Shincha time: The new season is a perfect time to try a new tea

IMG_1078  
 Trying a new tea from the 2016 tea harvest from Japan.

Spring brings with it the tantalizing promise of new tea.  The first harvest or ‘first flush’ of Japanese tea is generally picked somewhere around April or May (depending on region and local conditions) and this shincha or ‘new tea’ usually begins appearing on U.S. market anywhere from mid-May to mid-June. There are multiple harvests throughout the tea season, with second and third flushes routine, and even fourth flushes not unusual. Still, the first flush is considered by many to be the most desirable. It is the first harvest after the long winter during which the tea plant has had time to recover from the previous season. This allows the plant to bring fresh energy and vitality to the first flush. The arrival of shincha is also for many people a real marker that winter has finally given way to spring, making this first harvest a much-anticipated ritual of spring for tea drinkers.

The amount of tea available from this first harvest is limited. This combination of limited supply and high demand means that prices for shincha are higher than other for other harvests during the season.  Demand for shincha is based in part on flavor– many find the ‘new tea’ to be noticeably less bitter and even somewhat sweet compared to other flushes.  This difference has been attributed to lower levels of catechins in the leaves.

shipping
Nothing beats the arrival of the first new tea of the season!

This year I ordered a selection of shincha online from Hibiki-an, a tea purveyor in Uji, in the Kyoto region of Japan.  Along with a first flush sencha and a fukamushi I decided to try their aracha or “farmer’s tea”.  I had never tried aracha before and didn’t know that much about it.  I’m always excited to try new Japanese teas and so, after placing my order, I did some research.

Aracha is sometimes called ‘farmer’s tea’ because it is the partially-processed tea that growers sell on the wholesale market to distributors. It is not typically available in the retail environment. After picking the tea, the grower steams, rolls, and then dries all parts of the leaf. This includes the stems, the leaf itself, the broken bits and particles– literally everything.  It is in this state that the tea is then sold to distributors, who process the tea further.

IMG_0952
The aracha out of the bag. Note the lighter stem bits.

After distributors purchase the aracha they set about finishing the tea. This includes grading, sorting and sizing the leaves, and, very often, blending them with tea from other growers in order to create the flavor profile they want or to meet the volume of tea they need to fulfill the demand from the retail market.  Often a single grower can’t meet the a distributor’s demand from the retail market for certain teas.

Because the aracha is not as dry as finished tea, it doesn’t store well for very long and should be consumed fairly soon after opening.

Brewing

I set about making my first pot of aracha by following the directions provided.  I always make a new tea according to the instructions the first time, so I get a sense for how the seller thinks it should be served.  From there I may make tweaks to water temperature, amount of leaf or steep times to find the right flavor for me.

IMG_0945
Brewing instructions on producer’s packaging

Opening the package I found the aroma of the tea rather subtle.  Often opening a fresh sencha you are greeted with a pungent, grassy or seaweedy aroma, depending on the tea.  I found the aracha to have a rather low-key aroma of fresh grass.  The appearance of the tea was a bit more ragged than you usually find with finished teas, which have been more carefully sorted and have stems and broken bits removed for a more uniform final product.

Following the producer’s instructions of 7-8 grams of tea to 7 ounces of water produced a soft yellow liquor. I found the flavor quite mellow, and rather smooth. There was not a lot of astringency or tanginess to the flavor. It had a softer, mild grassiness to it. My tasting partner and I both found it enjoyable but a surprisingly a bit weak, given the ratio of leaf to water.  A second steep with the same leaves saw the flavor change to a somewhat more bitter aroma and flavor which I personally did not enjoy as much.

Overall the key difference I found between aracha and other, more finished teas was a somewhat “flatter” flavor.  This is probably not surprising given that aracha is tea that isn’t fully finished in its processing; it contains elements like stems and broken bits that would normally end up sorted out. And very often teas on the retail market are not single-leaf but are a blend of teas from different growers selected to create a pre-define profile.  For this reason I recommend trying an aracha if you can to get a unique taste of tea that is a step closer to the leaf.

Advertisements

Vancouver Tea Festival

IMG_2149
Hundreds of tea lovers flocked to the Vancouver Tea Festival to sample teas from around the world.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here on the blog. As happens, life kept getting in the way… career changes, a move, a new business… too much going on which left no time for blogging- or much else for that matter.  Things are still hectic, but they have settled down enough so that I can start finding time to get back to sharing in the world of tea.

