When I was young and living in Nagoya, drinking literally gallons of Japanese green tea, I didn’t know there was a difference in green teas and the word cultivar certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary. It wasn’t until later in my tea-drinking life that this topic became almost an obsession.
Cultivar means plant variety; like with tomatoes where you have Roma, Hillbilly, Brandywine, and let’s not forget Mortgage Lifter (google it!). It’s the same in the tea world.
Camellias have over 50 varieties but there is only one Camellia sinensis, the most famous of the flowering plants, which is the tea plant. OK, that’s not exactly true because of the Camellia sinensis, there is the sinensis strain so Camellia sinensis sinensis (small leaf, cold climate), which is found in Japan and China, and the Camellia sinensis assamica (large leaf, semitropical climate) found predominantly in India.
Even though Camellia sinensis is the tea plant, there are more than a whopping 3,000 varieties! Enthusiastic farmers up and down Japan are experimenting with creating their own hybrid cultivars all the time. Some make it to “registration” after rigorous scrutiny by the plant police, while others are tossed on the scrap heap never to be heard of again. Currently, there are approximately 80 certifiable cultivars on the Japanese registry and most come from Kagoshima, the hotbed of creative cultivars!
Let’s now take a look at some of the most popular cultivars.
Asatsuyu truly has a memorable taste yielding a brew with a deep shade of green. It’s a pretty fragile variety, you could even call it shy, and more often than not, it produces a relatively powdery finished product. It has gentleness about it and its sweetness really shines through. While not a brilliant one for Fukamushi steaming because it’s so delicate, masterful craftsmen can create a Fukamushi out of this, and when they do, it’s stunning! Asatsuyu is a favorite of many tea aficionados, whether they can identify it in the sip or not.
Synonymous with Japanese tea, this cultivar has clout! It’s known for its hardy productivity and adaptability to soil and climate conditions. Because it’s strong, close to 90% of tea farms cultivate this variety. Being so stable, farmers can expect to rely on it for fairly high-profit margins. Yabukita, however, tends to lose its quality fairly quickly, so the prudent farmer watches his crops like a hawk and swoops in with clippers at exactly the right moment for harvesting. Large estates tend to use a number of different cultivars to extend their harvest since Yabukita’s quality is so short-lived, but this daddy delivers a rich taste and refreshing aroma.
Crossed between Yabukita’s strength and Asatsuyu’s charm, is precious Saemidori. Introduced around the 1970’s, it didn’t become popular until 1990 when it was finally registered as an official variety. Producing prized Matcha, Gyokuro, and premium Sencha, this variety is mostly used in organic farming where creating superior tasting organic teas is often a challenge. It has a stronger aroma than Asatsuyu and is known to be an early bloomer meaning it has a short harvest and therefore produces smaller yields. The good news for farmers is that, like Yabukita, there is a good profit margin with this cultivar.
This variety is a cross between Yabukita and a native Shizuoka variety called Zairai. With flavor notes, a deep green color and an aroma similar to Yabukita, this gem is widely cultivated, especially in Yame, the famous Gyokuro region. Often in partnership with Yabukita, this slow bloomer allows farmers to harvest the Yabukita first and the Okumidori next, making full use of the harvesting season.
To be concluded in Shining the Spotlight on Great Japanese Cultivars – Part Two
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