Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 18, 2011

Make tea, lose weight!

So it’s around 32 celsius (around 100 F), and one must keep the tea processing facility nice and hot for the oxidation/post fermentation, good enough to do in room temperature! This is also the appropriate amount of heat that the 20 hours or so of indoor sundrying and wilting can take place. You can’t even turn on a fan. The tea starts to wilt quickly, but still, it takes a long time and alot of work to get the water to travel out of the conduits of the leaf veins.

So buckets and buckets of sweat later, I find myself concentrating hard on tossing the leaves. It takes half an hour, and one must feel the leaves going from crunchy to re-moistened (from moving the water from the deepest parts of the stem up to the leaf surface), and then dried and crunchy again.  A machine can sort of toss the leaves and replace the hand labor, but that is the great thing about this tea:  you can not even approach getting the same quality, because the leaves are so small and fragile, and in the process of oxidation, you can not over heat the leaves nor break them. Every leaf must be intact.

Fluffing the leaves

Not sure how much weight I lost.

Me and hard labor

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 18, 2011

The tea that brought a thousand ships…..

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or at least, brought the die-hards like me. Taiwan Beauty, sometimes called Eastern Beauty, but never should it be called Oriental Beauty because we will take great offense. But Pong Fong Cha, the bullshit tea, literally, is an OK name. So is Wu Cai, or Bai Hao Oolong. But it doesn’t matter what the name is. It is a great, mysterious, undefinable, world treasure of a tea.

It was like going through Jurassic Park. Flying butterflies (or other unknown flying creatures) and  dragonflies who crash land on your face, mosquitoes depositing swells the size of boulders, spiders called ‘ghost face’, praying mantis lurking and posing for a strike, deafening cicadas, and of course, our beloved Green Leaf Hoppers who make the Taiwan Beauty tea possible.  Going into see the garden to see the 80 year olds pick tea,  the burning, sweltering heat creating paste like sweat slowly oozing down my back, I wondered, now, is THIS tea worth it?

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 17, 2011

Ren Ching Wei

A term in Chinese, spelled the Taiwanese way, meaning, ‘the flavor of human connections’. Yes, they pride themselves on the way they connect, receive, and make people part of their community right away so no one feels cold and left out.

I arrived into Taiwan into the biggest thunderstorm ever, where the air terminal shook from the thunder. The rain was hot, like it was someone pouring a kettle of hotwater over your head. Taiwan is messy, almost as chaotic as China, and old.I often forget this is a tropical island, and island people tend to be more down to earth, friendly without guile, and very hospitable. They worry if I had flown all day and not eaten a good meal, so out comes a table full of food and lots of Taiwanese beer. They will retire to a favorite teahouse to drink tea afterwards; restaurant tea is not worth drinking here. Luckily, Taiwan beer is not all bad.

I look forward to the mosquito attacks and the humid, sticky, oven like temperatures. And the ren ching wei, the nice people who has to make sure, even if they don’t know you, that you have had good tea and food.

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 16, 2011

‘tea shows excessive radiation’

‘in 5 more sites’, quoting the NYTimes local Shizuoka edition. The prefectural government of Shizuoka found cesium levels in these sites to be 581 to 654 bqs per kilogram of leaves, above the 500 bqs standard for vegetables etc. Yet, the article continues, the drinking tea made from those same leaves, produced per cup levels to be 5.8 to 7.3 bqs, which is well below the safety level of 200 bqs for drinking tea.

This reminds me of the age old problem of measuring caffeine in tea. Once, a lab tested for caffeine in a lb. of tea leaves vs a lb. of coffee beans. The tea leaves had higher amounts of caffeine, and the headlines shouted ” Green tea has more caffeine than coffee!”  However, a lb. of tea leaves makes about 100 pots of tea (which means about at least 200 cups of tea), which means the caffeine level you actually consume is about 1/10th of a cup of coffee or less since a lb. of beans will make about 10 cups of coffee. Unless you go and eat that lb. of tea leaves as salad, and a lb. is a lot of leaves, you will not end up ingesting more caffeine than coffee.

So we are again, looking at the same problem. Tea is made by infusing from the leaves, and a kilogram of leaves makes over 220 pots of tea. You can do the math.  It is most decidely not the same as eating a lb. of vegetables with those cesium levels.

But no matter what, we will have cesium reports from our farms, and in any case, all of the farms in Shizuoka are going through testing, and nothing will get exported unless it is cleared. Certificates from testing reports are in hand and waiting to be posted. All of our teas from the farms we currently import, tested even at the bulk leaf level, show less than 10bqs. In Uji in particular, there were zero detected.  I bet if we tested our vegetables in the Bay Area we may find more.

Do they have radiation in Kenya? Probably not right at this moment.

But would we want to drink Kenya tea?  Not me.

Tea bushes trimmed for the year

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 16, 2011

Tanoshi

When asked why he has planted hundreds of varietals and now produces over 18 of them on a regular basis, a no small feat for a relatively small farm, Mr. Katahira said: “Tanoshi”: pure enjoyment. He felt like it. It was what he loved.

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Of course, one has to have a real clear palate and good appreciation for such nuances that Mr. Katahira, the fifth generation of tea producers, is trying to showcase.  The varietals differ in Shibui (astringent) and sweet, salty or grassy or fragrant or oceanic. They are all Sencha, elegant and distinctively Japanese: perfect in appearance and steeped at the requisite 60 C or so.

With a view of Mt Fuji, the Katahiras enjoy a high elevation farm on a steep incline, good air quality, and……business is suffering this year. Long one of the well known and respected brands of Sencha in Shimizu, Shizuoka, they saw a steep decline in orders and a sharp uptick in order cancellations.  The reason? Same as the U.S.:  fears of radiation.