One thing I was happy to make time for was the Vancouver Tea Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I just loIMG_2153ve Vancouver and the Tea Festival offered a perfect excuse to take a long weekend to get away, relax a little, and recharge with some great tea.

The festival was a one-day event, held back in  November at the Croatian Cultural Centre. Located in the eastern part of the city, the Centre is in the middle of a residential area with a rather small parking area which made finding a spot somewhat challenging.  The admission of $15 earned me a handstamp and tasting cup with which I headed into the exhibition hall.

The space was inviting with its dark wood floors and warm lighting.  Thirty-one vendors were arranged in booths around the perimeter of the room with another line straight down the middle.  There were easily several hundred people already inside when we arrived and they just kept on coming all afternoon. In total the festival reports that over three thousand people attended.

Teas

Vendors seemed all based either in Canada or the US, while the teas themselves came from all across the globe.  I saw teas grown in India, China, Japan, Taiwan, America and Africa.  There was something for everyone with teas from black to green to white, from oolongs to senchas, puehrs, blooming teas and tea cocktails.

IMG_2137
Vendors ranged from large international companies to small mom-and-pop shops.

One of the most unique teas I saw was made from coffee leaves.  Since only the beans are used in coffee production, the leaves are a by-product that had been simply going to waste, until some growers in Africa decided to process them and create a new kind of tea.  Alas, I did not get to try any of this as the crowd around the booth was several rows deep and the staff was having trouble keeping enough on hand for those already in line.

There were scores of teas from China and, as is often the case, a significantly smaller variety from Japan.  Vendors included large companies like Sugimoto America alongside small mom-and-pop distributors like Chado Teahouse, run by a lovely woman who distributes packaged teas from Japan via a website (www.chadoteahouse.com) and a tiny storefront on Main Street shared with a Japanese antiques shop.  She had a good number of teas for sale in the booth she was sharing with another seller.  She spent quite a bit of time talking with me about Japanese teas, what makes them different from other teas, and carefully explaining the diferences in types of Japanese tea.  I purchased a  gyokuro and a mecha from her selection. (I will be writing about those in future posts).  We later located her shop, which I hope to be able to visit it on my next trip north.

IMG_2135.jpg

Small, hands-on instructional and tasting sessions were held in curtained-off booths toward the back of the hall. I find this is a much better arrangement than holding tastings and talks out in the open where all the noise and traffic in the exhibit area make it nearly impossible to focus.

Teaware

IMG_2143
Celadon cup with 3-dimensional water buffalo.

There was plenty of teaware for sale as well. Everything from teapots to cups and tea scoops to storage canisters was on display in all styles from the rustic to the very fancy. Despite my plan to be fiscally responsible, I fell in love with a pair of celadon teacups in the booth of YuanChen Tea (whose shop is located in the Richmond district of Vancouver).  In addition to their gorgeous color, the cups were decorated with tiny 3-dimensional koi fish.  When filled with tea this creates the impression that the koi are swimming around in your cup. Though I was tempted to get a whole set, I opted in the end to get just a pair.

IMG_2136 (1)
                There was plenty of tea and tea ware on display.

 

A day well spent

At the end of the day I drank some good tea, learned some new things, and discovered some new sources for tea.  On top of that I have some beautiful new cups in which to sample my purchases. All in all it was a thoroughly delightful afternoon of tea and one I look forward to attending again.

 

IMG_2142
                        The koi cups I couldn’t resist.

 

My tea oasis

IMG_0052

Creating an outdoor haven for tea

Just the simple act of drinking tea can bring pleasure, soothe the nerves, and take you to a more zen-like headspace. Even the familiar rituals involved in making the tea can offer comforting refuge from the tumult of the day.  Add in a beautiful natural setting and you have one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

When we bought our house several years ago, it had a lot of lovely features and one not-so-lovely feature– a narrow, concrete patio that filled the area between the garage and house. The previous owners had tried to soften the harsh lines of the space by adding gently sloping rock walls which they then filled with vines like ivy and vinca.  In addition to being ugly, the vines were voracious. If not trimmed back on a weekly basis they would begin to wrap their tentacles around everything in their path. Before long they were climbing the sides of the house, the garage, and strangling the shrubbery. They had to go.

The space itself was a bit too small and narrow to be used for entertaining, but would be perfect for creating a quiet spot to relax with a cup of tea. With that as my goal, I donned my work gloves and began ripping out the vines with gusto.

