by Ella Perryman on August 20th, 2017
In Kate’s second blog from the Obubu farm, she tells us about one of the most sought-after Japanese green teas – shaded Sencha. How is it grown? And why is it so special? Let’s find out…
Kate: I have to admit, even though I’ve worked with tea for quite a few years now, I departed for Japan knowing next to nothing about shaded tea (slap on the wrist.) Its ok though – because how better to learn about it than by actually farming it?
You’ve probably heard of Sencha. It’s the most famous and one of the most popular Japanese teas. It’s characterised by its long, thin needle shaped leaves. Sencha was developed by tea farmer Nagatani Soen around 300 years ago in Ujitawara town, very near present-day Obubu tea in Kyoto Prefecture. As tea had to be transported by foot in the 18th Century, it needed to be packed in the smallest space possible to be resistant to heat and moisture – making the needle shape perfect for this.
Sencha is made from the new growth of the tea plant – ideally the top two leaves and one bud, and the first spring Sencha of the year is very highly prized. Each year in Wazuka town, where Obubu tea is based, a group of farmers hand-pick and hand roll the very first young Sencha leaves of the spring season to make just 3kg of tea (hand-picking and hand-rolling is very rare in Japan where the tea making process is mostly mechanized). This tea goes to auction where it is usually sold for over £1000 per kilo.
So Sencha in itself can range from your standard everyday green tea to something highly anticipated and with a serious price tag. But what about shaded Sencha? Well, like a lot of good things, it was created by accident. During the winter, Japanese tea farmers would cover their tea plants with woven reeds to protect the leaves from frost, and somewhere along the line they discovered that shading the leaves could alter the taste of the tea, giving it that famously hard to describe “sixth taste”: umami.
What is umami? I think the experience of umami is best described as a feeling, more than a taste. After giving 2 tea tastings a week for 3 months at Obubu, I can say with confidence that umami can divide a room: some people describe it as sweet, whilst others (including myself) experience it as something deeply savoury. However, nearly everyone can agree that umami teas coat your mouth and throat with a long-lasting thickness that’s definitely palpable. Some people hate it (including my Mother, who isn’t getting any more of my precious shaded Sencha again!), but others think its one of the finest tastes in tea.
Whilst we don’t know how everyone will react to an umami tasting tea, we do know why it tastes like it does. The umami taste comes from the presence of theanine (also called L-theanine), which is an amino acid found in tea leaves (and very few other places). Tea also contains catechins, which contribute to the bitter taste of tea. Here’s where it gets interesting: theanine is converted into catechins when the tea plant is exposed to sunlight. If you don’t expose the tea to sunlight, you can stop this process and keep more theanine in the leaves, hence more umami taste.
Regular Japanese tea fields that are open to sunlight all year round are called ‘Roji’. Those that are shaded are called ‘Kabuse’ from the Japanese ‘Kabuseru’ meaning ‘to shade’. The plants are shaded for between 10 days and 4 weeks before harvesting, depending on the type of tea. During the shading period, the leaves are deprived of about 85% of sunlight – keeping more theanine in the leaves.
Unfortunately, the days of covering tea fields with reeds are long gone, as I imagine this would have looked rather beautiful. If you visit any tea-growing area during harvest season in Japan, you will see many rows of tea covered with black or silver material – this makes shaded tea. The vista of fields of black covered tea rows doesn’t look that great – but once you know how special the teas that are underneath are going to become – it’s all worth it. Unless perhaps you are the person who has to put that shading material on and take it off again (this year it was me, and now I know why most tea farmers in Japan have bad backs and can’t stand up entirely straight). Weeks of back-breaking bending down to clip the material onto the underside of the tea bushes was only topped by more weeks of bending down to unclip the bloody things again, followed by hour upon hour of rolling them neatly up. It sounds easy. The newly formed, weirdly bulging muscles on my forearms tell a different story. But, like the tea that the shading has made (and because of it), I’m not bitter.
Recently, Theanine has been the subject of quite a lot of research. It is now known to be the reason why, despite the fact that tea contains caffeine, you get much less of an agitated caffeine “buzz” that you might get from coffee. Theanine inhibits the effect of the caffeine in the tea, making it gentler. This may be the reason why tea has been used for thousands of years by monks for the practice of meditation – the combination of caffeine and theanine give a feeling of “mindful alertness”. Theanine is now even being extracted from tea and sold on its own as a remedy for anxiety, stress and insomnia, it has similar uses as kratom which is very helpful.
In order to experience the full umami taste of shaded Sencha, you need to brew it in the correct way. Theanine (umami taste) is extracted at lower temperatures, whilst the catechins (bitter taste) are extracted at higher temperatures, so Obubu recommends starting with a very low temperature brew (around 60 °C). There is a traditional Japanese method of getting water to this temperature, which is to boil your water and then navigate it from the kettle to the teapot, from the teapot to the small cups, and then letting it sit for a while, until you can hold the cup comfortably in the palm of your hand. While the water is cooling in your cups, put the dry leaves into the warmed pot and close the lid for a few seconds. When you lift it you should have the most wonderful umami aroma. Now you have warm tea ware and cool enough water, you should return the water into the pot with the tea leaves, and let it brew for around 1.5 minutes. This will induce an intense umami flavour. Increase the temperature of the water to 80°C for the second brew of the same leaves (15 seconds infusion time) and then 100°C for the third (brew for 40 seconds), and you will notice an array of different flavours. You might prefer the second or third brew better – that’s ok. It’s all about personal taste. Just enjoy the experience.
Shaded Sencha is a very precious tea. Some of Canton’s leaves may have even been lovingly shaded by yours truly. So it’s a tea to take your time over, a tea to brew carefully, and even a tea to meditate with. Tasting shaded Sencha can be an incredible experience for the senses, and we hope you enjoy every moment and every cup (I broke my back making it – so you’d better).