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Japanese Kukicha leaves

From Stem Tea to Offgrades and Mattress Stuffing

by on April 25th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 82: Japan Green Sayama Kukicha 

This week’s blog is about grades of tea that are normally discarded but then used in various ways. This will mean exploring the darker side of the tea industry a bit, and we will be delving into my shady past in the 1980s again.

This week’s Tea Club tea is a Kukicha green tea from Japan. Kukicha means ‘stem tea’, and is produced from the stems and broken leaf pieces removed when preparing the top Sencha grades. These discarded pieces were traditionally then retained for drinking at home, and referred to as ‘peasants’ tea’. More recently it has been prepared as a special grade, with the pieces cut to an even size, and sold as a variety of tea in its own right. Many people prefer the tea’s character, which is less grassy than Sencha, with a creamy texture and sweetness.

The world of Canton and other fine tea suppliers and customers is one of fine large leaf teas, which are rolled, tumbled, twisted or pressed to create teas with elegant appearance and flavour. In their unfinished form most of these teas will have a small amount of stalk and broken leaves, which are removed by hand in producing the finished product. The pieces are usually discarded, but in the case of Kukicha they are carefully prepared into a separate tea, as described above. This is a rarity in the world of fine large leaf teas, but not elsewhere.

 

CTC & Secondary Grade Teas

Secondary grades

Secondary grades

 

Outside China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Darjeeling, the world of tea production is dominated not by large leaf rolled teas (known as ‘orthodox manufacture’), but by a process of chopping, crushing and shredding known as CTC (Crush, Tear Curl). The process was developed to create small grades of tea that infuse faster and give very strong liquors – ideal for the teabag market but also enjoyed in loose form in many countries, particularly India. Anyone who has enjoyed thick creamy Chai on the streets of India will have been drinking very finely ground Assam CTC tea boiled up with milk, sugar and spices. Chai blends made using large leaf teas and spices infused in water are a very different proposition, and a pale shadow of the real thing in my opinion.

The CTC process minces the leaves and stalks and creates a thick green paste that is then oxidised and dried to make black tea. The stalks and fibrous parts of the older leaves finish up a much lighter reddish brown colour, and need to be separated from the finer black pieces as part of the grading process. A typical CTC factory will produce nine grades of tea, categorised by size and blackness: the black grades are Primary, the brown grades Secondary, or ‘offgrades’. At the top end there is hard, grainy BP1 (Broken Pekoe 1), and at the bottom something brown and dirty usually called Dust 2. This is not to be confused with Dust 1, which is often the most expensive primary grade, producing strong and rich liquors that work superbly with milk (as in Chai).

More secondary grades

More secondary grades

Why am I telling you all this? Because the secondary grades are a whole new world. Whereas in China the waste grades might account for 1-2 % of production, in Africa they can be as much as 30%, and in Argentina 50%. The reason for the high figures is the standard of plucking – once you get below the young leaves and shoots the amount of stalk is much higher and the larger older leaves have a higher fibre content. Nobody wants to throw away 30% of their crop, so every ounce of this tea gets sold one way or the other. At least it does in most places, but not in India, where a minimum standard is enforced and sale of offgrade tea is prohibited. In fact plucking standards in Assam are very much higher so the levels of waste tea produced are relatively low.

 

Where do all the offgrades go?

Let’s start with the positive news: some buyers prefer the taste profile and price of secondary grades. The best example is in Somalia, where the taste is for large very fibrous Kenya teas called BMF: they look more like coir matting or mattress stuffing but produce brick-red liquors and aggressively strong flavours that really cut through fatty milk. There is so little black leaf in the mix that the sacks of tea can be thrown around like beach balls. Demand for this grade has become so strong that earlier this year prices approached the same levels in the Mombasa auction as the main primary grades. It’s certainly the case that the demand for secondary grades has a big impact on the profitability of tea estates, and high prices can make it viable for them to reduce plucking standards to increase yields. We have seen some of the less reputable producers doing this in recent years, leading to an overall drop in quality, but it might be working for them financially.

