Tag Archives: japanese

Spring Sencha from Obubu

In my trip to Japan this spring, I was looking for a way to visit some tea fields and learn about tea production from farmers. Several people told me that this would be difficult given that I don’t speak Japanese. It turns out it wasn’t that hard after all, thanks to the wonderful people at Obubu Tea Farms in Wazuka, Uji, who make all sorts of tea, give daily tours in English, and offer training courses in all aspects of tea production! They also have an amazing internship program and a tea club. Overall they’re one of the most kind and fun tea companies I’ve ever encountered. Today I drank a couple of their Sencha teas to compare the flavors and it brought me right back to Wazuka.

The teas I drank were both Spring-harvested Sencha: the Spring Sun and the Sencha of the Earth. As I had explained in my last post, I was awed to discover all the differences in Sencha since I had previously thought them all more-or-less similar. These two present quite a contrast, despite being harvested in the same time frame and processed in the same manner.

I brewed both teas with 5g of leaf for 2 minutes with water at around 50°C. Both cups appeared a light golden-green.

Sencha of the Spring Sun

The Sencha of the Spring Sun is made up of long, needle-like rolled leaves in brilliant white-and-green jade hues. In the cup I tasted flavors of freshly cut grass, fresh dill, and celery, with a lot of bright notes. The Yabukita cultivar probably contributes to this character, although there’s a lot I still need to learn about the effects of different Japanese cultivars. It has a full mouth feel that leaves a lingering dryness behind.

Sencha of the Earth

The Sencha of the Earth has shorter, darker leaves, but they’re still longer than most of the factory Sencha I’ve had in the past. The flavors I tasted were more raw, reminding me of wicker, green beans, and carrots. The mouth feel was similar to the Spring Sun but a bit thicker with more of an oily texture. Perhaps this is due to the Zairai cultivar, but again I still know so little about Japanese cultivars that it’s hard to say.

For a second infusion, I brewed both teas for 1 minute at roughly the same water temperature. Both were still a delicate golden-green, and neither had any unpleasant bitterness. The second infusions tasted similar to the first, only with their flavors more pronounced. The Sun Sencha was still bright and reminiscent of dill and the Earth Sencha was all straw and spinach. The third and fourth infusions still had quite a bit of flavor, although the specific notes became more subdued. The main difference was that the Sun Sencha remained bright and sweet tasting while the Earth Sencha remained rich and savory.

I’m extra glad to have discovered Obubu because they are a wealth of knowledge and they love to share it. They were founded when several young people turned away from the rushed pace of the modern world and fell in love with Uji tea. They learned that many tea gardens in traditional families were being abandoned. The result is the loss of centuries-old knowledge, not to mention all those tea plants. The founders of Obubu decided to create a tea company whose mission is not only to produce high quality tea, but also to educate the world about this unique product and to share the art as widely as possible, keeping it alive.

We took a half-day tour and learned a lot. We tasted many teas (including an iced gyokuro!), learned about processing, cultivars, harvesting, and chemical analysis, before visiting several tea gardens and their small factory. Although Obubu makes the majority of their tea using machines, they are also teaching and practicing hand-crafting arts which could otherwise so easily be lost. I can only imagine what I’d absorb if I took their master’s course or became an intern. One of their interns even wrote when I think might be the most concise and informative English-language text on Japanese tea: Japanese Tea: a Comprehensive Guide.

Obubu’s tea club is one of the most interesting subscriptions in the world of tea that I’ve seen. It’s essentially a community supported agriculture service where you become an honorary farm owner. They also send you quite a bit of tea four times a year, once after each of the main harvests! If that sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend supporting their mission. And if you ever end up in the Kyoto region, give them a visit! You won’t regret it.

Preparing Japanese Tea

Green tea from Japan differs quite a lot from its Chinese cousin. The different cultivars, harvesting, and processing provides a distinct experience. It can also be challenging to steep. Many folks I’ve encountered have found their first experience with grassy bitter Japanese green tea to be their last. With this post I hope to provide those people and others with inspiration to give this amazing style of tea a second chance.

While the steps below may seem complicated, if you understand some of the principles of how tea steeps, it all makes sense. First of all, Japanese tea tends to be machine-harvested, which results in smaller and more broken leaves. Broken leaves mean that the tea will infuse much more quickly and can become bitter in much less time than a full leaf Chinese green.

Furthermore, unless passed through a fine mesh strainer, it’s likely that many of the leaves will end up in the cup when it’s done. These leaves will continue steeping the tea as it cools and may cause unwanted strength even if the timing is just right.

