It’s typhoon time in Japan, which I actually don’t mind, because it gives us some relief from the suffocating heat! So for the next several weeks, green tea addicts over here will be toggling between putting on the kettle and getting their cold brew on.
So what does this have to do with blending Japanese tea, you might be asking? Well, I have finally blended my very first official Chiki Tea blend called URAZATO, and it’s great either hot or cold. The blending process is fascinating – there is just so much to learn!
I’ve been serving the ubiquitous “Holly blend” (bit of this, bit of that and into the pot) for years and, to be honest, not realizing something significant. And that is: nearly all Japanese tea is blended! I used to think blending meant adding things other than actual Camilla Sinensis leaves…rose, popped rice, lavender, jasmine flowers. You get the picture.
It wasn’t until I started working with tea producers in Japan that I discovered blending is a huge part of Japanese tea. Yet, I still never really considered sencha as being “blended” in the traditional sense. I just never thought about it like that. Enter Master Kitagawa who is a master blender of the highest regard. He has been teaching me more about blending, and it transpires that almost all Japanese tea is blended. This is a huge topic so I will chunk it down for you:
First, the plucked tea is made into aracha, or the raw tea that goes to the auction for tea traders and blenders to purchase and then “finish” or put their own spin on it. And there are countless varieties from all over Japan. From here is where the blending starts.
Let’s say we purchase some aracha from Kumamoto, some from Yame, and one from Oita prefecture. The aracha contains everything! Long leaves, short leaves, stems, leaf bits – everything is in this sack you just bought. Now you have to sort it into all the various parts which sounds like a blooming nightmare!
Thanks to Japanese ingenuity, they use huge wooden and mesh sifters the size of hula-hoops, with varying sizes of mesh, uniformly numbered across the industry. Of course there are machines that do it too, but artisans working in small batches favor these over machines. The smaller the number, the larger the mesh, and you will be using several to sift, resift, resift, resift, with different kinds of movement, to help you sort the aracha into leaf sizes all the way down to fannings and powder (not matcha).
When this is done, you will have about 6 or so different piles of tea leaves and bits. The blender knows which leaves should be reserved for finishing into sencha and so will take those and use a heat dryer to finish it (dry it), paying particular attention to the oil in the leaf which is where the quality comes from. If you notice very high quality, deep green, shiny leaves…this luster is from the oil.
Flash forward to the tasting station where you have selected finished teas from, say, one region but different cultivars, different regions and different cultivars…it’s endless. For illustrative purposes, we are going to use single cultivars (Okumidori, Yabukita, Saemidori) and all from Kyushu.
The purpose of the next step is to find out the characters of each tea, the qualities, tastes, aroma etc. In the tasting room, you will use boiling water to radically pull out things like oil, and the general taste and see if there is anything fishy going on with the tea. This is very difficult because it takes years to know what the heck you are trying to sniff out. Like a watermelon – you can thump it, but you need to know what sound you are looking for!
This step is where the Master is evaluating the leaves to decide the base flavor and the “seasoning” – thanks Kitagawa san for that great expression! The blend will be a ratio and is done in 100 grams to check consistency and balance of flavor.
So here you are with these three plates of tea leaves in front of you. You have tasted each, written notes galore, and it’s crunch time to invent your recipe. You have to decide how to mix them to get the best combination for balance, astringency, aroma and overall taste. It’s a recipe done with percentages. You are also considering things like how steamed the tea is: a fukamushi for example, which is steamed longer and has more tiny leaf bits, will infuse deeply and quickly…how do you want to use that in the mix?
A side note here, konacha and fannings, while used predominantly in teabags, are also used very much in the blending process. You will discover these bits in the sediment you find in the bottom of your cup as the tea settles or you linger. The Japanese LOVE these bits because to them, it’s the healthiest part of the brew. Foreigners tend to chuck them out, thinking, incorrectly, that it’s similar to finding coffee grounds in the bottom of your cup.
Okay, let’s start with Yabukita as the base (it’s cheaper for you) and, say, do it at 60%. Next we want to season it with high-end leaves so either Okumidori or Saemidori or a combination of both. Let’s go with a vibrant taste for summer and lob in 30% Okumidori…but we also want depth and that’s where Sae comes in, so 10% of that, thanks.
We now have our recipe, so off we go to blend a batch of 100 grams and try it! Why not test your skills at home with a range of Japanese greens you have on hand?
As for Urazato? I wanted something that could work really well hot or cold-brewed, and is also very high quality, so I decided to blend two kinds of kabusecha teas: Asanoka (fukamushi) from Bungo Oono in Oita Prefecture, and Saemidori from Kumamoto Prefecture. Master Kitagawa prepared my recipe and delivered the first 100 grams in a very Chiki bag! He LOVED it!