On the roots of fukamushi-cha and about Japanese green tea steaming

A lots of things are said about “the birth of fukamushi-cha,” but I would like to speak about this phenomenon in a broader way, in order to try to get a deeper understanding of it.

My main source is a work with a title that can be translated as The Roots of Fukamushi-cha. It is the fruit of a major study conducted in 2013 and 2014 by Professor Y. A., with the help of the Shizuoka Tea Research Group. The inquiry was done in the face of an urgent situation, namely, that it was important to record the accounts of those involved in the birth of this type of Japanese tea before there were none left. This is the foundation of reflection on the present state of Japanese tea, and its future.

Here, far from providing such a structured, rigorous scientific article, I would like to present a few points that I think are essential to understand.

 

First, here is how “fukamushi-cha” is usually defined. The familiar story is that futsumushi sencha (standard steamed, also known as asamushi sencha) is steamed for 30 to 40 seconds, in accordance with the traditional method for making sencha, and that fukamushi sencha is steamed 2 to 3 times longer.

The term “fukamushi” can be translated as “deep steamed.” Indeed, almost all Japanese green tea is steamed (mushi-sei 蒸し製), in other words, heated with vapour, before being rolled and dried, in order to stop the leaves from oxidizing. This operation is called “sassei” in Japanese, and “shaqing” in Chinese. However, the term fukamushi is criticized by some specialists because the idea of steaming more or less “deeply” is in fact purely fanciful. Either the leaves are steamed, oxidation is 100% stopped and we have a green tea, or it is not, and oxidation continues, and we will not be able to get anything out of the leaves. Consequently, it is physically impossible to have different levels of steaming.

It is important to understand the principle of tea steaming. It means heating the leaves with water in its gaseous form (vapour: colourless and invisible). In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it is with the latent heat created when gaseous water at 100°C (212°F) condenses into the state of liquid water in suspension (tiny condensed droplets that are visible like smoke). At the precise moment it changes states, from a gas to droplets, 540 calories per gram of water are released. In comparison, when liquid water in suspension goes from 100°C to 99°C (212°F to 210°F), only 1 calorie per gram is released, and when water vapour (water in gaseous form) goes from 101°C to 100°C (214°F to 212°F), only 0.5 calories per gram is released. Thus, the heat produced at the exact moment when water changes states makes it possible to stop the oxidation of tea leaves almost instantaneously. The machine used to steam tea might be a few hundred centimeters (a few yards) long, but there is only one point, not far from the opening where the leaves go in, where the vapour comes out of the boiler in gaseous form and then passes into the state of a liquid in suspension. It is at the moment when the leaves pass over the mouth of the boiler that the enzymes are deactivated, that ”shaqing” is 100% performed, in only a few seconds. All the rest of the time the leaves spend in the machine, they are simply bathing in the steam that we can see coming out, in what is never anything more than very hot water in suspension. In sum, the leaves are simply being boiled, and in addition they then retain excessive humidity that only creates problems for the next phases (rolling and drying). This is why some producers prefer to take off the top of the machine to avoid “boiling” the leaves too much, and especially to prevent them from absorbing too much humidity, using this phase for cooling down leaves temperature.

In short, the steam times actually correspond to how long the tea leaves spend in the steaming machine.

Of course, we could simply say that this is only a vocabulary problem since even though there cannot be anything such as stronger or weaker steaming, the difference in the time the tea spends in the machine does indeed have an influence on it. However, when we read on the back of many Japanese packages of fukamushi tea things such as “this tea has been carefully and deeply steamed right to the heart of the leaves,” we can see the problem that this term can create. When average consumers read that, they may think that other teas are not “carefully steamed.”

Moreover, there are no rules concerning the different “-mushi” denominations, and the time the tea spends in the machine is sometimes called “fuka” and sometimes “futsu,” depending on the producer and region.

 

An interesting question is why is tea steamed in Japan whereas everywhere else green tea is made by heating it directly on a hot surface (kama-iri)? What is the advantage of this method?

While this method is more difficult to employ, unlike kama-iri, it makes it possible to apply a large amount of heat uniformly to all leaves in a single instant. “In principle,” this makes it possible to stop 100% of the enzymes responsible for oxidation, whereas the kama-iri method takes longer because the entire of the surface of all of the leaves is not in contact with the hot surface (so oxidation continues during the process) and therefore sometimes the oxidative enzymes are not 100% deactivated.

 

Clearly, the term “fukamushi” designates products in the commercial sense, but does not correspond, strictly speaking, to a production method. Yet, at the origins of this tea, there were producers, wholesalers and retailers who worked very hard to perfect “fukamushi-chas” (there is no other word to designate them) of which many would now say “they used to be a very fine teas but today they are not good.”

 

Indeed, it seems that there was already “long steamed tea” before World War II. (Let’s keep in mind that the idea of long- or deep-steaming is completely inaccurate, but that it actually refers to the time the tea spends in the steaming machine.) However, at that time tea was sold by weight and it was placed on the scale in front of the consumer. The way the leaves looked was extremely important and, in the end, this very broken tea with rather yellow leaves did not last long.

The idea was taken up seriously again a few years after the war, when neither sencha nor kama-iri cha were being exported anymore. (Remember that Japanese green tea had experienced a boom in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially as a product exported to the United States.) In short, Japanese tea was undergoing a serious economic crisis.

