Friday, 6 December 2019

An attempt to differentiate Wakoucha styles

What makes a black tea a Wakoucha ? Well, first of all of course that it is a black tea produced in Japan, but there should be more than just origin. If we want to be able to talk of Wakoucha as more than a name but also a style we need at least a common denominator to establish it as different from other black teas. After having tasted more than 60 of them I feel that there is a unique touch that most of them have in common. It makes them very different from a Chinese red tea and can be recognised immediately once you have learned the difference.

One of the things all the interesting ones have in common is an incomplete oxydation but in a very different way as with oolongs. In most wakoucha you will note a greenishness in the brown leaves, and often you will find leaves or parts of leaves that are still green, and there is at a stage in the production a fixing treatment not unlike that of a green tea, only later in the process. It makes somehow that they retain a few characteristics of green tea, very different from classic black tea from Assam for example.

This happens most strikingly with the specific cultivars that were developed for green teas. The leaves of many of these cultivars oxydate only slowly. Yabukita is a good example and one of the most difficult to oxydate. These teas retain a striking and typical 'vivace' that is very interesting, but even the beni-cultivars developed from Assamica often keep some of these characteristics, and though the differences between the styles of Wakoucha can be big there seems to be a common denominator, that beautiful sweet touch that will hover between featherlight floral aromas and the deepness of cacao.

For the moment lots of Wakoucha producers are still in an experimental modus, and teas can differ strongly in style and character. This is one of the reasons why the teas are for the moment so exciting. I personally think this is a strength not a weakness and that this variation is fascinating. However, I think it is possible to group them in four styles.

A first group is the group of the 'breakfast-style' teas. Here the producers tries to bring in the typical astringency for a black tea, keep the price as low as possible and copy a black tea from Sri Lanka or Assam. I think that this is not a path to be followed. The high wages and lack of terrain will always keep the prices high and Japan can never compete with India or Africa or Sri Lanka on this level.



A second group is the group of teas that seem to go most of all for structure and sweetness, and in this they resemble a bit the red teas from Fujian. Benihomare and Benifuki are perfect cultivars for these teas, and when brewed strong they quite like a dash of milk, often adding a creamy layer to the taste experience, like a very complex cacao. The oxydation level is high but not 100%, and the wet leaves often remain a mix of (dark) green and brown. In the case of the 'beni'-cultivars they often vome from first-flush harvests, for other cultivars a second-flush is usual. These teas are often red in colour because of a high level of thearubigins, and the colour indicates a higher level of oxydation than for the next group.

Dry Benihomare leaves


A third group is the group of teas made from 'green' cultivars with lower or incomplete oxydation where the leaves naturally resist fermentation and oxydation. These teas combine the sweet or spicy touch of the second group with a very interesting elegance and their aroma's combine the spices and fruits of the first group with floral elements. Even when brewed stronger they dislike milk, but they should be made with shorter brewing times (2 minutes). They are to be appreciated slowly and with concentration, like good wines. There are beautiful expressions to be found here, and some cultivars like Yabukita or Koshun can deliver truly great teas. The colour of these teas often goes towards the orange and is an indicator of high levels of theaflavins, and is considered as a desired characteristic. Both theaflavins and thearubigins are reported to have a benevential effect on blood sugar levels what makes them interesting drinks for diabetici. Their natural sweetness makes them also a very good alternative drink for people with a sweet tooth.


A Benihikari from Tsukigase


A fourth group is also made from these 'green' cultivars, but adds a herbaceousness to the teas, very much like the first flush darjeelings. These teas can be very complex and very interesting as they give a two-layered taste sensation. At first they seem to deliver the typical wakoucha-sweetness of spices and flowers, but then grassy and herbal tones pop up, and I can imagine these teas becoming very popular in European regions with a fondness for these first-flush teas like Germany.

Benihikari from the Shibamoto farm with a clear first flush herbal touch













Thursday, 28 November 2019

Aged Black Tea. Wakoucha Tasting Tea N°20: Miyazaki Kanayamidori Wakoucha, 2013, The Teacrane

For many beginning tealovers this is a strange concept: haven't we learned to drink our tea as young a possible ? There is the obvious exception of Pu'Erh, but we have all been confronted with teas in our collection that lost their fragrance and taste and had to be reduced to material for composting. However, just like wine, tea is a natural product, it is alive and this means evolution does not stop when the production process does. Lots of teas need a rest after production or transport, and some new teas are blended with rested teas to achieve a more complex taste pattern. Some people even prefer the softer taste of a rested tea that had a few months or a year to 'cool down'.



