Notes on Some of Our Teas from Japan (from the October 2020 Monthly Tea Club Insert)

October 16, 2020 7 min read

What follows below is the insert for the October 2020 Monthly Tea Club Mailout.  If you want to join (which you totally should!), you can join here.


Welcome to the October 2020 Tea Club!

I hope you all find time and space to enjoy the teas for this month. All of them are exceptional and in some ways unusual.  In your box, you’ll find 25 grams each of Honyama Oolong, Shimooka’s Gyokuro, and Organic FloweryHoujicha - all from Japan.

Each of these teas are ideally steeped in some sort of small pot - either a kyusu, gaiwan, hohin, tea tasting set or some other type of low volume vessel. If you don’t have that kind of set up, that’s ok as well as they will all be very enjoyable steeped western tea pot style.

One work around to offer you if you don’t have a low volume vessel set up but you want to give that technique a try without buying new wares is to get two mugs or tea cups and a smallish kitchen type strainer with fairly fine mesh. You can steep the tea loose in your first mug/cup and then strain it out to your second mug/cup when the time is up. Keep the teas leaves in your strainer so you can re-infuse them several times. You can easily measure the amount of water you need by just using a measuring cup that has milliliters marked on it.

Preparing Japanese teas is a bit different than preparing other types of teas. Generally the water is cooler, the steep time is shorter, and the ratio of leaf to water is slightly higher. A very important concept to keep in mind when steeping Japanese non-oxidized or lightly oxidized teas(green and oolong type) is the balance of catechins and amino acids in the infusion. Cathechins, which give the tea astringency, come out of the tea more rapidly at water over 176 degrees. Amino acids, which give the tea sweetness and an umami (savory) quality, come out at any temperature water (even cold water). The goal is to find the right balance of temperature and time to bring out the best potential of the leaves in way that you specifically will enjoy.

Hotter water tends to bring out more aromatics, but you might need to decrease the steeping time to not bring out too much astrigency. To increase mouthfeel/texture in a tea, increase the leaf quantity a bit and the time steeped a bit, but decrease the water temperature. It’s really fun to play with these variables and likely, as long as your water isn’t too hot, you will still have a delicious cup no matter what.

Typically for Japanese teas, all water used is first brought to a boil and actually allowed to stay at a boil for 3 or so minutes. This gets rid of some of the chlorine and other odors, as well as softens the water a bit. To reduce the temperature of the water from boiling, one pours the water into a water pitcher/pourer (in Japan these are called Yuzamashi, but any cha hai, gong dao bei, or fairness pitcher will do and honestly even a measuring cup will do). Pouring water from one receptacle to another usually drops the temperature of the water about 10 to 15 degrees so to get to the water temp you want, move slowly and pause a little bit before pouring your water to the first receptacle and then pause again before you pour into your teapot. Alternatively you can just use a variable temperature tea kettle or a kettle and a thermometer to get your water where you want, but there is a benefit to letting your water reach a boil and then come down to temp. In addition to softening the water and taking off cholorine, it also is a way for you to get to know how to control water temperatures without the use of a thermometer or having to use a thermometer to check your work.

Now to the teas! It’s hard to say who is the star of this month’s tea club, but darn it, this Honyama Oolong is spectacular! Needless to say there is just the teeniest amount of oolong made in Japan, and it’s only shown up in the marketplace very recently. 99.9 % of the tea made in Japan is green tea (isn’t that amazing when you think about it?). This special treat is from Honyama, in Shizuoka Prefecture. It is hand-picked (very unusual in Japan), withered, and very lightly oxdized before finishing. What is truly remarkable about this tea, is the aromatics which come from the handling of the Koju culitvar. When teas from this cultivar are allowed to oxidize slightly the most enticing aromatics of grapes emerge. It’s really sublime.

As mentioned, I recommend small pot brewing for this to concentrate the aromas and flavors. If you’re able to do that try 1 gram of tea to every 20 ml of water that your pot holds. Use water around 175 and steep for 1.5 minutes. The second steeping is a short one - maybe 30 seconds tops. And then the third steeping can go up to 1.5 or 2 minutes again.

