Tamaryokucha, also called guricha for its distinct curled leaf, is a processed tea that is hand-tossed in a large wok-like iron pan under a gentle heat to give it a deeper taste and fragrance.
After a few years of searching, Chiki Tea started carrying a tamaryokucha called Samurai, so when I stumbled across a box of 8 individually-wrapped 3-gram servings, each with a different label, I honestly didn’t think they would be THAT different.
Well, rules are meant to be broken and the folks at Country Friend Farm in Shikoku have put their own spin on this old favorite, originally made famous in Ureshino, Saga prefecture in Kyushu.
These lovely farmers are more like hunters and gatherers. The tea is WILD and by wild, I mean the way it is grown or hunted. All of the tea is from the mountains in Shikoku, one of the four main Japanese islands, northeast of Kyushu.
Using hotter water than for sencha (80 – 90 C) and longer brewing time, the tea can yield up to 4 steeps and then the leaves can be eaten.
Below I will identify the name of the first four teas I tried (stay tuned over the next two months for the other four!) and how it was produced to give you an idea as to how different they can be.
FURANKOU is produced from a seedling that has been planted and watched but not fussed over. It is considered wild because they simply watched it grow after planting and did nothing else to it.
During harvest season, the leaves are plucked and then placed in a bamboo basket in order to shake and bruise them slightly but not break the leaf membranes. Bruising is done to produced a slower oxidation while a broken membrane will allow for a heavier oxidation. The leaves are then kept in the bamboo basket in a dark area overnight to micro-oxidize by allowing the enzymes to mildly wilt the leaves and start fermentation.
In the morning, the leaves are placed in an iron wok under a gentle heat and hand tossed to stop the oxidation. This gives the tea depth and character and produces a noticeable fragrance that smells like orchid.
Japanese tea is not meant to be oxidized so this is the first and main difference this tea has from traditional Japanese tamaryokucha. This tea is highly fragrant and has a very “Chinese” essence to it. You can identify the oxidation in the steeped whole leaves by the slight redness on the edge of the leaves.
RYU is grown wild in rocky soil without compost and is so rare that it only produces 10 kilos per year. This tea is not wilted after being plucked and is a classic tamaryokucha that has been steamed immediately then wok-tossed.
What makes it unique is the wildness of the leaves. They are tougher than most leaves and hold the natural leaf shape after steeping, similar to a Chinese oolong. The taste is actually quite light compared to the Furankou but you will still be able to identify it as a tamaryokucha with the iron influence from the hand-tossing. The steeped whole leaves did not show any indication of oxidation but did yield multiple brews.
CHOUSHUNKA is grown from a seedling that has been planted but is then left to grow wild without further interference. The wild leaf is plucked and then put into the bamboo basket to mildly wilt overnight in the dark before being treated in the wok. To be honest, this tea is even lighter in taste than Ryu but suddenly an intense sweetness takes over about 5 minutes after finishing the tea. This is a sign of a high quality tea.
IWAKURA is grown wild deep in the middle of a shaded forest high in the mountains. The tea hunters only seek out the baby leaves from the wild tree plants and pluck those. Due to the gentleness of the leaves, they are not wilted but steamed and processed like a classic tamaryokucha. This tea, with light green, almost yellow leaves, is very mineral-rich from the type of soil surrounding the plants.
Iwakura has a remarkable resemblance to Jasmine tea but is still quite light, unlike a Jasmine pearl from China. The flower essence comes directly from the leaves and no flowers are added during the process. This tea is lovely after a heavy meal!
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