According to the account given by Mr. W. (88 years old), who took over the family tea farm in Makinohara when he returned from China in 1947, tea exports began to pick up in 1949. The first harvest was used to make sencha, and the second tamaryokucha or black tea.

However, beginning in 1952, tea exports began to decline because China and South Asia had come back onto the scene. This meant that first spring harvest tea had to be sold on the domestic market.

In the part of Makinohara where Mr. W. had his farm, the earth always made the tea astringent and bitter. (It has to be said that the plateau’s strong exposure to the sun also contributed to this.) Relationships between tea wholesalers and retailers encouraged him to “steam more,” without really knowing how to do it. In 1952, he was thus asked to reproduce the very mellow taste of an old-time tea called “yudôshi-cha” (“boiled tea”). Blindly, he went about attempting to reproduce “yudôshi-cha,” and after many tries and experiments managed to make a tea that certainly tasted very good, but really did not have a very presentable colour or look. How could such a tea be sold? How could it be reproduced using a classical steaming machine? By making minor alterations to the drum of the machine and leaving the tea in it longer, he managed to produce a tea with a taste that was very close: it was Mr. W.’s first “fukamushi-cha” prototype. He sold the very broken, brown tea that he produced the following year to a retailer in Yokohama, who then tried to sell the new tea by gambling everything on the taste.

The challenge for Mr. W., and finally all of the producers in the Makinohara, Kikugawa area, who took up the endeavor at the same time, was thus to do something to improve the look of this “fukamushi-cha.” (**This tea should not be seen as the invention of just one person, but as the result of experiments in the same direction by many people over the same period.**)

 

I will not go into the details, but for the next three decades, the machines and production lines had to be improved. The art of teapot making also had to change in order to adapt to the new tea. (It is probably obvious to everyone that this concerned filters in particular.)

 

Thanks to improvements, as well as perseverance, this tea finally came to be loved and sought after in major consumer areas, in other words, in Tokyo in the first place, because it could be good even when made with Tokyo tap water, which was still very bad in the 1960s and 1970s. It could also be prepared quickly and simply, and produced a strong colour.

 

At the end of the 1960, following the international tea trade liberalization in Japan, Japanese black tea production collapsed when Japanese industry was allowed to buy foreign black tea without having to acquire an equivalent quantity of Japanese black tea. The latter was no longer attractive because it was too expensive and too low quality.
In the southern plains of Shizuoka, there was the custom of using the first harvest to make green tea,
sencha, and the second for black tea. It was difficult to obtain a good sencha with the second harvest, which produced a very astringent, bitter green tea with brown liquor. This is why the second harvest was used for black tea.
Now that there was no longer anyone to buy the black tea, More and more producers started to make fukamushi with this second harvest.

 

In 1969, fukamushi-cha appeared in competition for the first time, in the “free style” category open to all sorts of teas. Fukamushi is the only free style tea that lasted, and in 1977 the “sencha–fukamushi” category was created.

 

What is important to understand is that this “fukamushi-cha” was born, on one hand, of the need for change owing to a serious crisis threatening tea’s very survival, and, on the other hand, of the idea of making a tea that would be simply good, mellow, with no astringency or bitterness. This seems rather puzzling today, given that many “fukamushi-chas”, especially in this Shizuoka plains area, are very astringent and bitter.

We can imagine many reasons for this.

Fukamushi-cha developed in the early 1950s, when botanical varieties (zairai-shu) of tea were mostly used. Yabukita began to be grown in significant quantities only at the end of the 1960s. Zairais are generally much less rich in various molecules than cultivars.

Another major change was the size of the production lines. It is clear that one cannot work in the same way on a 60 kg (130 lb) line as on a 300 kg (660 lb) line. Moreover, it is primordial to find a balance between the amount of leaves entering the steaming machine and the quantity of vapour. If there are too many leaves, fukamushi or not, some leaves will not be 100% steamed, and the tea will be bad.

Furthermore, in the case of fukamushi, the longer time spent in the machine creates excessive humidity that hinders the rolling-drying stages, despite the invention of an additional machine to remove the excess moisture from the leaves. Add to this the fact that rolling machines may not be appropriate for processing the very broken leaves of fukamushi-cha. The result is drying defects that can be seen and tasted in the final product.

 

This does not mean that all fukamushi-chas are bad teas. Far from it. Nonetheless, we have to wonder about the current situation, in which these teas have become the norm. They comprise the majority, especially in so-called “specialized” chains of boutiques offering mediocre fukamushis that are more or less all the same. At a time when Japanese tea is going through an unprecedented crisis, and its very future is in question, we have the right to ask whether it is a good idea to continue promoting these mediocre teas, even if this is what the average consumer wants. The immense work done on the original fukamushi-cha in order to revive Japanese tea made it possible to sell it on the domestic market, but this began with no market survey. It was imposed by the sellers at the time (as the only good way to deliver quality and quantity?). Today, similar effort needs to be put into changing things. In what direction should we work? That is a completely different question, on which everyone seems to have a different opinion.

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Categories: History, miscellaneous

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7 replies

  1. vERY INFOMATIVE ABOUT FUKAMUSHI

  2. Thank you for this technical explanation of Fukamushi cha. For producers like me, this blogpost is an invaluable treasure trove of information. Super.

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