Finally, Japanese green teas are generally steamed to fix the leaf rather than pan-fired or baked as they are in other countries. This results in a tea liquor that’s much more “vegetal” in the same way that steamed vegetables tend to be “greener” tasting than those same vegetables when fried. If the infusion is too strong, the result can not only taste bitter, but grassy as well.

In essence, Japanese green teas are much more delicate and need a little more care when preparing them. Here’s my suggestions for most styles of Sencha, as well as Kabusecha and Gyokuro (Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and Matcha are a different matter).

1. Use a mesh strainer

Because of the small and broken leaves we ideally need to use a mesh strainer. Japanese Kyushu pots usually have these built-in, but such pots can be hard to find on the Western market. Another option is the ceramic “teeth” on the lip of a Shiboridashi pot which are designed to catch the small leaves as the liquor pours over the rim. Lacking these tools, any wire mesh strainer will do the job, even a large kitchen strainer. If you don’t have any strainer on hand, just be aware that the tea will continue steeping in the cup and you may want to reduce the infusion time to compensate.

2. Use fairly cool water

tama_setupSince the broken leaves will steep much faster, we need either a very short infusion time (which can be challenging) or we need to slow down the infusion somehow. More of the compounds in a tea leaf will transfer to the water if the water is hot, so using cooler water will slow down the process to make it more manageable. I usually use about 55-70°C (131-158°F) water for Gyokuro or Sencha. Within that temperature range, a steep of about 1 minute should result in a delicious brew. If your water is hotter, decrease the time. With 80°C water, a 20-30 second infusion should work, but it might taste a little scorched. The amount of leaves in the pot also makes a difference. I tend to use more than I would for a Chinese green; for a 300ml pot, I usually use about 8g of leaf.

3. Use fresh leaves

tama_dryThis step may be out of your control, since many vendors don’t list the age of their tea, but green tea (Japanese or otherwise) should be consumed within 6 months to a year of its harvest date. It should also be stored in a sealed package with no air or light reaching the leaves. Older leaves tend to be dull and flat tasting giving the palette all the tannin but none of the sweetness. For this reason be wary of stores that keep their tea in clear plastic or glass containers (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

tama_pouredFollowing these steps should result in a deep and rich cup of Japanese tea. The qualities to look for in a good cup are usually a bright energy with seaweed-like saltiness and a satisfying Umami taste on the tongue. The aroma of freshly-cut grass is a good sign, but a “grassy” or bitter taste is not usually desirable. As always, your taste may certainly be different from mine, so experiment to find your preferred brew. Even so, hopefully the above guidelines will give you a head-start.

More adventures with the Brazier

With some success on our first try, my fiancée this afternoon attempted to speed the process of heating the charcoal on our ceramic tea stove. While much was learned, the resulting water was not as hot as we could have liked, and so we searched the tea cabinet for a tea that would fare well with less-than-boiling water.

The easiest choice was a well-sealed packet of single-estate organic Gyokuro from 2010 that I had somewhat forgotten about. You know the kind of tea, you were saving it for a special occasion, but eventually it was just too old to use, and so there it sat. Gyokuro, if you’ve never encountered it, is essentially the highest quality tea made in Japan, second only to Matcha in the respect afforded it. That said, all tea comes in many different grades, and nearly all tea produced in Japan is a blend.

Unlike China or India, where there is much land to be had, Japan is tiny and overpopulated to the point where growing a tea plantation is out of the question. Tea farms are generally small estates planted carefully wherever the conditions are right. Unfinished tea leaves are then brought to special tasting events where representatives from large tea companies will find a selection of small batches that they like and then finish them all together. This tea, however, is from a single garden in Japan, and it’s certified organic to boot. Also not an easy feat.

Gyokuro (meaning “Jade Dew”) is grown only from a specific selection of cultivars of the tea plant and is shaded for several weeks of its growing season just before harvest. This shade, traditionally with bamboo or more modern mesh, causes the plants to work that much harder at finding sunlight. The resulting richness of the leaf is well worth the effort. Of course, it is still a green tea, and the real magic of such things only lasts 6 months or so.

So clearly we were skeptical of this find, but that skillful Japanese packaging managed to keep the leaves in pretty good shape after three years. While definitely not the creamy rich and salty experience I would expect from a recent Gyokuro, this still had the characteristic mellow vegetal body coupled with a vibrant green broth.


Now the challenge will be to drink the rest of the packet. …Or it may just go back on the shelf.