It's Tea Time in Japan!
As a dedicated coffee drinker, tea is an enigma to me. So I figured that investing most of a day at Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms in the small town of Wazuka, at the southern edge of Kyoto prefecture, was a good start to my education.
Truth be told, I was also lured by arresting images of waves of green tea plants, with their characteristic spherical shape, planted in neat rows, clinging to terraced hillsides. From what I'd read, they are not accessible, except on a tour.
Just as the Napa Valley appellation speak to quality in wine, so does Uji, for tea. Wazuka is one of the major Uji tea producers, having grown tea since the Kamakura period (1192-1333). During the Edo period, Wazuka produced the tea for the Japanese Imperial family.
As with any agricultural product, terroir is key. Wazuka's cool climate with wide temperature swings between night and day, ensure quality tea production.
Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, is a young company in an environment where some tea producers have been operating in family businesses over as many as five or more generations. Started by Akihiro Kita and Yasuharu Matsumoto in 2004, the artisan tea company began as an agricultural social venture and it continues to promote Japanese tea the world over, while building a sustainable operation to attract disaffected local young people to the value of farming. Its very name, "obubu," which is Kyoto slang for "tea," seems to be playing up the company's young, hip, newcomer status.
Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms runs an extensive internship program, bringing young people to Japan to learn about tea, contribute to the operations and become tea ambassadors. We met interns from the Maine, Texas and England, who hosted our tour.
Our tour started with an overview of tea production and a short video about the making of tea, which involves steaming to maintain the green color, hand-rolling to form the characteristic needle shape, and roasting to bring out the flavor. Then we hopped in the company van to visit the tea fields, walking through the immaculately cultivated rows, where we could see the leaves up close.
Our tour was followed by lunch at a small local restaurant for an energizing bowl of the most perfect green tea soba, the noodles retaining a chewy bite, served cold with a dipping sauce. Upon returning to the tea farm, we enjoyed a guided tasting of Obubu's teas and all took a turn grinding matcha with a traditional stone grinder.
Some things we learned during our Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms tour and tea tasting:
- Tea leaves, as an agricultural product, taste different, year by year, not unlike wine grapes and wine. Tea wholesalers adjust the flavor for uniformity, unlike artisan tea producers like Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, who maintain the character of each harvest.
- Japanese green tea is harvested three times a year: spring, summer and fall, with the most premium leaves coming from the first picking.
- A tea plant takes five years to become a mature tea tree. After harvesting for 40 years, the plants are replaced.
- All tea comes from variations of the Camellia sinensis plant; different processing methods are responsible for the variety of colors and flavors.
How to brew Japanese green tea:
- Water-to-tea proportions for high-quality sencha are 1/3 cup water at 140 to 156 degrees F., to 1 tablespoon sencha. Boiling water will destroy delicate flavors.
- When first brewing sencha, pour warm water into an empty teapot; when the tea pot gets warm, pour the water into the tea cups. This cools down the water while warming pot and cups. Now add the tea leaves to the pot, wait one minute, then pour the water from the tea cups back into the teapot, using a circular motion to soak leaves evenly. Steep a minute or minute and a half before serving.
- High-quality Japanese tea can be re-steeped up to three times. Each succeeding steeping requires higher-temperature water to coax out remaining flavor.
- After the third steeping, the drained leaves can be consumed as a salad. We had it seasoned with a little soy sauce and toasted rice grains and it tasted surprisingly like spinach. The tea, hand-rolled to thin needles, unfurls in the steeping to return to their original leaf shape. There are no bits and pieces of leaf, as you'd find in poor-quality tea.
Now a convert, I bought tea and even kitchen grade matcha powder to experiment in the Special Fork kitchen.
You can make matcha syrup by combining two parts sugar to one part water. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring, until sugar dissolves and mixture becomes slightly syrupy. Stir in matcha powder. Pour over shaved ice for a refreshing dessert or drizzle over ice cream. One resourceful intern, from whom I got the syrup recipe, used the syrup to make a green tea tiramisu.
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