168 Tasting Notes
This is a tasting room favorite and arguably one of the best Orthodox Assams. The tea is named for Kumar Mangalam Birla, who was once the son of the estate’s owners and is now one of its managers. This is a full-bodied Assam, though it is lighter than many. Its aromas are sweet and toasty and its flavor has the signature Assam briskness with a special light toasted flavor, similar to dark honey or light molasses.
Feeling a bit light headed after an uneventful Valentine’s Day spent watching both Planet of the Apes movies for comparison purposes, so I decided, what better way to jumpstart my day than with a cup of ghastly, green Gyokuro.
The spinachy, seadweedy and decidely vegetal aromas are a brazen shock to the senses, but not in a harsh way. It’s lovely and soothing, pleasantly stirring, like a hearty spinach soup simmering on the stove. A sip of this decadent brew floods the mouth with a lush green flavor of the freshest steamed spinach, the cooked flavor of toasted walnuts and oddly, a hint of sulfur. Unlike many other high end teas, the flavor is consistent and solid, unevolving, but delicious all the same.
Like most great things Japanese, Gyokuro is a study in subtlety. A type of teas as well as an adjective, it has come to describe teas with “umami”, or mouth-coating sensation, as that caused by this lovely shade grown tea. Judging the gentle differences that shade growing makes requires careful attention. Though Gyokuro tea grows partially in the shade, and Sencha teas grow in the sun, both are processed the same way. The leaves therefore resemble each other closely, both in appearance and in taste. Yet the shade covering of Gyokuro accounts for the subtly lusher, darker, more mouth-coating tea.
Most Gyokuro is grown around Uji, half an hour south of the former capital of Kyoto. The shade-growing method was developed at the end of the Edo era, in the 1860s. Once a rural suburb of Kyoto, Uji has now become quite busy. Apartment houses and office buildings have replaced many Gyokuro tea fields. The remaining fields that make Gyokuro are wedged in between the buildings and on the hills that surround the city. About three weeks before the May harvest, the gardens are shaded over. They were once covered in rice straw; today growers use black plastic mesh.
Since the gardens are so small, crops are usually plucked by hand. Then the leaves are promptly steam-fixed to preserve the lovely dark green color of the leaves. Following the Sencha rolling method, the leaves pass through a series of machines that shape and dry the leaves in stages, approximating the steps skilled handlers once followed to make hand-rolled Gyokuro. (Since it takes about four hours to make a kilo of hand-rolled Gyokuro, it is rare to find hand-rolled tea, but they very long and slender leaves make a light, elegant brew.) After the rolling the tea is dried in an oven. The result is a special tea the Japanese particularly prize for its constant, vegetal flavor with gentle, soothing roasted notes.
This is one of our flights this weekend in the Tasting Room.
The wisps of steam rising from the leaves is so fragrant, it’s hard to stop smelling the blend of gardenia, jasmine and butter. The light gold liquor is enchanting, drawing you in for a sip, allowing you to appreciate it’s medium body and light creaminess that coats the tongue. The freshest of BaoZhong tastes of nothing but honeyed flowers. After a few infusions it loses some of that sheen and takes on a lovely seriousness. If the tea is more than few months old, Baozhong begins to taste much more like a vegetal green tea.
The way BaoZhong is made, every step results in a lighter, gentler, and greener oolong. First harvesters pluck tender leaves that are larger than most green teas but not as big or tough as most oolongs. Then the leaves are withered in the sun, but only briefly (15-30 minutes), where they wilt and begin to develop some of their aromas. After withering indoors for an additional half day, the leaves are placed in a heated tumbler resembling a clothes dryer. The hot air completely fixed the leaves, preserving their green color. The partially fixed leaves are then rolled. Since they are so tender, they cannot withstand the pressure needed to twist them into the more common oolong ball shape. Instead, the leaves are rolled into tight coiled twists. The twisted leaves are left to oxidize, but only for a short time and only to 10 or 20 percent. Finally, the tea is fired only to stop the oxidation and to dry the tea for preservation.
One of the oldest Taiwanese oolongs, BaoZhong grows just outside bustling Taipei. The gardens lie to the south of the city, in a quiet mountainside spot where the air is clear of urban smog and mist almost always cloaks the gardens. For over 120 years, almost the length of Taiwanese tea history, the tiny town of PingLing has devoted itself to making BaoZhong for Chinese expatriates around the Pacific Rim. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan during World War II, they sent BaoZhong from Singapore to Saigon to Manila, often in beautiful paper wrappings decorated with lovely, intricate stamps.
PingLing is so tea centered, it boats several tea factories, a tea museum, and even streetlights shaped like teapots. Restaurants here serve wonderful foods cooked in BaoZhong tea: pork belly braised in it, fresh trout poached in it, even tea puddings sweetened with BaoZhong and condensed milk. Before you cook with it, get to know its delicate floral flavors.
Symptom: Post Lunch food coma
Remedy: Thick grade Senjunomukashi
Directions: 2 Bamboo scoops. Add 3 oz. water. Whisk the tea in brisk angular motions for approximately 30 seconds, repeatedly tracing out an M in the cup to form a thick, foamy broth.
Results: A thick frothy, opaque and bright green liquor, emitting aromas of honeydew melon and a base note of cooked spinach. The thick body is bracing, and dries the mouth. It fills the mouth with the flavors of Tencha, but exponentially, tasting of spinach and artichokes.