Aged teas however fall into another category. The most famous ones are of course the fermented teas of China, the Pu'er cakes, that can become very old and keep changing with age. They are usually called by their Pu'er name, and come from a few well defined regions. When we talk about aged teas this is usually leaf tea, mostly oolong or black, that has been aged on purpose, usually for 5 years or longer. These teas are usually kept in well closed containers and regularly tested to see the evolution. Some producers will roast these teas at certain intervals to keep humidity under control, or keep the tea in caves where their evolution is influenced by the environment.

What usually happens is that taste components start melting together, and the tea will become richer and deeper, often also more complex, and the taste experience goes into the direction of an aged wine. It is not an easy thing to do, and your tea has to be of excellent quality, and the teamaster or his family needs a lot of experience. Drinking it can be compared with tasting the great wines of the Bordeaux, and the taste profiles that when young were more separated have now melted together into a complex aroma.

Miyazaki Kanayamidori Wakoche, 2013, The Teacrane:

Harvested 8 september 2013 in Gokase, that wonderful tea-village in Miyazaki, from gardens at 650m height. Produced by Akira Miyazaki on the Miyazaki Sabou teafarm and than stacked for ageing. 90 euro per 100 gram excl import taxes, so this is already a quite expensive tea. The cultivar is Kanayamidori, a crossing between Yabukita and a Shizuoka Zairai.


15th of August, 2019, in the morning, a root day, windy and rainy and quite cold for the time of year. The dry leaf is broken into small brown fragments. The wet leaf offers an extremely complex scale of taste impressions with spices, honey and fruit. It is very fragmented, mostly light brown with some snippets of green. The infusion has a nice amber colour with a greenish hue. The smell is extremely complex, with fruit and spices but blended and melted into each other. In the taste the same complexity comes back and all elements have melted together into something unique. Not overly bold, and with a small background bitter note (not astrigent, bitter). In a previous tasting I also had citrus-tones and an interesting sourness, this seems to be gone in this tasting.

A second brew was pleasant and complex, beautiful and long, and in the echo a strong taste of abricot showed up. The two next brews were also pleasant.

😊😊😊😊

This tea is no longer available but came from The Teacrane.





Tuesday, 19 November 2019

The leafhopper did it. Wakoucha Tasting Tea N°19: Korogi Planthopper Yabukita, 2nd flush 2017, The Tea Crane

Strange things can happen to tea. Taiwan is famous for its Oriental Beauty, a tea that becomes sweet in taste because of the attack of the Jacobiasca Formosiana, a leafhopper that attacks the teaplants and makes holes in the leaves to extract the juice. The plant reacts by making sugar so the leaves begin to taste sweet, what the grasshopper doesn't like, so he leaves the leafs* alone.

The official name of our leafhopper friend is Empoasca (Matsumurasca) onukii Matsuda. In China he is considered as a pest, and he can destroy or damage up to 50% of a harvest destined for green tea, but in Taiwan and Japan organically working famers noticed that their (second flush) oxydized teas were becoming sweeter, and they learned to harvest at the best moment to capture these aromatic profiles. If you really want to go scientific, you can find something about our friend here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589377/.


Korogi Planthopper Yabukita, 2nd Flush 2017, The Teacrane

Harvested 22 september 2017. 41.5 euro for 100 gram (excl import taxes). 40 year old bushes from a 20acre tea garden called Tabako-ya at a height of 630m, orientation north-south. The top layer consists of crumbled lava, and the leaves are harvested before the garden is fertilized for next year. Made by Yoichi Korogi in the village of Gokase. He is a kamairicha-specialist with 30 years experience. I talked about one of his other teas here and you can find some general info about him here.