Kenya tea grades

Kenya tea grades

Malaysia tea grades

Malaysia tea grades

There are other examples. One very famous tea company here in the UK, with a reputation for high quality traditional tea, has long had a policy of using a proportion of the better-quality secondary grade Kenya teas in their flagship teabag blend, believing that they have particular magic properties. OK, not magic – they do have a deep golden colour with milk and I can see where they are coming from, but the feeling still persists that it had something to do with price originally. But in traditional companies, once something is there it tends to stay, with the secret passed down the blending line. In case some of you are wondering, it’s not Ringtons.

But the most creative approach to using tea stems has to be in Malawi, by our good friends at Satemwa. They produce a speciality tea by removing the leaves from the stems, which are then dried separately as a kind of white tea. They are soft to the touch, have knobbly ends and are called ‘Malawi Antlers’. That is just brilliant, and they taste great as well.

 

Less positive news

But of course these are exceptions – it’s mainly about cost. If you are blending teabags, when secondary grades are much cheaper it can be very tempting. The colour can be good, the flavour not too bad, so why not use them? Unfortunately, offgrade teas tend to pick up moisture more quickly than primary grades, and deteriorate as a result. If you are familiar with the grey colour and painty, metallic taste of cheap teabags that have been standing around for a while you will know what I mean. Some teas even start off like that – tea picked by large mechanical harvesters in Argentina looks and tastes poor, but most of it is destined for instant tea extraction so it doesn’t matter.

Tea harvesters in Argentina

Tea harvesters in Argentina

Having said that, it was interesting to me that there was a strong push in the UK for some of the Argentine plantations and factories to be certified by the Rainforest Alliance and even Fairtrade, so some large blenders are obviously attached to that kind of cheap low grade tea. I find that quite depressing. If you open the teabags of some of the well-known brands and supermarket own labels, you will we able to work out where this type of tea is going. Some are much better than others.

 

The dark side….

Back into my less than glorious past I’m afraid. Everybody wants to make money, but packing tea for supermarkets can be a cutthroat business. Contracts are put up for tender regularly, almost always awarded on cost, and quality standards are often monitored very loosely. As long as what’s in the bags is 100% tea, everything is legal. Generally speaking as a consumer you get what you pay for, and if tea looks cheap there will be a reason.

In the late 1980s there was a drive towards ‘value’ teabags, and all the major supermarkets wanted a cheap offering. The company I was working for at this time was on an aggressive expansion programme, picking up as many private label tea contracts as they could, assuming that they would be able to squeeze costs out. I was given the job as a tea buyer to search the darker corners of the tea world to find teas costing below £0.50 per kg, and if possible closer to £0.40. Including shipping. I have to admit that there was an enjoyable side to this challenge, but I did end up buying some fairly dodgy stuff. ‘Crowning Glory’ definitely isn’t the right term, but the most memorable was something from Indonesia called RMIT-B – Raw Material for Instant Tea B – it was just mixed tea waste and I wasn’t even buying the top grade. We ended up installing an old hammer mill and sieves in the warehouse to break it up and make something that would fit into a teabag. I feel better for getting all that off my chest. At least I wasn’t buying salvage tea or reclaimed tea, or fire damaged insurance write off tea, which some people were. As I said above, with cheap tea you get what you pay for.

Instant Tea and RTD

These days most secondary grade tea is extracted and dried into instant powders. One of the large plantation companies in Kenya built an instant tea plant on one of their gardens in the 1990s and it has now trebled in size. There are similar plants in India, Sri Lanka, China and Indonesia, all serving a growing global demand for tea extracts, primarily used in Ice Tea mixes and the Ready to Drink (RTD) sector – Liptonice, Nestea and so on. I’m guessing that people reading this blog aren’t consumers of such products, but sales are growing in most parts of the world.

Japanese Kukicha leaves

Japanese Kukicha leaves

This week’s tea

I really don’t want to include such a finely-crafted Kukicha in the above, but it does have some aspects in common. It started out as discarded waste, but became something quite special. I’m not sure if that could be said of anything else I have described, although some would disagree.

What do you think?

  1. Euni says:

    I’ve just tasted the Kukicha – my first foray into this style. I brewed it as recommended (60C for 45 secs, then 80C for shorter infusions) and I like the result. It’s like a creamy matcha and sencha combo. Not subtle or elegant, but full flavoured fun.