Today on the tea blog I want to discuss a trial and error experiment that I conducted last summer while in Japan. Once again I found myself at Obubu Tea Farms, this time only for a month as I awaited a new semester of university to begin. Having spent a month studying in Hong Kong I had concluded that returning to Canada would not have been nearly as productive, nor fun, as hopping over to Kyoto and enjoying the summer heat.
My time in Japan this time around is well documented and you can listen to my Japanese podcasts here to get a feel of what occurred during the month. Spoilers: a lot of partying, travel, and of course tea. Speaking of tea, this blog is going to take a turn and discuss my attempts to create several Japanese black teas.
Now you must understand that my Japanese is not very good. In fact, I was quickly reminded that it was worse this time around by the father of Obubu's Vice President as I mumbled and struggled for the words to greet him when he came knocking on the door one morning. It is no wonder then that I was easily confused when I found myself in the middle of a conversation about Japanese black tea. Up until then, I had assumed Japanese black tea was directly translated as kuro cha (黒茶). This, as it turns out, is not the case. Japanese black tea is instead called wa-kocha which is accurate as "wa" refers to an older term for Japan and "ko" is short for kuro/black. Regardless, it was not intuitive for me and I believe now that this incident was overheard by Vice President Matsu-san. Why? Because within a few days, and several after, I was brought batches of fresh tea leaves and instructed on how to make wa-kocha. The method, however, was rather impromptu.
Now I've made tea by hand while in Japan before. I failed, but I did make it. This time the results were much better. I'm going to assume that the precision required to halt the oxidation of the green tea leaves requires more skill than letting the leaves oxidize. Of course, I'd be wrong. Three times I attempted to make a black tea, and three times I made something more akin to a haphazard amalgamation of green, oolong, and black tea. If there was a Japanese Frankenstein's monster, I believe I made him.
Japanese black tea is something special. Historically Japan focused on producing black tea as a means of generating cash from exports and competing with China and India to capture the European market. The first registered tea cultivar in Japan was none other than a black tea named Benihomare (べにほまれ "red honor"). If you come across any tea cultivar in Japan beginning with beni, it'll have been made for the production of black tea. Additionally, it was the Japanese who, while occupying Taiwan, began to experiment with the now famous Ruby 18 black tea.
The tea leaves I was given were not of any beni cultivar. I believe they were either of the popular Yabukita cultivar or Zairai (grown from seed). This may seem easy to dismiss, but what is important to understand is that these cultivars are used to make green tea. As such, when made into a black tea, there remains a flavor very reminiscent of green tea. It's a kind of light freshness on the tongue. There is only a hint of bitterness and very little "punch" that you'd be accustomed to if you'd have grown up drinking black tea and orange pekoe tea bags. There are fewer catechins in these leaves and, as I'm told, this is the main cause of the lack of fortitude.
A closer look at these pictures and you'll see that the temperature was 36C. I was aiming for at least 40C. I never found out why, but I imagine that the higher the temperature, the quicker the leaves would oxidize. Out of the three batches, I was able to hold a 40C temperature for no more than a few minutes and was consistently bouncing between 32C and 38C. I blame the cheap plastic.
Each batch was different in taste. No doubt from the fluctuation in temperatures and the oxidation lengths used to make the tea. If memory serves me right it was 3hrs, 2hrs, and 4hrs respectively for each of the three batches. To dry the leaves out after oxidation I employed the used of what I believe to be a flat cooking pan. I know I used it for okonomiyaki.
A quick pan fry and I was good to go and enjoy the tea. To answer any questions remaining on tea manufacturing, I did wither the leaves for at least 12hrs or overnight and rolled them prior to the speedy oxidation process. Pan frying was used to reduce the moisture from the leaves as I was slightly paranoid about fostering mold or mildew growth within the plastic.
So, how did the teas taste? Alright. Light, a lingering green freshness, but nothing I'd want to sell outside fo samplers. It was a fun project, but black tea is still something Japan is working to improve. Many farmers, and myself, lack the knoweldge on how to properly make a delicious black tea. Compound this with the fact that many of the cultivars being used are not ones typically used in other countries and you got a problem unique to Japan. But I'm confident that, of the farmers currently making black tea, someone will find a way.