - new content is being produced everyday. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and we look forward sharing this trip with you all.
Zach, Kurume City, Fukuoka, Japan 2/15/15
So we did do a little work today: We spent time perfecting the preparation of a new matcha for a NYC based restaurant client. When working with a new tea, we insist on preparing it up to a dozen times using a variety of parameters. This particular matcha was most expressive with 1.5g of tea and 80cc of water at 190F. We found that whisking for no more than 15 seconds kept the already delicate aromas most intact.