Shimizu’s area testing shows a relatively higher amount of cesium; though it is still within reasonable consumption amounts, consumers are flocking away. Tea leaves, according to the tea professionals, are not normally ingested and so the per serving pot of tea breaks down to 1/100th the level of cesium for a kilogram of tea.  But what does that mean anyway, when you are against massive consumer fears?

My heart goes out to these farmers. On the one hand, we can easily just switch to another tea that is not in the spotlight and regardless of cesium level, can be imported without further notice. Shizuoka, being no where close to the Nuclear Meltdown site, nonetheless shares the same sky with Fukushima.

The samurai used to say, one can not live under the same sky with one’s enemies. I think as global citizens, we should not distinguish what country and what situation. Everyone’s in a fishbowl, everyone will share the same fate.

Mr. Katahira has more pressing concerns however, aside from lack of business and his excellent teas having to go into storage. The Mochi Sickness is here.

Mochi Byoki

Various pests and sicknesses attack the tea plants in the summer, and Mr. Katahira is busy fending them off. I told them to roll with the punches and invite the bugs in and make a “Nihon Bijin” tea:  Japanese Beauty, bitten by tiny leaf hoppers! Turn lemon into lemonade, bug saliva into perfume…..

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 15, 2011

Still mulling over

is it worth it?

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Let’s see how many of our customers will drink Mr. Goto’s Sencha everyday now that we know how much work and passion went into it.

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 15, 2011

Blast that CO2

Irrigation with air

Mr. Goto has been at it for some 20 years, having invented an agricultural system that no one can copy. Visiting agricultural professionals shake their heads when they tour his nurseries; this is way too much work and attention for some mere plants.

Mr. Goto has built canals under the soil all throughout the nurseries, blowing warm air through in the months of Feb through April, when the awakening plants from winter dormancy face the challenge of frosty air and frozen grounds. The warm air currents bring oxygen to the soil and to the roots, and help the roots release CO2. The blast pushes the CO2 out into ducts out of the nurseries.

An outrageous tea nursery

Air control inside is important, simulating the kind of extreme temps the tea plants need in the high mountains: 23 C during the day, 3 C at night. Minding that tea plant roots hate pooling water, only 20 minutes of water is spritzed from above per day and any excess rainfall is always channeled out. Earthworms are carefully placed to help move the soil around. Microbes from their droppings help the fertilization process.  Should I go on? Mr. Goto invented his entire process and built everything from scratch, just out of love of tea, and wanting to make the absolutely most delicious tea possible.

Does the public care, now that he’s won every prestigious award around, every year? No, he says. The housewives bargain for prices they can get at supermarkets. This Herculean effort is wasted on them.

Tea bushes clipped every year

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 15, 2011

Don’t promote it too much

When he heard that my customers are really excited about his award winning sencha and are waiting in line for this year’s, presuming that he will win yet again, Mr Goto of Yamanien said, ‘don’t promote it too much, I don’t have enough tea!’

Goto san's own nurseries

 

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 15, 2011

15 Generations

Mr Tozaki is the 15th generation farmer and producer, and the first in Shizuoka and definitely one of the first in Japan, to conduct organic tea growing. He is currently one of the judges and certifiers for JAS organic standards. We are not as interested in the ‘organic’ aspects as what is used instead,  hoping he’d tell me the secret to growing great organic tea is by fertilizing with kimchee or some other delicious matter. It turned out to be fish meal, rapeseed oil, and preservative free cattle feed.

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Organic growing is a slow process, and Mr. Tozaki tries to get the leaves hand harvested as well. Kabusecha is great for the taste of the tea, covering the bushes for 20 or so days, but he will selectively rotate, determining which plants have the strongest roots that can handle the rigors of shaded tea growing each year. It is painstaking. The ones on the steeper hills have the best roots, he said, that are also North facing.

We tasted some very very expensive handharvested Yabukita varietal Sencha. The right Sencha has to have the perfect balance of sweet and bitter and astringency, Mr. Tozaki says. But alas, today’s consumers want just the sweet, more placid notes, and not the more challenging aspects of great Sencha. I explained that people don’t take the time (or brainpower) to steep it right, so they don’t want to figure out balancing bitter and sweet. Like most people in real life, they just want the sweet and not the price tag that goes with it.

Posted by: Winnie of Teance | June 14, 2011

Is it worth it?

Uji Tea Association, where all important tea matters are discussed

It is a daunting situation, Shimooka san, Taniguchi san, and I, sitting in the Uji Tea Association office where they have been discussing how to promote Uji tea to the rest of the world. Shimooka san had recently visited France and saw the daunting nature of educating the West about tea. I told them a bit of what we do: from buying and sourcing, to painstakingly writing this blog, posting and writing about each region, producer, tea varietals, production methods, to how to steep and serve. Then there is the whole other business of making sure they don’t butcher it in your favorite French restaurant in NYC.  Then it is an uphill battle when other Western tea companies misappropriate terms (Artisan premium teabags! Really? Hondo desu ka?) and make claims to be owning tea farms in China and implying how they were shining saviors in a land of savages teaching them about sanitation and fair trade  and tea making (tea has only been around for over 4000 years, before they wore pants in the West?) . Ridiculous claims belittling tea growing nations. Look at Japan. Absolutely one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, and almost about the most civilized. You couldn’t go into a room without people running up with slippers and tea and sweets.  China was known as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ for thousands of years as the paragon of civilization, brought down by the West growing opium there  and disabling an entire civilization (over tea trade, I might add).

No, it’s hard to teach people about tea in the West. Perhaps I should call it a day, move back to Asia some place, enjoy my thousands of varieties of great teas properly prepared with a wagashi or mochi or cream puff, and forget this whole business.

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