Shimooka’s Gyokuro is also a truly beautiful tea, any way you prepare it. This tea is from Uji in Kyoto Prefecture. It is hand-picked (as are all authentic gyokuros), this time from unpruned tea trees. It is made from the Goku cultivar and was shaded for a whopping 45 days!

Traditional gyokuro teas have a very high standard of production. Gyokuro by definition is a shaded tea. Shading the tea plants forces them to boost their chlorphyll and amino acid production and lowers the cathechin content (ofen bitter or astringent compounds). The best kind of shading, and the most traditional, is shading done by covering that is held up with essentially poles or stakes to a height that allows a person to walk underneath. The covering is made of either bamboo and straw or a synthetic material. More commonly (and less desireable), one finds this shading being done by placing synthetic material directly on top of the plants (as you might do to your own plants when you are trying to protect them from winter’s frost).

Right after the tea plants begin to sprout, the shading is moved into place and is at about an 80% reduction of sunlight. After a few days, another layer of shading is added which reduces the sunlight to the plants to 95% (crazy, right?). The minimum time for shading is 20 days, but it can certainly be higher. The plants for gyokuro must be unpruned and are traditionally hand-picked. As you can see, this is a high labor tea to make.

In addition to understanding how gyokuros are made, however, it is really critical to understand how gyokuro teas are meant to be enjoyed. If you became familiar with Gyokuro tea in the west, it’s likely that your understanding of it is that it is a superior version of sencha, more or less. It’s the “fancy green tea from Japan,” while sencha is the more common Japanese tea. I absolutely had that impression when I was first coming up in tea. A better understanding of Gyokuro is that it is an exceptional drinking experience with its own method of appreciation and preparation.

The traditional way to steep gyokuro is quite unlike any other type of tea that I know. The goal of steeping it is to completely minimize astringency and to maximize the amino acids. The ratio of leaf to water is around 1 gram for every 8 ml of water your vessel holds, and generally the vessel one uses is very, very small (no more than 100 ml, but something like 40 to 50 ml is better). The water temp is about 120 degrees and the first steeping is about 60 to 90 seconds. The water temp is at 150 degrees for the second steeping and the time is 60 seconds. And for the third infusion, the temp is at 150 to 160 for two minutes. If you do try the tea in this manner, prepare to be tea bombed! It’s fun and exhilirating (and also a very savory experience as basically what is happening is that we’re accentuating the umami flavor), and the caffeine extraction is pretty high because of high leaf amount. It takes a while to get used to this method.

Essentially what you would be doing if you make tea this way is make a tiny, extraordinarily luscious infusion to enjoy over three or four successive steepings. One can enjoy gyokuro larger teapot style, but that is not its native way. If you prefer to make your gyokuro large teapot style (what we call western teapot style), then a ratio of 1.5 to 2 grams of water to every 100 ml of water your pot holds, water at around 160 to 170 for 1.5 minutes is a good place to start. Also, if you go western style, try steeping your tea with the lid off to blow off some of the heat and not ‘cook’ the tender leaves too much.

Finally we come to our third tea, the Organic Flowery Houjicha. Houjicha (also spelled Hojicha) is a Japanese green tea (either bancha, sencha or gyokuro) that consists of roasted tea leaves and tea plant stems. It is generally considered a very everyday, humble sort of tea, but it if is made from quality leaves and stems, it is a more elevated beverage. In this particular instance we are of course sending out a high quality, unusual houjicha. Hailing from Miyazaki Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, what makes this houjicha special is the time of it’s plucking, later in the season at just the point that the tea will produce flowery aromatics.

Houjicha is a bit of an anomaly for the usual principles of Japanese tea brewing, because it is a tea that uses water at or just under a boil, though the steep time and ratio of leaf to water is quite reduced. The ratio of leaf to water is 1 gram to every 30 to 40 ml of water your pot holds and the steep time is just 30 seconds. I think this method works well especially for smaller pot brewing. At the restaurant we make it differently - we use 1.5 grams of tea to every 100 ml of water and steep 3 minutes at 180 degrees. The first method produces a tea with more pop, the second a more mellow brew.

I hope I haven’t completely overwhelmed you with text this month. I also hope that if you proceed to experiment with your tea and prepare it in unfamiliar ways that you still have space to just enjoy it and let it do its magic. That’s what it is all about.

Take care! Until next time....