With the shincha (新茶 new tea) harvests rolling in I felt it was time to reflect on my days in Japan. Rolling mountains, meandering rivers, and the first harvests of the year from huge rugged leaves and woody stems.
What? Ok, perhaps I'm riding on a technicality here, but the shincha harvests that every seems to be chatting about isn't the only harvest happening. Yes, those delicate and tender leaves are the first flushes to be harvested. But in the Kyoto prefecture, a special type of tea has been dormant throughout the winter and is ready to make its way into your cup.
Kyobancha. A wonderfully delicious and perhaps undiscussed tea. Noted for its smokey flavour brought out in the roasting process, it boasts several beneficial qualities. For starters the caffeine in green tea is typically moderate to high. Kyobancha is reputed to have such low caffeine due to the roasting process that even the elderly and newborns are able to drink it an get a full nights sleep.
Kyobancha is similar to hojicha in that both are roasted. However kyobancha is not rolled and the leaves remain flat. Another note is that the raw leaves used to make kyobancha have been left to grow from the previous summer. In the picture above you can see just how much of the leaves we're harvesting. Th inclusion of such large stems and twigs contributes a nice hint of sweetness to the end product.
On this day we were harvesting from a small field on the side of a mountain. Splitting the two fields was an ancient Cypress tree and we were thankful for the shade it provided. Carrying bags of raw leaves is tiring work. How much yield did we manage to get? Take a look at what a few hours of trimming can get you.
Now Japan has an interesting processing structure when it comes to tea. The production factories are often rented in a time-share like manner and so farmers need to be punctual in their harvests. Probably because they brought along an easily distracted intern (me....it was totally me) we were a bit behind schedule. Never fear, we made it to the factory in time and were able to unload the tea onto the floor. That's right. It all was dumped straight onto the floor. Next it was swept into a six foot deep pit. And from there it was steamed. Oh...you think I'm joking? Take a look for yourself.
I can't recall exactly, but I want to say that these leaves were steamed for 30 minutes. That's right, the pit is actually a steaming chamber. It may seem like a long time, but there is a lot of leaves in there. Now caffeine in green tea, like I mentioned is moderate to high depending on the tea. Kyobancha is extremely low and I'd wager that is due to both the roasting (the next step after steaming) and the steaming itself. Caffeine is water soluable at high temperatures and I'd imagine a lot of it is extracted and discarded through this intense production step.
Once all the leaves were packed in it was time for me to head back to the office. It wasn't until the next day that I told to come down into the factory once more and see the result of the steaming. The colour shift in the leaves wasn't something I was imagining I'd see. They'd turned emerald green to muddy brown!
I was taken aback. Admittedly I nearly screamed like a child in dleight at seeing the transformation. Behind me the roasting machine, basically a large dryer, began to hiss and clatter as it warmed up. My next job was to use a pitchfork and scoop these leaves into the white basin below. From here they were taken up on a conveyor.
I wasn't able to stay long. We had a tour group stop by and I was called to narrate the journey up the mountain for them. I quickly took a snapshot of this machine as it was the only time I saw it running. You can see the leaves are now individually making their way into the drier. If they were to go all as one chances are they wouldn't all dry. This was the third (I believe it was the third conveyor, my minds a little fuzzy) conveyor that the leaves traveled on. Notice that there is no rolling machine. It's one of the unique features of kyobancha. It also means that the flavour isn't too intense.
Rolling leaves tends to bring out a more intense flavour and the compounds mix and develop. Here, the kyobancha is very short lasting in terms of flavour. You may only get one steeping. Perhaps two if you leave the leaves to steep for over five minutes. People also claim that there is a smokey taste to kyobancha. This is true. However I'd bet it depends more on the farmer. This specific batch was not very smokey in flavour. I'd describe it as woody, char, and earthy.
Overall I'd highly suggest this tea. Many people I know do not like to drink tea well into the evening like myself and so a caffeine free tea, or one that is very low, is a great option to have in your cupboard. Kyobancha is also very forgiving and you don't need to adhere to strict brewing rules. Just use a large teapot and near boiling water. You'll do okay. And while you're drinking, just remember how large these leaves from a the first-first harvest are!