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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Aging Tea at Home

Ceramic tea jar for aging tea.

As we’ve covered in previous posts, the world of aged teas is incredibly diverse. In addition to puerh, the most famous of the aged teas, certain white and oolong teas can also be left to mature to delightful effect.

If you’re new to the world of aged tea, you may be wondering how to begin. The truth is, no two teas age exactly the same. Aging tea at home requires a little bit of experimentation and a whole lot of patience. But for anyone just starting out, there are a few key principles to keep in mind: quality, airflow, humidity, and time.

Tea Quality

Aging tea does change its character, but maturation isn’t magic. Just as time can’t fix a bad wine, attempting to improve the flavor of a cheap tea through aging will only result in stale leaves. Set yourself up for success with a quality tea that has a proven reputation for aging well, like a sheng puerh or a high-elevation oolong.

Airflow

How much airflow should you allow your teas when you store them? The answer varies depending on type. For puerh teas, which are fermented, some airflow is essential for the microbial processes that give them their flavor. Thus, puerh storage can be as simple as keeping the tea wrapped in the paper packaging it came in.

But for white and oolong teas, oxygen is the enemy. These teas need to be kept airtight. A simple, if less elegant, approach, is to keep it in a zip-top bag. Clay or ceramic crockery can also be effective, provided that the vessels have sealed lids. This approach is similar to traditional storage methods in China and Taiwan, where the tea would be sealed into clay jars with wax to prevent airflow.

Regardless of type, aging teas should be kept in separate containers from other teas, and away from anything that may produce a strong odor, to prevent them from picking up unwanted flavor notes.

Humidity

When it comes to aged teas, humidity is a tricky business. Too dry and cold an environment can flatten flavor development. On the other hand, too much moisture may cause your teas to taste sour, or even start to mildew.

For puerh teas, a humidity anywhere between 60 – 85% should suffice. For drier climates, a moisture pouch button, such as those sold to maintain tobacco freshness, can be stored alongside the tea. White and oolong teas, however, should generally be kept away from excess moisture.

Time

No exact formula exists to say how long a tea needs to mature, and how long it will last before the flavor starts to degrade. Type, cultivar, growing region, and leaf grade can all have an impact on how long tea should be aged. Generally speaking, during their first couple years of aging most teas will still taste relatively fresh and young. An awkward “middle period” can be expected from years two to five, and from five to seven years onward most will begin to develop their richer, more complex flavors. White teas usually begin to mature fastest, followed by oolongs, and then puerhs. If stored properly, all three types can last for decades before they begin to lose flavor.

Have you had any experience aging tea at home? How do you like to store your teas? Drop a line in our Facebook comments to let us know!

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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Compressed Tea

Compressed tea is tea formed into a solid shape, usually after it has been taken through the traditional steps of processing. Over history these shapes have taken various forms, from flat discs (also referred to as cakes) to bricks, birds’ nests, melons, mushrooms, and hearts. Such shapes also include decorative panels meant for display instead of drinking. While compressed tea is often made of puerh there is plenty of experimentation with other types of tea.

History of Compressed Tea

The origin of compressed tea is unclear. Written documentation mentioning the consumption of compressed tea dates back to the Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) in China. The documentation points to the increased popularity of compressed tea at the royal court and in the wealthy merchant class. Up to this point, in northern China, tea was drunk as loose leaf lightly dried in the sun or over fire, similar to what we now call green tea. Southern China, however, was another story.

The Silk Road has been in operation since 65 CE as a tea trading route from the Yunnan province. It is believed that tea was compressed as bricks and discs for such trading purposes, as loose tea takes up too much room for transportation on horseback or by foot for long distances. And since this journey took many months in the heat and humidity a kind of natural fermentation occurred resulting in a new type of tea; puerh. Given the Silk Road began long before the Jin Dynasty, it is much more likely that compressed tea was in circulation a lot earlier than appears in written documentation.

How Tea Was Compressed

In the Yunnan province, home to puerh, tea was compressed by hand until the Ming Dynasty, when clay and pottery allowed for the making of standardized molds to evenly compress the tea. The melon and mushroom shapes came as creative tea merchants sought favor from their Emperors through tribute gifts.

Today, the tea is pressed and steamed in metal models to ensure no transfer of flavor or unwanted bacteria between batches of tea. However, you can still occasionally find the hand pressed cakes.

Modern Compressed Tea

Compressed tea has made a huge comeback in China due to the focus of the Communist Party on Chinese history and traditions, which are thought to bring strength to the country as it undergoes rapid change and modernization. This focus on history brought puerh and puerh tea cakes to the top of the tea market. Not to lose ground, manufacturers of white and oolong teas began producing their own aged cakes to compete  for the attention of the newly born middle class Chinese consumer. Using much the same technology as the puerh makers, these manufacturers are charting new territories in tea production, while still using the traditional methods.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Five Tea Tips To Get You Through Social Distancing

Japanese Teapot and Green TeaIt’s amazing to see how fast coronavirus has changed everything. Across the country, Americans are settling into new social isolation routines, which can be difficult and frightening, especially for those of us who enjoy long conversations with friends and family over a pot of tea. But even though times are stressful, we at Dominion Tea want to remind you to take comfort in the little things that can make it all more bearable: a healthy walk outside, a phone conversation with a loved one, or – of course – a comforting cup of your favorite tea.

Here’s five ways that tea can help while we’re all stuck at home:

  1. Tea can give you a better energy boost than coffee. Struggling to get through endless rounds of virtual meetings? Try swapping out your coffee for a cup of tea instead. The particular combination of caffeine and L-theanine in tea may lead to a longer-lasting period of alertness, without the usual jolt-and-crash experience of coffee or energy drinks.
  2. Switching to loose-tea tea saves both money and the planet. Loose tea is both environmentally friendlier and more cost-efficient, as it uses far less packaging to produce. Many loose-leaf teas are also able to be steeped multiple times, which doubles their value! If you’re new to loose-leaf, check out our post on the essentials you need to get started.
  3. Buying local tea can save you a trip to grocery store. Many tea companies have products available online for either shipping or in-store pickup. You can get your tea while still social distancing and support small business at same time.
  4. Tea has numerous health benefits, including immune system boosters. For maximum benefit, try to drink 1-3 cups per day (an easy task for most tea lovers!). Some of our favorites include matcha-infused sencha, hundred-year tea, and ginseng oolong.
  5. You can recreate your favorite café brews without leaving home. Check out our recipe for hojicha lattes and how to make matcha. In the mood for something stronger? Try some of the tea cocktails we’ve come up with in the past.

By: Jen Coate

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