October 25, 2010 by bethanjthomas
One of the perks of my job is the fantastic travel that I’m able to do in the pursuit of getting people to drink good tea. It’s more than I could have hoped for just over 3 years ago when I spend almost 8 hours a day checking for errors in spreadsheets. It’s a bit ridiculous if I think about it for too long, I mean, its only tea, but I’m certainly not complaining!
One of my favourite trips of recent times has been a whistle stop visit to Japan to pitch a tea service to the managers of a chain of American five star hotels. The nerve racking speech that I made was deemed a success as only one attendee fell asleep during it, and I was rewarded with a trip to meet our Japanese green tea producers.
As a graduate of Chinese Studies and having spent a few years living in Shanghai and Beijing, my knowledge of Japan was limited and I would go so far as to say that what I did know was negatively tinted with the Sino-Japanese rivalry that I had been influenced by in China.
However, after 10 days in the land of the rising sun, I have been thoroughly converted to most things Japanese, and their tea in particular. The Japanese take intense pride in their tea industry, and hotel rooms always contain Japanese green tea and hojicha (roasted tea made from a mix of stem and leaf), with no ‘English’ breakfast tea bags insight.
It was the production of gyokuro tea which really took my breath away though. I took a plane and two trains to reach Uji province, and visit the small town of Wazuka where tea grows in abundance and my boss, Edward Eisler, had found a renowned Japanese gyokruo master who hand made our special grade of gyokuro tea.
I had a basic knowledge of gyokuro before arriving, but I’d never really understood the complexity involved in making this tea. Gyokuro is not well known in Europe but it is the highest regarded tea in Japan. It can be machine produced or hand made, and is made in extremely small quantities in comparison to sencha, which is Japan’s most heavily produced tea, accounting for 70% of national production.
Gyokuro tea bushes lie at a lower altitude than sencha, and are covered for 20-30 days before picking in order to encourage the teas to photosynthesise, producing a sweeter, darker leaf. The finished tea leaf looks like thin needles that could be mistaken as being cut into a uniform shape. However, each leaf is actually meticulously rolled and kneaded in order to create the needles. This requires 3kg of loose leaf tea to produce just 550g of gyokuro, and when produced by hand, the rolling process takes 6 hours.
JING’s tea master is a national treasure, renowned as the number one gyokuro producer in Japan. He was born and bred in Uji province but has spent over 3 years of his life in other tea producing regions in Japan teaching the tea masters in each region how to make gyokuro properly.
In his 70’s now, his expressive eyes glittered as he explained to me that his father taught him how to make the tea, and he has done nothing but carefully produce gyokuro ever since. The result is that he has no finger prints –they have been worn away by rolling and kneading tea leaves over the past 60 years! He only discovered this fact when he was leaving Japan in the 1990s, and they tried to take his prints three times with no luck! I couldn’t help but grab his hands to feel them but he seemed non-plussed by the sacrifice that he had made for his craft. The hands themselves, felt like the thickest leather I’ve ever touched.
The Japanese Emperor himself has awarded our tea master with recognition for his work, and only his first tea disciple comes close to his skill in gyokuro production. This disciple has been taught and worked with him for 40 years, but cannot replace his master in the hearts of Japan.
The air in the mountains around his farm in Wazuka was heavy with mist and a light rain when I arrived – perfect conditions for the tea bushes to flourish. The gyokuro season had ended the week before, so the covers that had prevented light reaching the bushes for the previous month lay discarded at the side of the tea gardens, and I was able to drink some of the finest tea I have ever tried.
Gyokuro is not a tea that you should expect to drink in large quantities, it is something to be prepared in quantities of less than 200ml and to savour. The incredible production, results in a thick, glycerous drink which is often described as ‘soup-like’ by first time drinkers. It tastes like nothing I have ever experienced in other foods, heavy with ‘umami’, impossible to describe as it can’t be compared to much, but it is amazing.
The carefully rolled leaves have a blue tint to their dark green, shiny surface, which slowly disappears as the bright green colour comes through when the tea is made. Extremely cool water should be used when making the tea – 40 degree water for the first infusion, waiting 3 minutes to pour, increasing by 10 degree increments and reducing infusion time by 1 minute and then 30 seconds for each infusion.
I have never met a man like JING’s gyokuro master before, and had never drunk any tea like his either. Whilst my Chinese friends may be disappointed with me promoting a Japanese green tea over a Chinese, this tea surpasses any other that I have drunk across the world in its uniqueness. Although it will not become my daily cuppa, I will certainly be indulging in it as often as possible in the future!