Last year, I proposed a sencha from Umegashima (Nyûshima area, more exactly) from Hon.yama, Shizuoka, from an old “zairai” indigenous varieties tea plantation. It was a tea harvested very late, almost a bancha, with a very strong roasting. Indeed, “zairai” plantations, ie tea plants from seeds, all different therefore, as opposed to cultivars, reproduced by cuttings, all identical genetically, are generally not only very rare, but also used to make fairly low-end teas. Since the cultivars have developed, the “zairai” have been very depreciated, and it is true that they are very difficult to process, each shrub being different, they do not grow at the same speed, and therefore gives a material non uniform, very difficult to roll. There is no doubt that cultivars have contributed overwhelmingly to the increase in the quality of tea. However, this does not mean that we must completely forget the old “zairai”. These can have both a very fluid, refreshing character and a particular strength.
The idea was last year to better exploit this beautiful plantation on the banks of the Abe River where Yabukita and zairai cohabit. The producer does not know exactly since when these “zairai” tea trees are here, but for some, probably more than 100 years old (which in Japan is very old, the cultivars, less resistant, are renewed every 30-40 years). Some, modernly planted aligned are probably newer, but those planted individually are certainly very old.
In this area pesticides are no longer used, and the producer is using organic fertilizer, switching to fertilizer from sesame oil pressing last year.
For me, it was not possible to stay satisfied with a sencha as it was made last year. Thus, I asked the producer to pick this year the leaves younger, to make a beautiful sencha. This is how I spent the day of May 10, 2018 in Nyûshima to assist the production of a very small batch of this zairai!
The producer works on a small 35K line. For this year only one “batch”, about 30 kilos of fresh leaves, which gives 6-7 kilo of raw aracha tea, and 5 kilograms after refining. Next year I would like the double.
To watch and touch the leaves to pass in each machine for the processing, there is no need to be a great expert to understand the difficulty of the production of a zairai sencha, where one finds as well of tiny buds and leaves that are already starting to harden (we also imagine that a very careful and very selective manual harvest might be desired in terms of quality, but also catastrophic in terms of profitability).
The result is clearly completely different from the sencha presented last year. While last year, it was refined with a very strong roasting, for this sencha much more beautiful, I asked a relatively low hi-ire.
Also, I could have some Yabukita of the same producer, and it is that of this same plantation which seemed to me the best, and that I propose you therefore in parallel with the “zairai”.
This zairai should be infused with hot water preferably, at least 80 ° C.
The first infusion gives a beautiful liquor sweet scent, very “gourmand”, not vegetable for a sencha despite the low roasting.
On the palate it is indeed a tea very fluid and light at first. It also has a powerful and sweet aftertaste. There is a slight hint of tannin.
The second infusion gives a more dynamic tea. Always as fluid and airy, without astringency, this sencha is then more aromatic. The sweet and mineral character of the first brew gives way to aromas, always light and subtle, like perfume, a little vegetal with a touch of citrus.
The second infusion sometimes seems much richer and more complex. I say sometimes because indeed, from one session to another, a “zairai” can offer “surprises” aromas, being composed of tea trees all different. We imagine that among all these shrubs, there are probably some that could be selected and give a cultivar with great flavors.
This tea can give up to four infusions very pleasant, with always this beautiful impression of purity, and a sweet touch, not umami.
It is particularly difficult to capture the aromas of a sencha zairai, especially good quality one, as each session can give different nuances. Anyway, this is a very good zairai, and I am very happy to have engaged with Mr. Koizumi to have this very “special” tea.
Here is now the sencha made with Yabukita tea trees coexisting with these zairai tea trees in the same plantation.
Clearly, from the point of view of the most objective judgment of a sencha, this Yabukita is clearly superior (which does not necessarily mean “better”, this being subjective and related to everyone’s tastes). Leaves are very fragrant, a fresh scent and forest reminiscent of pine. The first infusion offers a sweet scent evoking humus and forest. The liquor is also very fluid, but with a clear attack whose aromas give a wet forest impression. But here it is not the fresh notes of pine, but really the humus pole that dominates. It is on the second infusion, while the sweet perfume is more creamy, that one feels these aromas of dry wood and pine. There is still no astringency, but a stronger feeling of freshness. The aftertaste is powerfull, mixture of sweet sensation and umami very discreet. The third infusion surprises with its lighter fragrance but nevertheless complex, floral, fruity, vanilla. In mouth it is always a velvety delight that transports us in these mountains of Umegashima. No reason to deprive yourself of a fourth infusion.
This Yabukita is above all much more powerful than the zairai. It is also a sharper and more dynamic sencha as the zairai is much rounder, quiet, but also sweet. It is finally impossible to say which one is the best, or even which one I would recommend the most. They both come from the same plantation, a splendid place on a slope between a river and the forest that covers the mountain. They must be discover at the same time. These ancient zairai tea plants are a very rare presence today, valuable as long as it is well exploited and understood. The zairai is not in itself something positive. It is difficult to produce and poorly adapted to contemporary criteria. Yet, if you take the trouble they can make sencha of great value, providing sensations different from those produced by cultivars. I hope to be able to offer this zairai from Umegashima every year with at least the same quality, maybe even a little higher.