When you have a hôroku and a good selection of senchas in the house, you can have a lot of fun! You can make top-flight hôji-chas out of all your senchas in only a few minutes. It also fills your home with the delicious smell of roasted tea.
The popular image is that you roast tea leftovers, poor quality teas, old teas that you can no longer drink as is. Yet, the quality of a hôji-cha really does depend on the quality of the raw material. Even if you roast a “damaged” sencha with all the care in the world, you will end up with only a “damaged” hôji-cha.
You should not deny yourself the pleasure or hesitate to roast very good, first spring harvest teas.
I did it to compare (and also for fun… mainly, actually) six normal-steamed teas from around Shizuoka.
When you start to get the hang of it, it is better to roast the tea over a rather strong flame, very quickly. So, I begin by preheating the hôroku well, and then I put 3 g (1 tsp) of leaves in it. I leave it for a few seconds, until smoke starts to form, and then I start moving it. When the leaves have swollen up and are nice and brown, I take it off the flame and continue for a few seconds away from the heat. Next, I steep it for 45 seconds.
Achieving uniform roasting is much more difficult than with kuki-cha because the degree of humidity is not the same everywhere.
First group of three teas:
– Sencha from Ôkawa (Yabukita by Mr. Nakamura; 2012 version from last year on Teas of Japan)
– Sencha from Hon.yama (a Yabukita by Mr. Shigeta, produced using neither fertilizers nor pesticides)
– Sencha from Ashikubo (Okumidori, available on Teas of Japan)
The Ôkawa delivers a lively, fairly aggressive fragrance, and a very pleasant, relatively sweet flavour.
When transformed into hôji-cha, Mr. Shigeta’s chemical-free sencha (Mr. Shigeta’s Yamakai is available on Teas of Japan) has a very aggressive velvety, sweet fragrance, but a drier liquor, less pure than that of the Ôkawa.
Finally, with the Oku-midori, I obtain the sweetest scent, full and rich, but the liquor is not as good as that of the two others. Perhaps this tea should be roasted even more lightly?
The second group of three teas is made up of more typical cultivars:
– Sencha from Shimizu (Sayama-kaori cultivar – available on Teas of Japan)
– Sencha from Mariko (Assam-Japanese hybrid — available on Teas of Japan)
– Sencha from Hon.yama (Kôshun cultivar — different from those on ToJ)
There is quite a lot of sweetness in the fragrance of the hôji-cha made with the Sayama-kaori: there is a tiny unusual touch that I cannot quite put my finger on. In the mouth, it is very strong, a little aggressive.
I obtain the most “spectacular” results with the Assam hybrid sencha from Mariko. The background fragrances of sweetness and roasting are invaded by a gorgeous wave of sweet floral scents, and this is also in the liquor in the mouth. It makes me really want to test other highly scented cultivars.
Finally, here is the Kôshun. It is clearly the least successful of the six. On all points, it is humdrum. I can find nothing special in the fragrance, and the liquor is too lacking in purity and smoothness for a hôji-cha made from first-spring harvest tea.
Of course, all of these judgments are only reflections of these senchas when roasted the way they were for these tests. Roasted in a different way, the results would probably have been a little different. As hôji-cha, the Assam hybrid gave me a really strong emotion, and produced exceptionally fine liquor. Yet, in fact, I had already tested this tea using the slower method, over a low fire, and the result had not been interesting at all.
Whether what is in question is a few grams roasted in a hôroku, or several kilos roasted in a drum, it is clear that making high-quality hôji-cha is a precise art that requires great experience and high-quality raw materials. This type of tea is not a sub-category, but indeed a noble tea.