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Last week a friend had asked about some of the green teas we offered in our latest Tea Tip.  The question was about how matcha tea is made and how it's different from the other leaf teas. Here I relate some details from one of my previous trips to Japan.

 

It was springtime and I was there to see the tea harvest in Uji. The trip had started before dawn as my bags were checked onto Druk Air, in the Paro valley of Bhutan. The Airbus flew from the rugged Himalayas through the haze over Burma and Thailand. The flight from Bangkok via Hong Kong took most of the day and a shared taxi to the guesthouse brought me some much-needed stillness - the movement of arduous travel had ceased. Priorities changed from boarding passes to finding a larger size of slippers and understanding how late the bath stayed open. Luckily a friend was waiting with a good bottle of sake and some advice about the slippers.

 

Uji is located just to the south in the outskirts of Kyoto, where much of the quality tea from Japan is grown.  Tea is grown in many areas of Japan including the well known regions of Uji, Shizuoka and Kyushu.

Uji is the center of matcha and gyokuro production although they make many grades of sencha as well. The town lies on a river and the tea grows in the low hills near the town. The farmers will either have a small factory by their fields or use the larger factories that can accommodate a group of farmers.




Punctually at 2pm we arrived at the headquarters of Koyama-en, an old, respected matcha company. We were met at their small shop by Mr. Toshimi Koyama, one of the two brothers  who own and run the company today. He invited us into a tearoom and prepared some sencha. We sat on tatami mats around an electrically heated tetsubin (cast iron pot for heating water) from which he ladled water into the teapot.


He showed us all the steps for producing matcha as we walked though the building. First we saw the raw tea leaf, called tencha, which is ground between two granite wheels to make the fine emerald powder known as matcha. Matcha is a blend made up of different lots of tea for specific flavor characteristics. The blends are meticulously produced to ensure consistency for each type. They usually have poetic names which refer to a season or scene in nature.  The tencha is kept in cold storage until an order for matcha needs to be produced, as the qualities of the tea are best stored in leaf form. We saw a room where hundreds of wheels turned in unison, slowly grinding the tea leaves into fine powder,  fed from a funnel above.

The man responsible for maintaining the granite grindstones was wiry and energetic,  he'd worked there his entire life and learned the skill from his father. He explained that the angle and depth of the grooves in the stone had to be constantly fine tuned for efficient grinding. Now they buy the granite from Eastern Europe because the crystalline structure works the best.

The matcha is then sealed into airtight tins before being packed into cases and shipped out. Most of the fine grades of matcha are consumed in Japan, and the supply is limited. The lower grades are more plentiful and the ingredient grade ubiquitous for export.  Koyama-en's matcha is one of the most respected in Japan, particularly by the Tea Ceremony schools; the Urasenke's grandmaster personally has endorsed their matcha. It is certainly one to try, so we made the effort to import it directly for our consumers here in the U.S., so we, too can taste what the grandmasters are appreciating

Travel Diary, Japan  2010

 

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