My enthusiasm growing for this super minor category of Japanese tea that is the black teas, I will present my 2019 first flush selection after having once again presented the history of this unknwon tea category.
Indeed, Japanese black teas, often referred here as “wakocha” (和紅茶), account for a very small part of tea production in Japan, and until very recently, did not really worth to be known. . Some of my readers may have already seen me somewhat reluctant about them. However, there is no doubt that in recent years the quality has, at least for a part of this production, considerably increased, to the point that some of these teas are frankly good and interesting.
Although this development is recent, do not believe that in Japan production of black tea is a complete novelty.
I have already mentioned it many times, but tea developed in Japan as an industry during the 2nd part of the 19th century (mechanization, first tea trees varietals, contest, etc), mainly around sencha as export product to western countries, especially the United States. If this venture was a great success, the authorities could not ignore the growing demand in the West for black tea. Thus, the government undertook to establish a production of black tea in Japan, for which it was necessary to get the necessary technical skills. The first attempt was to bring Chinese specialists to lead the production. The tea thus produced fails to convince foreign traders. In 1875 and 1876, Tada Motokichi, a former vassal warrior of Shogun Tokugawa converted to tea production in Mariko (Shizuoka) after the imperial restoration of Meiji, was sent by the government to China, India, and Ceylon to study the techniques of black tea production.
He also brought back seeds from Assam from which was developed the first ever Japanese black tea cultivar known as Benihomaré. Tada Motokichi is kind of considered the father of Japanese black tea.
However, despite constant and continuous efforts during the 20th century and until the end of the 1960s, Japan never managed to establish itself as a significant player in the world of black tea.
In 1953, when an official registration of cultivars was made for the first time, 5 out of 15 were black tea varieties (Benihomare, Indo, Hatsu-momiji, Benitachiwase, Akane). Yet, while a hundred cultivar are registered today, only five additional black tea varieties will be then (Benikaori, Benifuji and Satsumabeni in 1960, Benihikari in 1969, and finally the famous Benifûki in 1993). In short, we see the efforts, vain, run out of steam.
After the war, and until 1971, the Japanese government controlled the international trade of tea and forced Japanese companies to buy black tea produced in Japan to import foreign black tea (better quality, and of course cheaper). When the government gave an end to this system, the production of black tea disappears quickly and almost completely.
This production of black tea was then artificially supported (since nobody really wanted it), and was the result of second harvests. Clearly, black tea produced with plantations maintained with the primary purpose of making sencha. In any case, it was difficult to make good black tea.
The mini-drama in this case is that Benihikari, just out of research centers could not know the glory when ones saw many qualities in it.
Of course, the development of black tea cultivars then stops. Thus, Benifûki was the last to be created. It takes more than 20 years to record a cultivar, which brings us to 1993 while it was selected in 1965 from a crossbreed between Benihomare and a variety from a seed from Darjeeling.
While it was registered at a time when black tea production in Japan is almost zero, allowing Benifûki to become overwhelmingly the most used of these cultivars not because of its quality for black tea, but its important level of methyl type catechin having virtues to relieve allergies, highlighted in 1999. This is how this varietal begins to spread little by little, not for making black tea, but green tea (catechins oxidize and disappear during the manufacture of black tea).
At the same time, a handful of diehards continue to strive to make black tea, aiming for some quality. We are beginning to see an interest in Japanese black tea, which we are beginning to call wakosha in the mid-2000s. But it is only a few years since we finally see quality wakosha, really very interesting. And I must say that I now particularly enjoy some of these Japanese black teas.
If these really delectable products seem to come mainly from small-scale productions difficult to replicate on a larger scale, that does not seem to me a problem. I think that Japan must remain the country of green tea (steamed expecially), and that the production of black tea is of interest only if it is of high quality (and of course with typically Japanese characteristics). A high-quality black tea can also be a particularly interesting aid for producers in unknown regions. Black tea becomes the medium that puts them forward allowing them to present also their sencha for example.
Nevertheless, we are still only half way, and much remains to be done.
Of course, the presence of plantations of benifûki makes it the variety of choice (with the risk of seeing it become the “Yabukita of black tea”, we already see in some competitions that it already seems to have become a sort of standard), especially since the other black tea varieties are not found outside research centers, apart from Benihikari which is finally starting to develop (for my biggest joy, I love it). We also see green tea varieties make marvelous black teas: Izumi being the most striking example, but also Koshun, and so on.
That brings us to 2019, and to my first flush.
More than a decade ago, curiosity led me to look at Japanese black teas, with a lot of disappointment. The first time one of these wakosha really impressed me was the Benifuki from Ashikita (Kumamoto). It is naturally several years that it is in my selection.
I love the floral, sweet and slightly spicy scent of dry leaves.
The infusion is slightly astringent, without being excessively tannic. The sensation is clearly that of a black tea, powerful but sophisticated.
It is difficult to clearly define the bouquet of this Benifûki. It is indeed rich and complex. There is a general sweet sensation, but that does not define the aromas, sometimes spicy, sometimes slightly floral, but also a little fruity with very discreet notes of honey.
It is a balanced black tea, which perfectly represents the qualities of Benifûki, without necessarily giving a complete spectrum (we find charming Benifûki in a broken leaves style too). In any case it is rich, aromatic, relatively robust.
The other Ashikita black tea that I present from the same producer is a “zairai” (native varieties). This one is less powerful, but extremely sweet, with strong honey aromas. It is a black tea very mellow, (obviously) simpler than the Benifûki, but very delectable too, especially for those who like the rounder teas.
Then come my favorite. Well, my favorites and my big crush. Two black teas of Iwata (Shizuoka), in the same vein as those of Ashikita from the point of view of the process.
If I like Benifûki as a varietal, I like Benihikari even more. Less common, it also seems more typical, having in any case more obvious features to grasp. In fact, all things considered, it reminds me a little of the Taiwanese # 18.
In the aromas of this tea there are camphor notes accompanied by cinnamon, with on the palate a very dry point of astringency, which is quickly transformed into a sweet and mellow feeling, very pleasant.
In a style completely different from Benifûki, this black tea Benihikari finally provides an experience still very mellow, deep and complex.
Benifûki is perhaps a little more typical, unique in Japan in its aromas, but no matter, I love Benihikari … and I look forward to the 2nd flush.
Then, from the same producer, here is a very nice Kôshun. With its lighter oxidation, it contrasts well with the three black teas presented above. It gives a velvety infusion, with aromas of yellow fruits, especially apricot.
It is not at all tannic, very aromatic and mellow (we can’t get enough of the scent in the teapot!) Without being too sweet, it does not give in the feeling of honey.
It is a real marvel, which contrasts well with the second flush that I present since last year, both giving a good idea of the potential of Kôshun as a black tea.
Another Benifûki, that of Hasama is sweeter than that of Ashikita. He also asks for a longer infusion.
Despite a sweeter impression with aromas of honey, we find there the character of Benifûki.
Finally, a curiosity, a black tea from Wazuka (Kyoto) made from the Gokô cultivar. It is a variety that I love, my ideal for gyokuros, which also gives wonderful non-shaded sencha. It is a very fragrant and recognizable cultivar. Yet, it is indeed a shaded tea variety, and the idea of making a black tea seems daring.
Yet the result is surprising. I had the opportunity to discover it in 2nd flush during an event two years ago, and this 1st flush is also quite interesting, despite its few “technical” defects.
Indeed, the sweet scent also gives a hint of a little green notes that are often the sign of common oxidation defects in Japanese black teas, especially on green tea varieties.
However, on the palate there is a slight tannic hint that gives this black tea the character needed for this type of tea, as well as light fruity aromas evoking dried fruits (summer yellow fruits, figs, dates, etc.).
Thus, there is suddenly something very Japanese, which certainly lacks the perfection of those presented above, but which also has a different interest.
The common point of most of these black teas (apart from the Gokô) is their production method, rather in a Chinese spirit, with of course a careful withering process, but also a slow rolling/kneading process, without strong pressure on the leaves, in order not to tear the leaves, while the Indian or Sri Lankan methods tends often aim the opposite, with a very fast rolling and stronger pressure. Then, the oxidation is not accelerated artificially (addition of moisture, or heat, in one way or another). This way of doing things is rather new in Japan.
In spite of the small quantities and a global level still unequal, I think that Japanese black tea is no longer a simple curiosity, but a genre on which one can count, presenting rather than an alternative to other black teas, a new horizon.
For Ibaraki’s divine Izumi, we will have to wait a little longer, and I will soon follow on a few seconds flush!