Here are the vines in a relatively tamed state:

Pam's iPhone 2010-05-10 at 16-18-32
The south side rockery.
Pam's iPhone 2010-05-10 at 16-17-57
The north side rockery.

While ripping out the vines we also decided to add some rustic steps for better access:

IMG_1548
Before — north side with bench.
IMG_2164
After — north side with stairs.

Then we ripped out the rest of the ivy and began planting:

IMG_3331
North side planting… new fence as well.
IMG_4408 (1)
South side planting

We gave the new plants lots of TLC and crossed our  fingers.  Things began to settle in and by the end of the season I could see my vision for the space taking shape:IMG_4537 (1)IMG_4664

By the second season things were filling in even more:

IMG_4660 (1)

And by last year, the plants were growing bigger and filling the space with more gorgeous color:

Pam's iPhone 2014-04-15 at 15-06-28          Pam's iPhone 2014-04-15 at 15-06-36

Finally, this year arrived and the rockery was lush with colorful foliage:

IMG_9016

Once the temperatures got consistently warm enough it was time to haul out the old wicker chairs, freshen them up with some lavender spray paint, and then sit back and enjoy it all with a cup of my favorite sencha:

IMG_0052
Even my ceramic sheep couldn’t resist joining in!

IMG_0098                   IMG_0115

The cat didn’t want to be left out either:

IMG_9943
My baby, Mojo, soaking up some sun with me.

There’s still plenty of work to be done this season– next step is dragging out the power washer to brighten up the concrete while brainstorming how I will replace it. On second thought, maybe I’ll just have another cup of tea…

IMG_9221IMG_9797IMG_9255

We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!

IMG_1180Do all those rules for making tea really matter?

When it comes to tea, there are a lot of opinions about the rules for making it and how stringently they must be followed. For some tea drinkers the rules are the Holy Grail and must be religiously adhered to. Others argue that you can be too fussy about making tea according to the “rules”, working yourself into a lather over weighing your leaf to the precise gram, heating your water to the perfect degree, or steeping your cup to the exact millisecond. These folks argue that you should just relax a little and figure out how you like your tea without worrying about some fussy old-school rules.

On this point they’re right:  drinking tea should be an enjoyable experience, one that brings pleasure, not stress. The truth is, no tea police are ever going to show up at your door and revoke your tea privileges because you let a pot steep a minute longer than recommended, or serve you a citation because your water temperature was 8 degrees over the limit.images-8

Does this mean that rules serve no purpose and should be disregarded? Not at all. Rules should be used the way they are intended to be used: as guidelines, as learning tools, and as a representation of the cumulative wisdom of generations of tea drinkers before us.

Tea has been made forever (relatively speaking), and a lot of tricks, tips and techniques have been developed for brewing it. No one can follow all of them, and over time you’ll figure out which ones work best for you. But they are still useful. Ever notice how most websites have an FAQ page? Why is that? Because you will likely encounter many of the same speed bumps as those who came before you, and they want to save you from wasting time and money repeating their mistakes. Rules for making tea serve the same goal.

So while rules may be made to be broken, they do serve a solid purpose, and following them is not wrong. Rules offer a baseline, a touchstone, a common language that allows us to understand when and where deviations can be or have been made, and to assess the impact of those deviations. If, for example,  you are served a tea that is bitter, rather than writing off the tea, you might recognize that it was the method used that contributed to the bitterness. You are able to observe that the tea was made with water/ leaf/ steep time outside of the time-tested best practices, and that if made differently, the bitterness could have been avoided.

images-12

In other words, rules provide a basis for comparison. Grounding your critique in the so-called rules helps others understand your perspective by pinpointing why you felt something wasn’t up to par.

The fact is, there are basic rules of chemistry that hold true regardless of our opinion. For instance, using water hotter than recommended for a given tea will result in a cup that is more astringent than one made with cooler water. This can be demonstrated repeatedly and reliably. And the range of temperatures (notice I didn’t say the exact temperature) that typically produce a less bitter cup for that type of tea is also well known. In the end you may decide you like more astringency, and if so, you should absolutely use hotter temperatures for your personal tea. But you’ll know that that is your acquired taste.

This is why I believe that if you are a purveyor of tea, a tea instructor, or in the business of serving people tea, you owe it to them to present teas ‘properly’, IMG_7841that is, in accordance with the methods that have been proven over time to give the most consistent, optimal results. Methods that respect and highlight the unique qualities of the tea being drunk. One of the responsibilities of anyone presenting themselves as a tea expert (and that is not me; I am very much still a beginner) is to teach new drinkers the basics, to show off a tea as it was intended, and then let them decide how they prefer their tea.

