Hojicha: Japan’s Roasted Tea

Loose Leaf Hojicha

Hojicha Organic

Hojicha (also spelled Houjicha) is a truly unique tea from Japan. This roasted green tea was supposedly created by a tea merchant in Kyoto,sometime in the 1920’s, who decided to roast bancha tea outside of his tea store to attract customers in to look at his tea wares. This rather humble beginning hides a tea that is actually a staple in Japanese tea culture today. The roasting lowers caffeine in the tea when compared to its fellow green teas, so the Japanese frequently use hojicha as an evening tea or tea that is given to anyone who may be sensitive to caffeine, like children or the elderly.

How Hojicha is Made

Hojicha is made from bancha tea, or later harvest tea. The leaves are typically on the plant longer, making them bigger and imparting a more dry grass flavor. Bancha is processed just like Sencha, so it is steamed to stop oxidation. Hoijcha comes from adding an additional step to the bancha process of roasting the leaves at around 200°F for just a few minutes. This roasting process imparts a roasted chestnut or hazelnut aroma and flavor. If it is roasted for too long, just like nuts, the leaves will quickly burn.

Hojicha can have tea stems in it, but this often dictated on whether the stems are kept in or removed as part of making bancha. Having stems in your hojicha is not a bad thing, it can actually intensify the nutty flavor from roasting.

How to Brew Hojicha

Hojicha is brewed in Japan just like other green teas. The water temperature should be in the range of 175-185°F. You will want around 3 grams of tea to 8 ounces of water. Generally hojicha leaves are larger and quite lightweight, so reach for tablespoon to measure out this tea if not using a kitchen scale. It can be steeped for up to 3 minutes. While it might be tempting to treat this green tea like a black tea because of its color, boiling water will eliminate some of the nuances found when the lower water temperature is used. It can also be brewed by doubling or tripling the amount of tea to water and dropping the steep time to 30 seconds-1 minute. This often results in a very intense nutty flavor.

This beautiful tea is worth exploring whenever you are in the mood for something nutty in your tea.

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First Flush Tea – A Presentation of Spring

Beautiful pink blossoms of a tree at Lake Reston.

Its Spring in the mid-Atlantic but also in prime picking regions around the world.

Spring has sprung in the mid-Atlantic and in addition to flowers in our area this past week saw the first of what will be several first pluckings (first flushes) of the 2016 season. Whether in China, Japan or India, the first flush tea is always considered the most special and typically sells for more money at the tea auctions.

First Flush – Why is it so special?

As we have talked about in the past, terroir effects the tea plant, and the first flush arrives after the plant has been dormant for some time, usually over winter, or during the peak time of year for the plant’s growth leading up to flowering. Of course it is not to the farmer’s benefit to allow the tea plant to blossom as all the growing energy will go into the flower and not into the leaves. Due to that energy, these first pluckings have the most nuanced flavors and usually demand the highest prices, like Pre-Qing Ming Dragonwell or Bai Hao Silver Needle. Both teas carry a taste of light spring grass or flowers.

China First Flush

In China, the first flush comes during the period before Qing-Ming, a big national holiday that is dedicated to the cleaning of the family tomb, to show respect for past relatives and the importance of family, as well as other spring activities like flying a kite. This holiday also falls right around the start of the spring rains. While the rains bring much needed water for the tea plant, they will cause the leaves to loose flavor.

Loose leaf 1st flush Darjeeling from Goomtee Estate

1st Flush Darjeeling from Goomtee Estate in India.

Darjeeling First Flush

In Darjeeling, India, the first pluck will come in late March to early April. A first flush Darjeeling, is practically a green tea with a very light and floral smell, even though it is manufactured as a black. It is truly a reflection of the freshness of spring. While most people are familiar with Second Flush Darjeelings, as that is the Darjeeling that has traveled the globe and has introduced the world to the champagne of teas, it is very different from a First Flush Darjeeling and typically picked in June before the summer monsoons.

Japan First Flush

The first flush in Japan comes in late April to early May. These first flushes go into Ceremonial Grade Matcha, Shincha (not be confused with Sencha), and very top grade Gyokuro. These teas are again lighter and more nuanced flavor adding a sweetness that is not typically found in Japanese greens.

Enjoy a first flush tea next time you get a chance and enjoy a cup of spring.

 

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Notable People in the History of Tea

Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda
Nat Krause
July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

The history of tea is intertwined with religion, commerce, early notions of wellness and more. Understanding where tea has come from requires looking at the notable people who influenced the production and consumption this fine drink across the globe. Given that tea has been around for a few thousand years, there are many people to consider, from religious scholars, to corporate spies, and even accidental inventors. There are really too many, in fact, for one blog post so we’ve selected a few of our favorites to touch on briefly.

