I was able to have this year a fine and large selection of kama-iri cha from Kyushu, six in all that I’m happy to present. Kama-iri cha is a type of Japanese green tea which is now rare, subsisting mainly on the large southern island of Kyushu, in the prefecture of Miyazaki and Kumamoto above, then in the Saga and Nagasaki Prefecture.
Unlike other Japanese green teas, which oxidation of the leaves is blocked by steaming, kama-iri cha is treated by heating on a hot surface, such as Chinese green tea.
At the end of the 19th century, when the tea industry were growing in Japan and the sencha (steamed) were sold to foreign traders, the government planed a standardization of techniques to improve the quality to please the precious foreign market. In this movement, the kama-iri cha does not belong.
Yet a handful of diehards producers still resist steam and continues to produce kama-iri cha. However, in these conditions, without government support, the techniques have changed little, and most importantly, unlike other types of japanese green tea, the production lines are not clearly defined. Thus, there exists between each producer notorious differences in machines and methods used.
Also, cultivars developed for the kama-iri cha are rare (Takachiho, Yamanami …)
(More details about kama-iri cha here)
I begin my presentation with two kama-iri cha from Kumamoto (Ashikita City) by Mr. Kajihara, which also produces rice, onions, shiitake, etc.
He works without pesticides and with very little fertilizer (mainly organic).
In addition to its Yabukita and Oku-yutaka cultivar plantations, he cultivates botanical varieties “zairai-shu”. He also has very rare thing in Japan, “yama-cha” which is tea bushes that grow in the mountains naturally (I do not think it is appropriate to call this wild tea trees, because although it can be traced back centuries, although they originate from a tea tree that was planted human hand). He uses it (unfortunately?) for a kama-iri approaching a bit of a Oolong with significant wilting.
Here is a picture:
The first of his kama-iri cha on Thés du Japon is composed primarily of Yabukita, with a bit of Oku-yutaka and “zairai”.
The fragrance of this kama-iri cha is exemplary; the aromas of chestnuts and wood fire roasted sweet potatoes are extremely appetizing. They are very sweet scents that are in no smoke or even grilled in the sense that we would be understood for hoji-cha in example. In short, it is not the smell of roasted tea.
The first brew shows as a very subtle bitterness, then followed by aromas coming recall perfumes like grilled sweet potato, which spread in the throat, eventually giving way to a smooth and rustic taste. These impressions linger long in the mouth.
This liquor seems very dense, full, very stimulating too, and yet it is also very refreshing.
I see this kama-iri cha very well proceed, with a kind of authentic perfection, not that of kama-iri contests, sweet and green, not so different from steamed tea, but with a real “kama-ka” perfume (or least that is closest to the true “kama-ka” being accessible with manual processing), strength, character, and simplicity that makes tea both gourmet and every day drink.
The second infusion always gratifies the senses with a pleasant scent, but the liquor is softer and velvety. The third, with very hot water returned in strength. This time little sweetness on the palate, a little astringency, for a truly drinkable liquor which is especially enjoyable for the fragrance.
The second comes from the “zairai-shu” plantation, it offers very different scents, less obvious in the cup, they are dense and complex in the teapot. The notes of grilled sweet potato are present, but faded, sharing the deal with sweet floral aromas, a bit creamy, a texture of humus and rainforest
The floral aspect, probably obtain by a light wilting seems to me mostly well controlled, since I do not find common defaults of this kind of process frequent with Japanese green tea (orange liqueur, a sort of sickening sweetness in the liquor: here none of this!).
The liquor is here nonetheless rounder and velvety. The lightness of botanical varieties (“zairai-shu”) characteristics may be one reason for this.
This tea is expressed much in the after, although present, long last, without being overbearing. We find the same rustic sweetness, simple as in the other tea, plus that little floral touch.
Because of “zairai-shu”, each session shows obvious differences (the tea is made of leaves from all different trees).
If subsequent infusions give a lighter brew, it seems to me it brings a more mellow after-taste. But liquor is also very enjoyable and refreshing.
Both of these kama-iri cha, despite their differences in flavors and fragrances, still have a difficult to explain “je ne sais quoi” that makes us understand we have two creations bearing the touch of the same producer, Mr. Kajihara.
The first is a genuine good kama-iri cha, gourmet because of high quality, everyday also because of its simplicity, this is a tea which we never bore. The second is more complex, with an exotic touch and roundness. Yet he does not try to copy foreign teas, and remains a real Japanese kama-iri cha from Kyushu.
I leave you with some pictures of the beautiful Mr. Kajihara ‘s “zairai”plantation.