During the Amazing Tea Race, a dash through seven countries to follow the story of the Spring Harvest, I noticed the most sense of urgency to get freshly harvested product to the market in Japan. There, people travel to tea growing regions to buy the freshest leaf they can at extremely high prices. While we were in Japan, farmers were working hard to stay ahead of the tea harvesting season; from sencha to kabuse to gyokuro.
Tea production is common across the country of Japan. Farmers use similar methods and equipment, but it is important to note each region – and even village – has its own style of production. While in Kyoto ,we worked late into the night in a processing space in the small village of Wazuka. Akky-san, the grower of Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations was in just his second day of harvesting the first of the shincha tea. This night he was busy processing high grade sencha with equipment that required cleaning before processing because it had been out of use for so long. What we saw this night was common for the rest of Japan: a processing room with automation enough for just two people to process a full batch of tea from green leaf to shiny sencha. The finished product was fresh, green, and in a hurry to make it to the market to be sold the next day.
Akky-san got just a few hours of sleep that night after finishing the batch of tea at 3:00 AM. Early the next morning, he went with his group of interns to different fields, pulling and strapping a black screen above rows of tea bushes before they would be exposed to too much sunlight. The shading inhibits photosynthesis in the new shoots growing after a long, cold hibernation during the winter. This “torture” of sorts for the plants causes the tea to produce more flavor compounds, resulting in a sweeter tea. This is what the Japanese call umami. It would be a few more weeks until Akky and his team of foreign interns would return to the shaded fields to remove the screen and harvest the leaves for kabuse sencha, a tea processed similar to shincha. The value of kabuse sencha remains weeks after its introduction to the market because time to market is not as important as shincha. In many cases kabuse sencha sells for a lower price than shincha, even though its overall quality is higher, because of this speed to market.
Later in the day we met up with another tea grower in the neighboring village of Kimo to visit his family’s farms. In addition to being the middle of the start of the Shincha season, the family was also busy covering rows of tea plants with black screen, but he had something special to show us that wasn’t so common in Wazuka: gyokuro fields. Gyokuro takes kabuse tea torture to a whole new level as black screen tents are pitched around the field in addition to black screen that is covered immediately over the plants. This double layer of shading is kept on the plants for an additional two to three weeks longer than kabuse sencha. As the grower Takumi explained the difference between sencha, kabuse, and gyokuro we were saddened to learn that the tea would not be available until over a month later, far after the hype of the shincha season would die down. Due to the high level of labor, patience, and detail put into the cultivation and production of gyokuro, its quality is recognized and market value usually surpasses that of shincha.
If you are a tea retailer and would like to get access to 2014 Shincha to share with your customers, you can participate in a limited quantity auction of lots of Shincha tea processed by growers we met during the Amazing Tea Race. You can order samples for tasting by June 30, and auctions will be open on July 7-9. You can visit Tealet for more information.