Lu Yu

As the man credited with documenting the production and consumption of tea in China, his work, The Classic of Tea, still has meaningful insights into ancient production of tea. Born in Hubei, in central China, Lu Yu lived between 733 and 804 C.E. This book gives a view into the Chinese practices around tea and its status as one of the seven necessities in life. The poems and quotes in the book are still relevant today, about 1200 years later!

Eisai

This buddist monk, also known as Eisai Zenji (or Zen Master Eisai) is credited with bringing tea seeds to Japan and planting them near Kyoto, creating the first tea farm in Japan. He is also credited with writing the first book about tea consumption in Japan during his lifetime from 1141 to 1215 C.E. His writings on tea are credited with spreading tea culture throughout Japan and setting the stage for the Japanese tea ceremony.

Robert Fortune played a critical role in the history of tea and its move to India.

Robert Fortune – An early example of corporate espionage.

Robert Fortune

As the botanist for the British East India Company, he is credited with stealing seeds and tea plants from China that where then taken to India to plant. While these initially failed, Fortune (1812 – 1880 C.E.) helped to identify the native camilia seninsis var. assamica, which is considered the backbone of Indian tea. He helped the British East India Company break the monopoly that China had on tea.

Arthur Campbell

Living from 1805 to 1874, Arthur Campbell planted camilia seninsis var. seninsis seeds in the Darjeeling region of India. Without him, the British East India Company would not have expanded tea production into Darjeeling and we would be missing a seriously good tea (see Darjeeling – The Champagne of Tea).

Thomas Sullivan

The story goes that in the early 1900’s Thomas Sullivan started sending tea samples to customers in small bags. Not knowing that this was simply meant as a convenient way to ship the tea, his customers dropped the entire bag in water, soon after complaining that the silk was too fine all the while demanding more tea bags from Mr. Sullivan. He was not the first to create it, but just make it a commercially viable design that was widely adopted. The first to patent the tea bag in the U.S where Roberta C. Watson and Mary Molaren. They were unable to turn their patent into a commercial business, but their design looks pretty similar to the modern day version minus the string to pull it out of the water.

There are so many people that have contributed to the history of tea through thousands of years and this is just a small sampling. Do you have a favorite?

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Matcha Green Tea History

The history of matcha green tea, much like many teas, is affected by cultural and political shifts. Its popularity in Japan and virtual absence in China comes from an interesting intersection of political needs, cultures converging and influencing each other, and a side effect of isolationist policies.

Foundations of Matcha Green Tea and the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Matcha Green Tea from Japan

Cooking Grade Matcha Poweder

All things tea, regardless of current association, start in China. Starting in the Tang Dynasty, somewhere between 690-705C.E., tea became democratized in China at the same time as the golden age of Chinese culture hit its full height. During this period Buddhism thrived along side Daoism in China. Buddhist monasteries were everywhere and multiple religions were allowed to flourish side by side and acknowledged by the Emperors during this dynasty. During this period, tea was still packed into bricks for easier transport in trading. It was consumed by being broken off and pulverized into powder and then whisked into hot water. It was not called matcha by the Chinese, that name would come later in Japan.

Buddhist monks were heavy tea drinkers, as it assisted them in staying alert during long periods of meditation. So it was a natural evolution for the preparation of the tea for meditation become a ritual in-and-of itself. This ritual would be taught to the visiting Japanese monks several centuries later, in 1191 C.E., when the monk Eisai would introduce the Japanese Buddhists to the powdered preparation of tea. The term matcha is a combination of word ma, meaning powder, and cha, which means tea. At this point in Japanese history, Buddhism was making its way from the privileged classes to the common people of Japan. Recent military upheavals in Japan lead to a resurgence in spiritual practice and the establishment of Buddhist schools throughout the country. Eisai headed the Zen Buddhist school, which used meditation to bring forth the inner Buddha in each individual. It is at these schools that the Japanese Tea Ceremony was created and eventually formalized some four hundred years later.

Producing Matcha Green Tea

Matcha typically is made from the Saemidori cultivar of camellia sinensis. These tea plants are grown under shade, which adds additional complexity to flavor as well as to the plucking of the tea. The shade slows down growth, so fewer leaves are produced by the plant and those leaves that are produced got more of their nutrients from the ground than through photosynthesis. This gives the leaves a very complex taste. Tea leaves plucked for Matcha are sorted by size to help in the removal of stems from the leaves. Matcha green tea production is much more labor intensive than the other teas in Japan, which have been heavily automated in past forty years. The tea is plucked, sorted and then sent into steaming for anywhere between 40-80 seconds given the size of the leaves. The leaves are then laid flat to dry, which will cause the leaves to crumble and the stems to be more easily removed. The tea is fully dried and sorted again with the hopes of removing more veins and missed stems. It is then ground down between two large granite stones, much like an old fashion grain mill. The grinding process is heavily monitored and the consistency of the powder is measured. A finer powder, makes for a stronger and more complex tea generally. In the United States, generally there are two types of matcha green tea available, ceremonial and cooking grade. Ceremonial matcha is generally from the first picking and highest quality leaves. Cooking matcha comes from follow up picking and sometimes larger leaves. There is a difference in taste, but that is rarely distinguishable to those of us not growing up drinking it daily. Cooking matcha is generally more vegetal in taste while ceremonial matcha will have a more complex fruit/vegetable flavor. Neither is overly sweet, which is why it is generally served with sweet treats.

Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream (With and Without Mint and Chocolate Chips)

Modern Day Matcha

Matcha green tea is still in high demand in Japan. It has grown in demand in the United States, since it does a great job coloring other foods, like cookies, ice cream, and even salad dressing, green. Matcha has not been embraced by the US as a tea because of its flavor profile and bright green color. What most Americans have not figured out is that they have been drinking matcha in their bottled green teas for some time now (it dissolves beautifully for bottled tea). There are Japanese gardens, museums and Buddhist monasteries where the general public can witness a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and try some of the matcha in its traditional form. I encourage you to give it a try.

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The Perfect Teapot – Part II

Vendor at Chinese Amusement Park

Bigger is not always better in teapot selection. Photo by flickr user gill_penney (CC BY 2.0)

In our last post, The Perfect Teapot – Part I, we discussed the importance of matching the tea to the teapot, the materials the teapots are made of and ultimately how that spills over into the cleaning regimen for the pot. Next we need to talk size, budget, and how the aesthetics of the tea pot should influence your purchase.

Teapot Size

Teapot size is all about personal preference. Here in the US, we typically see teapots that serve 4-6 people. More recently as loose leaf tea has increased in popularity you see the marketing of tea pots for personal use, which typically allow for 12-16 ounces of water. However, the Chinese have had a small teapot, the Yixing teapot, for centuries. By Western standards this is small looks even for one person. However, the Chinese use it for the serving of many people at once in small cups before quickly resteeping again. The kyusu and tetsubin, much like the porcelain and sterling silver teapots, are built for 4-6, and even sometimes 8 people to be served at once. Bigger is sometimes better, but in the world of teapots that is not always the case. The quality of the pot itself and its story is often better than the size and dictates more of the price tag than the size.

Budget and Quality

The price range on teapots can be very large. The price is dictated by age, material it is made out of (Sterling Silver or high end porcelain will cost much more than plain glass), who makes it, and the uniqueness of the teapot. Knowing if you are paying a fair price for more modern tea pots is made relatively easy given the internet. However, your antique teapots and Yixing teapots are another story. Antique teapots can run hundreds to thousands of dollars. So before paying for such treasures, make sure you are getting the real thing and that it is worth the price tag. This will require some research and in the case of the Yixing teapots, having someone who is knowledgeable (not the seller) help you confirm that it is the real thing. There are many frauds in the marketplace, which may be fine if you are not spending big dollars. However, if you are willing spend thousands on a teapot, you should get confirmation that you are getting the real thing.

As a side note, if you are looking at antique porcelain teapots, be careful actually drinking from them. Old glazes were made with lead and other heavy metals that have long been banned from paints and glazes in the United States, because of their tendency to poison humans and cause cancer. If you are serious about actually using the antique teapot, at a minimum you should consider testing the inside with a lead testing kit. An antique Yixing teapot will not have this problem as there are no glazes or dyes used in the real teapots, just high quality clay.

What your teapot says about your tea philosophy

Painted Yixing Teapot

Decorated Yixing Teapot – More for Decoration Than Making Tea photo by flickr user Rob Chant (CC BY 2.0)

One cannot end a discussion on teapots without looking back in time at the philosophy on teapots from the Chinese and Japanese. For the Chinese, a teapot was to be simple, reflect nature and the exercise of focusing on the tea. Teapots were never considered formal. Many Yixing teapots have no decoration at all, yet their shape has meaning for the owner. More modern ones have Chinese characters, which often reference nature and harmony. The painted porcelain teapots usually depicted nature and man’s interaction with nature.

For the Japanese, tea was about ceremony and formality. The kyusu handle had the purpose for allowing for a graceful pour and the pictures on the teapot are placed to allow for view by the guest when pouring. While the Japanese are more formal they share in common with the Chinese the use of pictures of nature and symbols referencing nature and harmony. Fast forward to Europe and the teapot was a symbol of wealth and generosity. This translated into the more ornate, the better.

So as you venture into the market place to find your next teapot, don’t forget to balance your philosophy on tea with your budget and your willingness to care for the teapot in the fashion it requires. There are many choices and many reasons to own and use more than one perfect teapot.

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