August 14th, 2019, late afternoon, raining, a root day. 98°C, 2 min, 3 gram, 150ml, in a kyusu. The dry leaves are small, fragmented and darkbrown with a few lightbrown ones and a few greyish-green. The wet leaves smell like a black tea, a bit woody, but with fruit and the sweetness of honey (or of grasshopper !). The colour of the infusion is a quite light caramelbrown with an orange hue. The aroma is light and elegant, with very nice fruity tones, very elegant and fine. A bit of swirling in a tasting cup or a wine glass makes the smell very complex. In the taste all elements seem to have melted together, and they only give themselves up after a while. Very nice attaque, a nice woody tone in the middle. The sweetness comes at the end, after the elegance. Beautiful atertaste or echo, very thick and sweet, especially when the tea is cooled down, and when this happens even the finish itself gets this. This is quite a fascinating tea, and very agreeable.
The second brew was still beautiful, and a very nice brew.
😊😊😊😊

Still on stock with The Teacrane: https://www.the-tea-crane.com/product/korogi-planthopper-yabukita-wakocha/




* Joke. πŸ˜‘Playing with words. Couldn't stop myself.


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

A very special ordinary black tea. Wakoucha Tasting Tea N°18: Obubu Pine Needle Matsuho-no-Wakoucha, Wazuka, 2018

This tea is a contradiction in itself. It is made from the Yabukita cultivar, good for 74% of all plantings in Japan, very productive, very tasty and very early, and so without competition the most popular cultivar for green teas. Here it is produced as a black tea, and this is already an exception, but on top of this it is rolled like a sencha, in needles. I never met a Wakoucha like this before.

The tea is made by Akihiro Kita, the flamboyant founder and president of the Obubu tea farm in Wazuka, Kyoto, where you can follow intensive training programs about Japanese tea. If you check out the video on their website you can even meet the wonderful Laura, my fellow ITMA student. Wazuka is a small town in Uji, Kyoto, and is one of the heartlands for green tea, with about 300 different families making it. The spring harvests from Uji usually fetch the highest prices so the incentive to make black tea is small, and this tea is a second flush.

Akihiro 'Akky' Kito



Kyoto Pine Needle Matsuho-no-Wakoucha, 2nd flush, 2018, Obubu Tea Farm

This tea was a gift from Inge, a most enthusiast tea-teacher (check out her tea and cheese or tea and chocolate evenings at http://www.theetijd.be/). Harvested in July 2018, so a second flush.

August 14th, 2019, late afternoon, raining, a root day. 98°C, 2 min, 3 gram, 150ml, in a kyusu. The dry leaves are remarkably big and rolled like sencha, with colours varying from brown to almost black. No particular smell. The wet leaves however smelled very nicely and rather complex, with mainly floral aroma's, like a flower arrangement of many diferent flower types, and something very sweet. In the background I found notes of a very dark chocolate with a high cacao-percentage. The infusion is light caramel-brown coloured and contained small particles that passed through the filter. The tea has a quite remarkable smell, with first something sour opening, and almost immediately the flowers, without the sweetness. The attaque is beautiful, light and complex and very fine, on a high note. The taste then continues over the whole line but finishes drily, more like a black tea, with the astringency only in the finish.
The second brew (same parameters) was also excellent, flowery and a bit sweeter and less complex. It had a remarkably long finish, longer than the first brew, and it made a beautiful tea.
I used to be a bit sceptical about Yabukita for black tea, but this is an excellent and interesting cup, and I look forward to the next one that passes here.

😊😊😊😊

This tea is still available at https://obubutea.com/product-category/black-tea/. You have to add taxes to the prices on the website, but ordering from Japan goes usually quite well. There are many interesting teas on the website, and ordering a few more will reduce your average transport cost.

Like forest floor material of a pine wood...



Sunday, 10 November 2019

Another year, another tea. Wakoucha tasting, tea N°16: Kawane Koshun, 1st flush 2018, De Theeliefhebber

Tea is a natural product that is made from a plant that grows in an environment. We call this environment terroir. This environment is not a fixed and static thing, it is something rooted in nature and influenced by climate. Just like for wine, a tea plant will behave differently in a dry year than in a wet year, and react differently to a cool spring as to a warm spring. So it is normal that two vintages from the same tea garden will be different from year to year. Of course, during the tea making proces the tea producer has a strong influence to push his product into the direction he wants. As most teas, like most wines, are blends, he can soften extreme weather influences by mixing teas from cooler or dryer gardens with better situated ones. So when I found out that I had Masui Etsuro's Koshun both in the 2017 and the 2018 vintage I wanted to compare them. You can read my tasting notes on the 2017 in the previous post, here comes the 2018.


