Even though spring has just barely begun, the shincha season has already started, with the first very early teas from the Island of Tanegashima in southern Kagoshima.
However, if I was to announce the arrival of the first tea from Shzuoka at the very beginning of April, even before the early teas from the plains of Kagoshima (Chiran, etc), many people would think it was a joke. Yet, the Sugiyama Yaeho cultivar from Mariko really is picked in the very first days of April!
Mariko, which is part of Shizuoka City, is just on the border between town and mountain. Generally, it is a place where teas are early, but this Sugiyama Yaeho is special. It is very, very early, and also very rare. (Is it found anywhere else?) It takes its name from Sugiyama Hikosaburô, the pioneer of tea plant cultivar development in Japan and well-known as the father of Yabukita. Moreover, the Yaeho cultivar is different, more recent, a little more widespread, and derived from Sugiyama Yaeho.
In Mariko, a few bushes of this precious tea have been planted by a few farmers in the middle of other tea plants and trees, here and there, on the sides of this little mountain.
The little tea plants are not pruned, so the leaves have to be harvested by hand. An unpruned tea plant buds earlier than one that has been pruned.
Look at the state of the young leaves on March 25, 2014. There is no end to them! At this date, the harvest was expect to began on April 2. It will take several days since it is not only done by hand, but also with very special care: the young buds and leaves are plucked off with an upward motion in order to avoid twisting the branches. Thus, they are not torn off. The stem is allowed to break where it naturally “wants.” This also prevents there from being too many stems in the tea.
It is a massive amount of work, especially when we see how these little leaves grow:
This is a special feature of this cultivar: whereas on most tea plants one bud comes out at a time, on Sugiyama Yaeho, two come out (though this is not systematic either), so it is a real explosion of little leaves.
At the bottom of the mountain, these shrubs are planted in terraces.
Here is a video of my March 25 visit to Mariko on the Teas of Japan Youtube channel.
Finally, the handpicking of this early tea began on the 5th!
It was a little later than last year (when harvesting began on April 1st!), but it has been available on Thés du Japon since April 8th.
Okay, the earliness of this cultivar is exceptional, but that is not all!! Unpruned bushes, very delicate hand plucking, light steaming and expert rolling of the beautiful whole leaves: everything is done to make sure this sencha is much more than a rare curiosity for the media. It is also a very high quality tea.
The leaves smell very green, very fresh, very slightly floral, with a note of sweetness. Light roasting.
I decided to infuse them with lukewarm water, according to the following parameters:
4 generous grams (a scant teaspoon) of leaves / 60 ml (around 2 ounces) of water at approximately 60-65°C (140-149°F). I let it steep for 1½ minutes.
Everything was light and delicate…. the liquor was a perfectly limpid yellow-green…. the fragrance was sweet and fresh, green but not excessively grassy…. The taste in the mouth, airy, with a little sweetness and a tiny note of astringency….
Then, gradually, a much more powerful aftertaste appeared in the mouth, very mellow and sweet, a little fruity, impossible to suspect ahead of time from this sencha’s initial impression of lightness.
This strength and length in the mouth is undoubtedly the great quality of this 2014 Sugiyama Yaeho.
I kept the same leaf-water proportions for the second infusion. Around 70°C (158°F), for a good 10 seconds. Once again, delicacy, airy liquor, fresh, with a flavour that naturally asserted itself a little more. A second wave of sweet, subtly fruity aftertaste flowed through my mouth.
There was no reason not to continue with a third infusion. The same parameters, but I left it longer. One minute perhaps?
There was greater strength: the vegetal dominated the sweet, and the astringency came out more clearly. However, this made the liquor only more refreshing.
And then there was the aftertaste that kept coming back, always as pleasant and mellow.
So, I finished with a fourth infusion. Hotter, around 80-90°C (176-190°F), longer also: two minutes – why not?
No excessive astringency. On the contrary, the liquor still slipped down like silk.
Was there to finally be a slight fatigue in the aftertaste? Not really. It was still very present, more than sufficient.
The contrast between the subtlety of the liquor and the length in the mouth was striking. This Sugiyama-yaeho is a sencha that seems to have no failings, though those who love thick, sweet fukamushi chas will probably pass it by.
I think that the parameters I have described here are a good option. To take advantage of the “shincha freshness,” you might want to try slightly higher temperatures, but I think I will first try it in a more concentrated form, and brew it gyokuro-style.