Kaizen & Tea

When it comes to Japanese tea culture, most people tend to think first of elaborate ceremonies, poetry, and all the philosophy typically embodied in chadō. And while these are essential components of the Japanese approach to tea, few realize that beneath the history and aesthetics lies a very pragmatic approach to the production of tea. The careful balance of cutting-edge technology with traditional methods, and an appreciation for efficiency, has done well to make Japanese teas some of the most common in the world.

Modern Japanese tea production owes much to the concept of kaizen, a term that was introduced to the business world in the aftermath of WWII. Kaizen, which roughly translates as “continuous improvement”, was conceived by William Deming and made famous by Toyota as a way of constant small innovation that, in the long-term, will help a business attain perfection.

Using kaizen, Japanese tea production is the ultimate in efficiency: from the harvest of one plant, you can get not only sencha, but also shincha, kukicha, bancha, hojicha, and genmaicha. Let’s take a look at all of these teas.

Sencha: The most common type of Japanese tea, accounting for roughly 80% of the country’s tea production. Sencha ranges in quality from top-end to ready-to-drink dust & fannings, and is produced throughout the growing season. After harvest, it is steamed to stop oxidation, rolled into thin needle shapes, and oven-dried.

Shincha: The very first yield of sencha, shincha is composed of young new leaves that are plucked early in spring before the main harvest begins. Shincha is prized among connoisseurs for its rarity, complex flavors, and freshness.

Bancha: Harvested from mid-June to September after sencha production is finished, bancha utilizes fuller, more mature leaves and sometimes stems to give it its characteristic notes of sweet hay and bold grassiness.

Kukicha: Kukicha is made from stems and leaf cuttings leftover from sencha production. It is more delicately flavored than sencha or bancha, with savory sesame notes.

Hojicha: This unique green tea is made of sencha or bancha leaves, sometimes blended with kukicha, that have been roasted at 200°F for several minutes. Roasting imparts a rich, sweet, and nutty flavor – along with a lower caffeine content that makes it perfect for the evenings.

Genmaicha: Originally a staple of fasting monks and the poor, genmaicha is sencha or bancha that has been blended with toasted brown rice, which gives it a wonderfully mellow quality and full body.

Kaizen approaches in Japanese industry have been a tremendous gift to tea drinkers, allowing aficionados the chance to enjoy the diverse range of flavors that come from a single plant. Have you tried sencha and all the teas derived from it yet? Which is your favorite?

By: Jen Coate

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Aged Oolong Tea

2009 Aged Oolong Tea CakeBack in December, we wrote about aged white tea cakes, a recent innovation out of Fujian, China that has slowly been gaining popularity here in the United States. Like puerh, aging white tea can give it a whole new array of flavors and complexities. But puerhs and whites aren’t the only teas that can benefit from aging. Unknown to many Western tea drinkers, the tradition of aging oolongs in Taiwan and China is nearly as old as oolong tea itself.

Much like white tea (and in contrast to puerh), aged oolongs do not require fermentation to kick off their processing. Instead, they are traditionally baked or roasted over charcoal and carefully kept sealed from light and moisture. Too much moisture will produce a distinct tartness or sourness that can overpower the delicate complexities acquired in aging. Some producers of aged oolongs will re-roast their teas every few years to ensure a proper dryness. But this step is not always needed so long as the tea is stored properly and in the right environment.

Generally, an aged oolong is not considered ready for consumption until it is six to eight years old – although some connoisseurs argue that oolongs should wait until they are at least thirty to lose their “greenness”. Regardless, a well-stored oolong will continue to age and improve for many decades. The resulting flavor is both mellow and complex, and can contain notes of honey sweetness or cooling herbs. Superior aged oolongs have a soft and silky mouthfeel and a pronounced smoothness.

Like puerh and aged white teas, not every oolong is considered suitable for aging. The leaves must be of a high-enough quality, and the plucking and processing done with special care, so that the aging tea will be able to acquire the prized complexities and flavors and not merely taste stale. Traditionally, high-mountain Taiwanese oolongs, like Dark Roast Alishan, with a moderate to heavy roast are considered very suitable, as well as “rocky” teas from mountainous regions like Wuyi in the Chinese mainland. The flavors that are already naturally imparted through these high-elevation, mineral-rich terroirs are perfect for development through aging.

View inside an aged oolong tea cake and its brew.Although still a relative rarity in the U.S., aged oolongs are slowly coming into the western market, mostly through specialty tea houses. Some are sold loose, in their semi-balled form, while others are compressed into cakes of varying shapes and sizes. Here at Dominion Tea, we are excited to now be offering 2009 Aged Oolong Cakes, which are available for both online orders and in-store pickup. Whether you’re new to aged teas or a seasoned veteran, aged oolongs are a wonderful way to explore a corner of the tea world not often noticed in the West.

By: Jen Coate

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Builder’s Tea: A Workman’s Tradition

Builder’s Tea is a uniquely British concoction that is both indispensable to its working class and a fascinating unsung contributor to its tea culture. This creation of Yorkshire Tea is still a staple that drives its marketing, like the ad for Yorkshire Tea starring Sean Bean, which we enthusiastically recommend that you treat yourself and give it a watch (we’ll include a link at the bottom). “Proper brews… for Yorkshire!” Now that’s the passion that good tea deserves.

