This is the third year that I propose this “zairai” tea from Umegashima, which has evolved each time to get closer to a certain “ideal”, or simply say a real good sencha.
Let us first recall what the term “zairai-shu” or “mishō-zairai-shu” means in Japanese. This is what can be called an indigenous variety (or native variety). In short, this type of tea tree is opposed to cultivars (or varietal). A cultivar is obtained by selection (and, most often, crossbreeding), then multiplied by cuttings. In short, all the tea plants of the same cultivar are genetically identical. Conversely, a plantation of native varieties “zairai” is obtained by seeds, “zairai” tea trees are all genetically different. They do not have the same characteristics, neither aromatics nor resistance to diseases and climatic conditions. Moreover, they do not sprout according to the same timing. They give a non-homogeneous harvest, with leaves still very small and others already too hard, which makes it difficult to roll and dry, and whose aromas will not be stable.
It is easy to understand that the zairai has almost disappeared, to be replaced by selected varieties suitable for giving teas of much better quality. Also, the harvest of what remains of zairai is most often harvested late in the season, with very hard leaves, giving nothing more than a bancha.
The idea, along with the ancient zairai tea trees of this riverside plantation, was to work on making it a good sencha.
As a small “tea economy” parenthesis, we also understand that given the almost zero market value of zairai on the tea market, a producer is reluctant to take the time to harvest and make a zairai sencha picked early, giving less in quantity, difficult to produce well, without being certain of being able to sell the raw tea at good price.
The first year, it was still clearly a bancha, while last year, harvested earlier, we had a sencha already much more interesting, despite the smell of hard leaves remains a little.
This year, harvested even earlier, the sencha is finally rid of any smell of bancha.
With zairai’s raw tea (aracha : unsorted tea, without final roasting), finishing is also an important problem: there is a lack of uniformity and contains a lot of very large leaves (atama) that cannot be integrated into the finished tea. The sort causes a huge loss (more than 20%, against less than 10 for a quality sencha with a cultivar), and the choice is how and to what extent we cut the large leaves to integrate into the final tea.
There are also very light leaves that come out of the sort, we can re-sort them, and reinstate the heavier part that may have taste. My choice was to put the large cut leaves (very fragrant), but to drop the material too light, non-significant.
Of course, with the leaves cut, the tea is less beautiful, but nobody asks a zairai to be good looking. Of course depending on what I will have next year, I wonder if I could not target the highest-end, and use only the “hon-cha”, ie the best leaves after sort it. A big company could in this way use the big leaves with those from the sort of other sencha and sell them as bancha or cheap sencha, but on my scale (there is only about fifteen kilo of this raw tea at the base) there is nothing to do with it, and not using it would be a waste.
Let’s come to the tasting now. Another thing with zairai, we can perceive significant differences between each tasting because the tea is composed of tea leaves all different. (This type of nuance fades when it comes to a tea harvested very late).
In appearance, the tea is indeed very inhomogeneous, even if we notice a large number of very pretty leaves, well processed.
The perfume is rather green, I actually made a roasting “hi-ire” very weak.
I still feel sweet citrus tones.
The general impression is that of a very refreshing tea, with a slight hint of astringency, green without being excessively vegetal. We do not perceive a very strong umami, rather a sweet light aroma, but very long in the mouth.
It is a powerful tea that will give four or five very good infusions.
As for the more precise aromas, as I said above, it’s a bit changeable, but it seems to me that we oscillate between sweet orange perfumes, to the most floral sometimes a little creamy.
We never get very sharp flavors, but always deep, fresh and spring aromatic sensations.
This zairai is a great success, a great satisfaction too, and I hope to be able to continue to offer this tea from ancient tea trees (old enough for the veteran grower to have no idea when the seeds may have been planted) with at least the same quality, hopefully more.
A zairai that can also change the idea that some may have about “zairai” sencha.