by Ella Perryman on August 10th, 2017
Kate, former Canton team member, spent an exciting few months at Obubu Tea in Japan, helping to harvest and process their spring green teas. Here she explains why Japanese green tea is so special, and how the team at Obubu Tea are doing things a little bit differently…
Kate: Japanese Tea and the culture that surrounds it have always been a little bit mysterious. Perhaps this is because superior Japanese teas are not readily available to tea drinkers outside of Japan, perhaps because some of the deep umami flavours they carry can be an acquired taste, or perhaps it’s simply because people just don’t know enough about them.
The story of Obubu couldn’t start anywhere but with its founder and lead farmer, Akihiro Kita, or “Akky” as everyone calls him. Akky is the dancing wonder of Obubu. A tiny Japanese man who looks so unassuming but can lift 100kg of tea over his shoulder without a second thought, and who dances round the tea fields keeping everyone’s spirits up with his silly moves and songs (you should see him take on Bohemian Rhapsody at the local Karaoke bar – but that’s another story for another time). His crazy dance moves went viral a few years ago – when a video of him, well, just being himself – was put on the Internet and has now has over 140,000 views. I dare anyone who meets Akky not to mention this part of his personality first.
But – there’s also a serious side to Akky. And that’s the side that loves tea. 20 years ago whilst he was studying at university, Akky took a part time job as a farmhand in the tea fields – and fell in love with it so much that he dropped out of his studies and became a full time tea farmer. Obubu, as it is now,was established back in 2004 (“Obubu” in the local Kyoto dialect means “tea”), and as a small company has just 7 members of staff. Akky is the “Chairman without a chair” – meaning that seeing him in the office is as rare as – well, let’s keep the analogy Japanese and say: drinking a cup of green tea with milk. He’s only ever in the tea fields, or making the tea in the factory. During the harvesting season, he gets some help in the fields from a seasonal worker and us interns – but mostly he’s the only person looking after Obubu’s 3 hectares of tea fields. During spring harvest, he works almost every hour – harvesting the leaves in the day and making the tea in the factory all night. Now that’s dedication for you.
You might be wondering how I ended up at Obubu – in a small farming town called Wazuka in the Soraku district of Kyoto prefecture. Wazuka has over 800 years of tea-growing history and has some of the oldest and most beautiful tea fields in Japan. So how did I become part of that? Its all down to Obubu’s ethos of spreading the love of Japanese tea all over the world – and this is what makes Obubu truly unique. Yes, you can visit Japan and try teas in their numerous tea shops, and sometimes you can see the tea fields from the car window if you are in the right town – but it’s incredibly rare to find somewhere that will let you get so hands on – even for tourists in Japan. Don’t be surprised if you catch an article about Obubu on TV – their international atmosphere is so rare in Japan that they are in big demand on both Japanese and world TV shows. If you ask nicely I’ll tell you about the time I was on live Japanese TV and just about managed to offer the presenter some tea with my very basic Japanese language skills.
In fact, the language barrier is a big part of why it’s seriously difficult to get to know anything in-depth about tea whilst in Japan. Most tea farmers in Japan speak very little English, and why should they? However, Obubu wants to be an international company. So, four years ago, when the vice president Matsu started learning English and hired Simona who speaks 3 languages, Obubu opened itself up to the rest of the world, and started doing something many other tea farms had not: teaching the world about Japanese tea.
From their internship program, which has welcomed over 70 interns from 20 different countries, to their world tour every year where they host tea events in around 20 different European towns, their 2 week Japanese Tea Master Course in Wazuka, and their twice-weekly tea tours and tastings in Wazuka for international visitors – they are seriously committed to getting the word out there.
But what is that word? Well, mostly that word is JAPANESE GREEN TEA IS AMAZING (yes, I do know that’s five words. And I was shouting, sorry). But only 2% of Japan’s tea is exported. No wonder not much is known around the rest of the world. There isn’t room here to go too in-depth about Japanese tea, but here are 2 very important things to know: 1) Japanese green tea is hugely diverse and 2) you’ve got to find the good stuff.
1) When I say ‘Japanese green tea’ I am actually being incredibly vague – because there are so many kinds. Most people have heard of Sencha – this is Japan’s most popular green tea, making up around 62% of tea produced in Japan. But here is a short list of other types of Japanese green tea:
- Shaded (Kabuse) Tea: e.g. shaded Sencha or Gyokuro famous for strong umami flavours (There will be much more information about shading in my next blog – so hold tight if you want to know more)
- Bancha – a lower grade tea made from the lower leaves in between Sencha harvests
- Matcha – a fine powder that is whisked with water. It is made from grinding Tencha.
- Tencha – the raw material for Matcha. Tencha is a shaded tea that is made from just the leaves, simply steamed and dried. The stems are removed to make Kukicha.
- Kukicha – just the tea stems make a lovely drink on their own. They can also be roasted for a different flavour.
- Hojicha – roasted green tea. The liquor is brown and has a toasty flavour.
- Genmaicha – any green tea mixed with roasted rice kernels.
It’s amazing that all of these teas are so different and yet they are all green tea. Why is that? The answer is something that not only makes them all green tea but also makes them uniquely Japanese: steaming. To make any green tea, the leaves must be heated to a certain temperature to stop oxidation. However, the only country that uses steam to do this is Japan, and it means that the leaf retains more of its green colour, as well as enhancing the characteristic vegetal, almost seaweed taste.
That’s a very simple Japanese tea 101 for you, now moving onto my second point:
2) When I say that you have to find the good stuff, I’m giving you an easy task as Canton provides only the highest quality teas. Sourcing good quality tea is important for a lot of reasons, much of the tea on the Japanese market is cut, sorted and blended after processing and sold at auction in huge amounts, with a uniform taste every year. What’s wonderful about Obubu is that because they are a small company who sell direct to tea-lovers, they have the freedom to make small quantities of seriously good tea. Obubu only produces what is called ‘Aracha’ or ‘pure tea’ , which means no secondary processing. This also means that the tea reflects the environment in which it is grown and can taste different every year, like a fine wine, which is pretty exceptional really. Who wants the same old taste every year? Keep us fine tea lovers on our toes, I say.
So what I’m really getting at is: Whether you are already a Japanese tea aficionado or you’ve tried some basic Sencha, but not seen what the fuss was about, or even if you’ve never tried anything Japanese, you have to try Canton’s tea from Obubu. Who wouldn’t want to taste the best tea Japan has to offer – especially when it’s made by the dancing man?