We were sent some premium estate direct teas last week from a company based in Kyoto, Japan who follows us on Twitter.  They were also highly recommended to us by a respected speaker for the Specialty Tea Institute.  A small group of Japanese tea curious and / or enthusiasts gathered.  This was out of our http://www.flickr.com/photos/agirlwithtea/5307729796/usual day-to-day operations.  We brew here with our own technology, so we do not normally use traditional steeping methods nor instructions sent to us by tea producers.  It was quite an experience.   

There were 15 samples in all, but 10 were chosen for the group cupping.  We did senchas and houjichas, as well as a unique genmaicha with sweet rice.  One of our number was born here, but her parents were born and raised in China.  The teas felt comfortable and familiar to her and she especially loved the mild roast houjicha.  A member who has bought directly from this same estate was thrilled to be part of the group and fell in love with the first infusion of a bright, clean, fresh, grassy sencha called Sencha of the Spring Sun.  Although I was excited to see if the genmaicha would be different with sweet rice, it was still definitely a genmaicha – not a favorite here.  Hands down, the winner of this group’s palates was the mild roast houjicha.  There was also a deep roast and a smoky that were very enjoyable.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese teas.  We live and sell in Southern California and what sells here might be totally different than even what sells on the East Coast.  Here, we sell an amazing amount of rooibos and blends of any tea category.  The Japanese teas were certainly a departure from what we normally work with and, I’ve got to say, it was nerve-wracking, but interesting, to read the instructions they sent carefully and attempt to do a good job in presenting an infusion that would do these high-quality leaves justice.  Now I will be talking with the company’s representative to get pricing, shipping, and minimums.  We certainly won’t be able to bring in most of what we cupped because they just would not sell in our store, but perhaps my local Japanese tea fans can persuade me to bring in the ones they enjoyed most.  We carry only one sencha at this time out of our 50 tea and herbal options and it is a blend with cherry blossoms and rose petals that sells well.  In fact, I absolutely adore it and drink it almost daily.  We like our teas to turn quickly for freshness, so we also shy away from becoming too experimental with things that might sit.

The estate’s representative had been looking forward to me using our brewing technology on some of the teas, but that will be when I have a quiet moment.  I still have a bit left of the samples and will report back to him.  One method of extraction they suggested was what they call the “tea espresso” http://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphunden/3380101930/method.  Very hot water (surprisingly) of around 200 F for 30 seconds (yes, on senchas!) with the second infusion at 10 seconds and the following infusions (up to 2 more) for another 30 seconds.  We found the second infusion to be bitter with this method and switched to the standard steeping directions for the other samples, which worked well.  They said the espresso method is not known in most of Japan.

They also included a small packet of salt-pickled cherry blossoms which we desalinated, per instructions, for 5 minutes.  Then a flower was placed in each cup and infused.  The salty water the blossom had been removed from was added back into the infusion to taste.  Not a match for our palates, but fun to do and beautifully photographed by one of the cupping group members both before infusion and after.

If you haven’t tried estate direct premium Japanese teas, it’s definitely worth the taste and the experience of leaving behind the familiar for awhile and stepping into that which may be unfamiliar.  It will broaden both your tastes and your horizons. 

Tea is not just a beverage – it is an adventure, and a healthy one!