It is a mistake to think of tea-making rules as bad, proscriptive, limiting– like a straightjacket. Or to think of those who follow them as fussy, or silly novices. The so-called rules offer useful guidelines. A common ground. They represent the hard-won wisdom of many, many tea growers and tea drinkers over time. It behooves us to recognize them, understand them, respect them. And then use them develop our own wisdom, and create our own rules. Or not.

Elegant cherry-blossom tea scoop

IMG_0779

The cherry blossoms may have come and gone for the season, but I found  a way to keep enjoying them all year long with this lovely silver tea scoop. There are times when I love the warmth and rustic homey-ness of simple wooden tea tools, and other times I fancy tools that are sleek and cool and elegant.  With delicate sakura blossoms engraved in its shiny surface this scoop has elegance in spades.

But don’t let it’s fancy face fool you, it’s plenty functional as well. Made of durable stainless steel it can survive a trip through the dishwasher or an accidental stepping-on if dropped. Just sayin’.

IMG_7468

Ergonomically the scoop fits comfortably in the hand, and has a nicely curved end that is easy to grasp securely.  Its scooping edge, finer and thinner than on many wooden scoops, makes it easy to scoop the desired amount of leaf without damage.

I found my lovely sakura scoop at Hibiki-an.com, which sells tea from the Uji region of Japan along with many beautiful tea accessories (I do not have any association with Hibiki-an or receive any compensation from them). They carry a range of styles of teapots, teacups and other tea tools and I recommend checking out their site.

IMG_0775

Tea and sympathy

IMG_9844
The Tea Room at the UW Medical Center offers a wide variety of bagged and loose teas.

It’s been a while since I lasted posted on this blog.  A number of events, both personal and professional, have kept me running around like the proverbial headless chicken, warping my sense of time so that it seems months go by in the blink of an eye.  Thankfully things have settled down recently (mostly!) and I can finally take the time to reflect on some of the tea experiences I’ve had over the last couple of months.

One of the places I unexpectedly found myself during this time was the University of Washington Medical Center.  Visiting hospitals– any hospitals, for any reason– gives me serious anxiety.  About ten years ago my mother got cancer, and accompanying her on trips into the large, urban teaching hospital on the east coast where she was treated left me with a real case of hospital-phobia. Now just driving by a hospital can give me anxiety, never mind having to go inside one.

On one visit to UWMC I luckily discovered the Tea Room, IMG_9847a wonderful oasis of tea and calm right off the lobby.  At first it looked like it would be just another small cafeteria-style space. But once I stepped inside the space opened up.  It had wonderful large windows overlooking towering evergreens.  Facing the windows were comfortable cushioned chairs with adjustable arm trays for setting your beverage or snack.

Tea selection. The selection of teas included many popular brands in tea bags, and also loose teas in glass canisters on back shelves.

IMG_9834

I naturally opted for one of their loose Japanese green teas, the evocatively named Sencha Spiderleg.  Loose teas were kept in glass containers in the back. Water was added from a restaurant coffee-maker, so the temperature for a green tea was, alas, essentially the same as would be used for a black tea.

IMG_9840

I took my (very) hot cup of tea to one of the cushy chairs by the window and the beautifully-framed view of the evergreen trees outside.

IMG_9842

Unfortunately my sencha neither looked nor tasted anything like a sencha; it was brown and had a sort of bland, non-taste taste to it.

IMG_9856

But the view, and the calm, peaceful atmosphere somehow made up for it. Tucked away from the bustle of the lobby and waiting areas, with the soothing view of nature filling the wall of windows, the Tea Room was just the deep breath I needed to calm my nerves.

As I sat sipping my oddly brown green tea, I was joined by several nurses and techs who worked in the hospital.  They told me the Tea Room was relatively new and that they, too, found it a welcome oasis of serenity in their hectic workday.  It, like the gift shop, is run by the Service League, a non-profit, volunteer organization that provides “benefits for patients and their families that otherwise would not be available, such as the cancer library and artist-in-residence program” according to their website. The money you pay for your tea or snacks (or gifts) goes toward supporting not only the tea room but these projects as well.

Turns out sometimes a less-than-perfect cup of tea can be the perfect antidote to a stressful day.