Heady and intense, Matcha offers a tea experience like no other. Dissolved Matcha yields smooth vegetal flavors with a surprisingly bitter but satisfying kick. The better Matchas balance the bitterness with sweet notes – especially in the aftertaste, which should linger long in the back of the mouth.
Matcha is made from Tencha. The leaves are shaded over a few weeks before harvest to boost their chlorophyll, amino acids and other flavor compounds. Then the leaves are steam-fixed, cut, and air-dried rather than rolled and fired. This gives them a lovely, clean vegetal flavor unvarnished with any roasted sweetness.
Unlike Tencha, which is left whole, Matcha is then milled into a fine powder. Today, traditional stone mills have given way to impressive high-tech operations. Visiting the factory, one must don protective clothing as if heading into surgery, as well as pass through an airlock where machines blow off any particulates that might contaminate the powder. In the production room, everything is covered in bright green dust, especially the rows upon rows of millstones whirring away. The millstones have their work cut out for them: After a full hour of grinding, they produce only two ounces of the powdered tea.
There are several levels of Matcha. The best is called koicha, or “thick tea”. Made from the best spring leaves harvested in Uji, koicha is ordinarily reserved for tea ceremonies. The next level down is called usucha, or “thin tea”. Usucha is less expensive, making it more suitable for everyday use. Last but not last, there is a commercial grade Matcha, used in lattes, ice creams, and other green tea flavorings. As with Sencha, the demand for Matcha is now great enough that some is made in China, a curious reversal of history given that powdered tea had not been made in China since the Ming dynasty, which ended in 1644.
The oldest type of tea found in Japan, Matcha is what Buddhist monks brought back with them Kyoto after visiting the Jin Shan monastery in the ninth century. After monks began cultivating tea in Japan, the Matcha they made was consumed mostly by monks and royalty, then trickled down only as far as the noble warrior class, the samurai. The preparation of powder Matcha became ritualized in the 1550s by a Japanese tea master named Sen Rikyu, who codified the practice of Chado. Literally translated as “the Way of Tea,” Chado is a form of religious observance as well as a tea ceremony. Influenced by Taoism as well as Zen Buddhism, Rikyu ritualized the tea service as a means of drawing attention to the beauty and purity of everyday objects. By indicating the proper tools and gestures to use while brewing and serving the tea, as well as the arrangement and architecture of the teahouse, Rikyu encouraged practitioners to focus on the elements involved in tea: water, fire and the green tea itself. After his death, his three grandsons developed their own schools: Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushanokoijisenke. each of these schools still exists in Japan sixteen generations later.
Removing the leaves from the water, a light vegetal aroma of steamed spinach and artichoke hearts, paired with the slight sweetness of steamed rice wafts from the cup. In the mouth, a soft, spinachy flavor with the sweetness of steamed white rice envelops your tongue, without any of the roasted flavors of nuts or nori.
With its clean vegetal flavors and a pleasant, medium body, Tencha makes for a wonderful tutor. Merely chopped up and air dried, Tencha offers one of the purest expressions of mature tea leaves. Tencha has no roasted flavors, only pure vegetal notes. It makes for a wonderful comparison with the roasted flavors of the other great green teas, Japanese and Chinese alike.
Tencha is a shade-grown tea like Gyokuro, covered over during the last three weeks before the earl May harvest. The best Tencha comes from the Uji tea fields in Kyoto prefecture, where it originated, as well as from Mie prefecture to the southeast. Immediately after harvesting, the teas are steam-fixed to preserve their brilliant green color. Unlike Gyokuro or Sencha, Tencha leaves are not rolled; they are merely chopped up and then placed in a cylinder, where they are blown with warm air. Tencha is hardly ever drunk in Japan; the leaves are usually ground into Matcha powder. Though rare, Tencha makes for a delightfully light, refreshing cup of tea.
This was just what I needed on a personal note this morning. The bright green liquor was a sight for sore, groggy eyes, shocking me out of my stupor. As notes of cooked spinach and bell peppers floated into my nose, I was pleased to find a small hint of lemon. Lifting the cup to my lips, I slurped up some of the tea, aerating it, allowing the angular, assertive flavors of bell peppers and rounded, roasted flavors of toasted walnuts wash over me. Perfection to start my day.
This lively, vegetal, but high-pitched tea is a vivid illustration of a good-quality blended Sencha. Kagoshima is a port city on the southern tip on Japan’s Kyushu island, the second largest tea-producing area in Japan after Shizuoka. Kyushu is also the southernmost tea-producing area in Japan. Spring comes earlier here that to the rest of Japan’s tea regions, so Kyushu brings Japan its first spring teas.
The island’s large, flat plateau allows for Japan’s biggest tea farms. The farms are vast and flat enough to accommodate an usual harvesting system: Giant tractors ride up and down the rows, trimming the newest leaves like lawn mowers and blowing cuttings into large bags behind them.
This mechanical harvest allows for such economies of scale that Kagoshima produces the cheapest teas in all of Japan. But the scope of these operations also prevents the gardens from making great, pure Senchas. Instead of nurturing exquisite Senchas from just one field or cultivar, Kagoshima tea makers blend one great Sencha from several varieties of individually inferior plants. One is what’s called a “natural Gyokuro” Sencha. Its leaves flourish entirely in the sun but still produce the extra amino acids of a shade-grown tea. The result of this blending is a lemony Sencha with some of the rich, vegetal brothiness of a Gyokuro.