Koushun, Kawane, Masui Etsuro, 2018, De theeliefhebber: 

10th of August, 2019, in the evening, windy and cloudy and a leaf day. Imported from Japan by De Theeliefhebber, a Belgian company. 98°C, 3 gram, 2 mins, 150ml.

Wet leaves smell like a classic black tea but with a whiff of almonds and vanilla. Coppery red brown infusion. The infusion has a beautiful smell, very pleasant but also complex, with flowers and almond, and very compact. In the mouth a nice body, a nice complexity, but a rather short finish. Very nice sweetness and almost no astringency.

Second brew was nice and sweet, with less complexity, but worth the trouble.

😊😊😊(😊)




When we compare the two the most striking difference was the level of astringency that was a lot higher in the 2017. The smell of the wet leaves was also more in the black tea register, with less flower. The colour of the infusion was very different, with the 2017 bright orange and the 2018 darker and more red. As for the taste, the 2017 was more floral and more elegant but with more astringency that gave it structure when hot but was a bit too much when cooler. The 2018 was softer and mellower, with sufficient but less agressive astringency and more spices and more sweetness, a very 'round' tea.

Both teas were recognisable in their Koshun characteristics, the cultivar coming out very clearly but were different in structure. There is of course also the fact that the 2017 is a year older and this could be the explanation for the elegance and less obvious sweetness, but my general feeling was that 2018 is a year that brought more volume and more body, but 2017 more complexity and structure and a far longer finish, and I preferred the 2017. Both are sold out, but you should keep an eye out for Masui Etsuro's 2019.



Saturday, 2 November 2019

Masui Etsuro, the pioneer. Wakoucha Tasting tea N°15: Kawane Koshun, 1st flush, 2017, ThΓ©s du Japon.

Masui Etsuro is one of the pioneers of black tea in Japan. He was born and raised in Kawane in Shizuoka but his desire to see the world and work in a developing country brought him to Senegal, where he worked for many years. After some time in the USA he returned to his native land in Kawane, in the Haibara district. Kawane is a town in the hills of Shizuoka, at 500 to 600m above sea level, famous for its green tea. In 1984 he planted the Koshun cultivar in a corner of the garden that was too cold for Yabukita.

Very quickly he started to experiment with black tea. He was one of the first in Japan and felt pretty lonely in the beginning, with only a tea processing manual to help him. He was lucky to have a customer who was supporting him and after five years he started more or less to know what he was doing. About the same time the Koshun he planted when he came back in 1984 were ready. When in 1988 prices of green tea started to drop his black tea started to make more sense. Before his own mother complained about the waste of good tea leaves on bad tea... From 2000 some other farmers started to follow and the first Wakoucha festival was organised in Tottori. Today mr Etsuro is one of the true pioneers of Wakoucha, and he makes some very good ones !

You can find a great video about this farmer here (https://youtu.be/QpTwBWTznto) and see his teagarden and part of his production process, even if the video is in Japanese. He never uses pesticides, and you can see it in part of the video.



Kawane Koshun 1st flush 2017, ThΓ©s du Japon:

Harvested 23 May 2017. 28.6 euro for 100 gram (excl import taxes). Koshun is a crossing between Kanayamidori and Kurasawa, often used for kamairicha or oolong. Its rather small leaves bring floral aroma's, and almond seems to be typical too for this cultivar.

August 10th, 2019, late afternoon, windy but dry, a leaf day. The dry leaves smell very nice, very elegant, and they are a mix of colours and sizes, from dark brown to light brown and even green-grey, and some are complete and some are broken. The wet leaves smell beautiful and overwhelming, and very complex, with vanilla and flowers. You can see the green leaves in the mix as this tea did not completely oxydize. Koshun does not easily oxydize and the steeming partly stops it too. This brings the elegance and the 'green' elements into the tea and is typical for this Wakoucha-school. The infusion has a beautiful coppery golden orange glow. The smell is delightful and complex, with vanilla and flowers but alos the structure of a black tea. Nice body, very nice structure, with a well developed but controlled astringency that paired perfectly with the sweetness. Very long aftertaste. Brilliant echo. Excellent wakoucha in a very convincing style, marrying Darjeeling to Japan.
Second brew, same parameters: more almond, or is this my imagination ? Less astringent and a pleasure to drink, more charming then the first brew but a bit less interesting. Still a very nice aftertaste.

😊😊😊😊

The tea comes from ThΓ©s du Japon but is currently sold out. 