Worker's Enjoying Tea

Worker’s Enjoying Tea – Gunbower District, Victoria

Builder’s tea has been around far longer than there has been a name for it, but it is thought to have developed in the 1970’s, as the U.K. was finally regaining its economic footing in the decades following WWII. The British manufacturing industry was on the rise, domestic production was highly valued, and skilled laborers were in demand to work assembly lines and construction sites. A new blue-collar culture began to emerge, and with it, a demand for low-cost, quick-brewing tea that could provide these workers a rapid dose of refreshment. This need was especially vital for those working outside factories and offices, where deadlines were tighter and breaks more sporadic – everyday tradesmen like carpenters, electricians, and bricklayers.

The essential elements of a cup of builder’s tea were thus tailored to the demands of the laborer. Traditionally, the blend utilized would consist mostly of Keemun (also known as Qimen or Qimen Gongfu) a Chinese black tea out of southern Anhui Province. First produced during the Qing Dynasty, this tea has been popular in the West since the late 19th century. Its characteristics make it ideal as the base of builder’s tea, which needed to be inexpensive, highly caffeinated, and with a flavor able to withstand a fast and brutal preparation. Historically favored brands include Tetley’s, PG Tips, and – of course – Yorkshire.

Colonial Breakfast Tea Liquor and Loose Leaf

Colonial Breakfast Tea

Builder’s tea was always brewed directly in mugs instead of a teapot. Boiled water was poured directly over teabags (loose tea was never preferred), and each mug was then subject to vigorous stirring. The idea was to extract as much flavor and caffeine from the teabag as possible in an abbreviated amount of time, and stirring was thought to speed the process along. Once the desired steep strength was reached, the bag was discarded, and generous amounts of full-fat milk and white sugar were added for an extra boost of energy and calories.

These days, although still conspicuous on any British construction site or factory floor, builder’s tea is waning in popularity as coffee blends and energy drinks seek to crowd out competition. Brands like Yorkshire Tea, however, still insist on keeping builder’s tea alive. And if you’re curious to try a strong black tea to get you through the workday, we at Dominion Tea recommend Colonial Breakfast. This Keemun blend boasts a malty kick and a delightful smoothness, and is perfect for both a morning start or an afternoon pickup. Hard to beat that for a proper brew!

By: Jen Coate
Yorkshire Tea Commercial: https://youtu.be/8cipMoGKXGEFollow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Alishan High Mountain Oolongs

View from Dabang Village Alishan Taiwan

Sunrise in Dabang Village, Alishan National Forest

Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.

Growing Conditions

One of the largest spiders on the planet found in large parts of Asia

Giant Golden Orb Web Weaver or Giant Wood Spider

Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.

Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.

Processing

Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.

Tea fields growing up a mountainside.

One of many tea fields found throughout the high mountains of Alishan Taiwan.

The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.

Drinking

There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.

Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.

The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Fenghuang Dancong – Phoenix Oolong

A product of Phoenix mountain in Guangdong Province, China

Fenghuang Dancong — Phoenix Oolong

Fenghuang Dancong is one of many oolong teas that comes from Southeastern China. This oolong grows in a highly mountainous region north of Hong Kong and west of Chaozhou in the Guangdong province. The word Fenghuang literally means phoenix, which refers to the name of the mountain where the Dancong is grown, while the word Dancong means single bush.

Fenghuang Dancong History

Oolongs have been produced since about the Ming/Qing Dynasty, somewhere around the late 1600’s to 1700’s. Often called Qing Cha, referring to a blue-green color, oolongs cover a wide range of oxidation between green and black (15-85%) and can be found twisted, rolled, balled and any number of combinations of forms and oxidation levels. Typically have much greater complexity in the overall production process than other teas. Dancong oolongs specifically are twisted in shape and grown in the Wudong Mountains at high elevation.

There is no particular story behind these oolongs, like with many other older Chinese teas. Instead, the important item to note is that the flavors of a true Dancong oolong are complex and offer a wide variety flavors ranging from orange blossom to grapefruit. Dancong are produced from 10 distinct cultivars of the tea plant, without mixing the cultivars together. Instead, multiple days of harvest are mixed together to produce a batch. Dancong bushes are also allowed to grow wild, so plucking them requires a ladder and the flavor is very much influenced by the combination of cultivar, terroir, and other flowering plants and trees nearby.

Fenghuang Dancong Preparation for Drinking

This oolong is lighter in oxidation, so it can be brewed between 170°-190°F for 4 minutes. You need 3 grams for 8oz of water. Steep at least 3 times before discarding the leaves.

If you are willing and have the time, this is a perfect oolong for a gaiwan. Start your stepping times in the gaiwan at 30 seconds and gradually increase by increments of 15 seconds on subsequent steeps. We found that roughly 1.33 grams of tea per oz of water in the gaiwan produces both the expected flavor and mouth feel. Gaiwans vary greatly in size, so use a measuring cup and figure out how much water your gaiwan can hold before measuring in the tea.

This oolong is worthy of your time to explore and appreciate.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss