Day 5. continued.
We had the exciting opportunity to join this year’s Yame tea auction. The auction takes place every year from mid-late April through the first week or so of May. The auction is an opportunity 300 or so small farms to bring their aracha to be inspected by the 70 or so tea producers working in Yame. Held in a small hall in the heart of Yame, the auction is a great way to see the relationship between farmer and producer. Everyone appears to know everyone else. A lot of respectful good mornings and hellos were exchanged as I arrived with our Japanese team. It is immediately apparent that this is an older man’s game. I saw a few young farmers and a even less producers milling about. On the average, it looked as though the median age was about 60. It will be interesting to see how the aging population of the tea community affects its future.
We were there to look at sencha. The process: a farmer will lay out a 200 gram sample of aracha in a black matte bowl. The information on the card affixed to the bowl includes date the tea was picked, varietal, and the amount available for purchase. The farmers reputations play an important role in the demand for certain teas. There are “rock star” tea farmers who consistently produce great tea by having a keen sense for picking time, farming technique and access to great soil.
We quickly combed through 150 or so teas inspecting the feel, smell and look of the teas. It can be paralyzing to look at so many similar teas and be expected to draw conclusions about quality in a rapid succession. Watching our producer was a lesson in mastery. He quickly scoops up the tea, runs through his fingers noting the weight and consistency of the leaf. He told me he gets about 60% of the information he needs about a tea just from touch. Next he moves the tea near his nose and inhales deeply. Aroma can tell you a lot about when the tea was picked and if it was manufactured quickly after picking or left a bit too long. It is fun to smell the difference of varietal too…Yabukita is the main player but saemidori is a close second.
After selecting 8 samples from among about 300, we measured out exactly 5 grams of each. We then steeped in boiling hot water. Using very hot water draws out the good and and bad characteristics of a tea. The liquor of the tea is inspected (yellow? deep green? light green? leaves floating?) and then the wet leaf aroma is evaluated. You can really get an enormous amount of insight from the wet leaf. The easiest thing to recognize is how long the tea was fired.
Finally, we taste to the brewed liquor: spooned and slurped loudly, rinsed around the mouth and then spit back out. If a tea is a winner the cup is pulled back and further tastings will ensue.
After teas have been tasted and we know what it is we are looking for, the bidding begins. I had to leave for the process because it is closed to all but only those registered to bid. It is carried out much like commodities bidding. Careful not to drive the price too high, the bidder has a complex system to come away the winner. Farming, tasting and economics = tea.
We were very grateful for the chance to get a behind the scenes look and are even more excited for this years crop of Yame tea. IT IS A GOOD YEAR!
…on the train now headed to Kyoto. We will be meeting with some new farms in Uji and checking out a young group of tea farmers outside Kyoto who are investing in the future of tea. Very excited.