Akiro Miyazaki. Every discipline needs its champions. Wakoucha Tasting, Tea N°14, Gokase Black Native, spring 2018, The Tea Crane.

Every disciplin needs its champions. They are the men or women who are top of the list and they are the ones whose products you can buy blind because they are the best. They show what can be done with something if you are really really good, and because they are studied and followed they are a vast factor of advance in general know-how. And quite often they are also the men or women who learn young people how to become as good as they are themselves. You have this in wine, but you also have this in tea, and certainly in a relatively young discipline like Wakoucha.

'At Miyazaki Sabou I see it as my function to make sure that the young aspiring tea producers that come to learn tea manufacturing with us can actively learn it in a free and unconstrained environment. This should help them to discover their own strengths and develop an original style.'

Akira Miyazaki is one of these wonderful people that believe in making the world of Japanese tea better by spreading their knowledge. As their students learn and start their own businesses and gardens the global image of Wakoucha gets better and better. Only people who know what they do can start getting experience and doing every year better, and for us, the consumers, this means more choice, more individuality and more good Wakoucha !

The teafarm of Akira Miyazaki is quite old, from 1930, but the key date is 1983 when a friend of the family became seriously ill and died because of pesticides. As they realised that they too used them (like everybody at that moment in time) and that their tea contained traces of it, they decided to stop the use and also ban chemical fertilizers. This is a decision not to be underestimated, as it takes a long time before a tea garden remembers its true identity and gets rid of all the poison that has been added to it, and in the beginning bad harvests can make life miserable for the farmer. But when the teagardens are healed the job gets easier again and the garden and its environment starts regulating itself, and most of all, the tea gets better and better.

There has recently been some criticism on the price of Miyazaki Sabou teas (they also make some of the best kamairicha from Japan). I think that this is increase is logical and has a positive effect on the Japanese, and even the global tea industry. More money means more investments, a better income for the farmer, more place for experiments and usually better tea. There is also a curious side effect when this happens, as it attracts another kind of customer, and a kind that likes to talk about the excellence of the tea, of which the high price level must be an indicator. This also shows to other farmers that it can be done, and that you can grow and let your customer pay for it, leading to easier access to money from banks or investors. Sometimes there comes a moment when a tea is getting so expensive that one starts paying as much for the reputation and the name as for the intrinsic quality (we are not there yet with Wakoucha), but this is also always the moment where a growing circle around the stars starts creating better and better tea's who 'have not yet made it to the top' but that make the experience of looking for them quite exciting. If you have a problem with the more expensive prices of these teas, follow the students. In this way you support them and you will drink some wonderful new teas.

This picture comes from a beautiful article on the web that tells a lot more about Akira Miyazaki: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/miyazaki-sabo/iQEu_Az4AYI27Q


Gokase Black Native Organic Wakocha, Miyazaki Sabou, 2018, The Tea Crane: 

Harvested spring 2018. 32.4 euro for 100 gram (excl import taxes). Made by Akira Miyazaki with material from a garden in Gokase, no modern cultivar but a field blend (see here).

August 9th, 2019, late afternoon, rainy and hot, a leaf day. 3 gram, 2 mins, 150ml, 98°C. Dark leaves, heavily fragmented, with a beautiful smell. The wet leaves deliver a complex and very full aroma with touches of fruit and honey. The infusion is amber coloured. It has a beautiful and complex aroma, very yummy, very sweet and fruity but with some spices added. The tast is soft and smooth, with a touch of peat like a whiskey, a lovely roast. It has a nice little touch of astringency and a very long complex finish. This is a truly beautiful tea with a wide range of taste elements that make it a pleasure to sip and enjoy. One of the best I had until now from The Tea Crane. Lots of body. A second brew was also delivious, soft and sweet and still with a lot of character.
😊😊😊😊

Out of curiosity I added a bit of milk to another brew of this tea. This is almost criminal behaviour, but my reward was a hedonistically yummy drink... if somebody can bottle this taste in a milk product he is a rich man.

There still is some stock at The Tea Crane: https://www.the-tea-crane.com/product/gokase-s-black-native-organic-wa-kocha-2018/






An attempt to differentiate Wakoucha styles

What makes a black tea a Wakoucha ? Well, first of all of course that it is a black tea produced in Japan, but there should be more than jus...