By Nina Gruntkowski
Although there are just two varieties of tea plants (Camellia sinensis from China and Camellia assamica from India), there is many many different terroirs in many different countries which produce thousands of different styles of tea. What makes it even more complicated, or, depending on ones viewpoint, even more interesting, is that the preparation method has a very big influence on the taste of the tea. Factors such as which water is used, the temperature of the water, how much tea is used, which teapot the tea is prepare in, which cups the tea is served in and of course the people with whom one drinks it, all contribute to make tea such a fascinating and varied drink. However, what at first sight appears to be complicated, is essentially, an awareness of the little details and these can make the biggest difference.
Once one starts to discover the many different flavours and styles of high quality tea, a whole new world opens up. For example, one might choose Oolongs from Taiwan with fruity to nutty fragrances and deep complex flavours with a long aftertaste; white teas from China, which have a wonderful floral nose and are limpid in the cup; very delicate and yet complex black teas from Darjeeling, India and last but not least, the uncountable styles of gentle, yet complex and refreshing green teas, which dance for a long time on the tongue. In addition to all of this one can make more than one infusion with the same leaves and therefore having again and again a slightly different tasting experience, which can also make you forget the time.
As wine is deeply rooted in European culture, tea is very much associated with ancient Asian culture. The variety Camellia sinensis originated in the triangle between China, Myamar and Vietnam and today it is used mainly for green tea production; although it is capable of producing all kinds of tea. In China, the medicinal benefits of tea have a history dating back almost 5,000 years. There is written evidence from the T’ang dynasty in AD 650 that tea was being cultivated in most of the provinces of China and that the process of making tea was well established. At the same time, Buddhist monks discovered that drinking tea helped to increase their concentration during meditation and therefore it was the monks who brought tea plants from China and started cultivating tea in neighbouring countries such as Japan and Korea.
In Japan, tea remains very much linked to Buddhism and it is highly celebrated in the tea ceremony (Chanoyu, which simply means “Way of the tea”). During Chanoyu the tea master prepares the Matcha (Japanese powdered green tea) in a precious ceramic bowl and serves it to the participants with extreme respect, grace, reverence and attention to detail. The principles of the tea ceremony reach back to the 16th century, when tea master Sen Rikyu, who is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence on Japan’s tea ceremony, established a set of teachings that persist through to today. Sen Rikyu defined four basic principles for the tea ceremony:
Normally the tea ceremony is conducted in a minimalist tea room or little tea house, which is built from natural materials of the region. Every single tea ceremony is considered to be unique and unreproducible.
Matcha is a very rare and exceptionally high quality tea and, apart from low quality copies, it is exclusively produced in Japan. Only the thinner leaves of the first harvest, grown in the shade for up to three weeks before picking, are used for this valuable tea. For the highest quality Matcha the veins of the leaves are carefully removed to produce the tencha (or raw tea). Next, the tencha is ground in a heavy stone mill; a very time consuming process and the result is an extremely fine powder with an intense green colour and a natural sweetness. Matcha contains all the nutrients of the leaf and therefore has various health benefits. In the West, Matcha is starting to get recognised as an antioxidant and a good source of various vitamins and minerals. However there are many other fascinating aspects of Japanese tea production and some of these are described below.
Although tea and the basic skills of tea production originated in China, the Japanese took these skills, developed them and today produce green teas of the highest quality. Today almost all Japanese teas are steamed to prevent the freshly picked leaves from oxidising and becoming brown (i.e. to prevent the tea becoming black tea), while in China the fresh leaves are pan fired to retain the green colour, before they are rolled and dried. The Japanese did not invent the steaming process but they developed it and refined it further. Many years ago the Chinese used the steaming method for green tea production but around the 16th century they abandoned this method in favour of the pan firing method.
The steaming process is very important in Japanese green tea production and indeed most Japanese green tea is called Sencha, which simply means steamed tea. The leaves for Sencha can be picked during the first harvest in April/May or during the second or third harvest, which usually take place 45 days after the last leaves of the first harvest are picked, when the young shoots come out again. One can find Senchas of varying qualities, which depend on the time of harvesting, the leaf selection and various differences in the production process. For example, if the steaming takes 45 seconds instead of 30 seconds, the flavours become more intense and the infusion slightly cloudy. There is also a tea called Fukamushi Sencha, which means steamed for a longer time. Another criteria to distinguish a Sencha from other green teas is the shape of the dried tea leaves. In Japanese tea production, the last machine in the production process presses the almost dry leaves into a needle shape, which, besides creating an elegant appearance, has the advantage, that the tea becomes more compact and is therefore easier to pack.
In Japan the only exception to steaming is Kamairicha, which is a tea produced by dry heating the leaves rather than steaming them. The name derives from the word Kama, which is the name of the iron pan in which the leaves are heated. This style of tea nowadays is very rare and comprises just 1% of the total Japanese tea production. While this style reminds one more of Chinese tea (which generally is panfried) the flavours of Japanese Kamairicha are slightly different. The reason for this could be the terroir and the different Japanese cultivars. Even though are just two tea varieties (Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica), over the centuries, the tea plants in the different tea growing countries developed slightly different characteristics. For example in Japan the most popular cultivar for Sencha and other green teas is Yabukita, which is planted on almost 80% of the tea plantation territory. Yabukita has high yield and is famous for its sweet Umami flavour, which is so characteristic of Japanese tea.
Shincha, in contrast to Sencha, refers to the moment the leaves were picked and the word literally means New Tea. Thus, in the Shincha harvest, only the youngest shoots are picked, at a very early stage of development and before the main harvest. The production of this tea is very small, since very few leaves are available to be picked. It is for this reason and also because the Shincha varieties are subjected to a very brief final heating, that this tea has intense freshness. Shincha is a highly celebrated tea as it marks the start of the tea harvesting season in Japan.
Other Japanese tea qualities derive from the selection of the tea leaves. During the final stages of the tea production process (Aracha) the leaves are sorted and graded into different qualities by means of a vibrating sieve, or a fan or an electromagnetic cylinder. Generally, the best teas come from the smaller, finer leaves and the lesser teas come from the larger, coarser leaves. These different qualities often have quite large and surprising taste variations. For example, teas from small leaves and young, green stems (Kuki) may have a perfume and a very fresh flavour. Indeed, the stems have a particular character of their own that can make teas with a high proportion of Kuki especially attractive. In Kukicha from the earliest harvests it is possible to find citrus notes, even from the coarser, larger leaves. As the stems do not contain caffeine, Kukicha has a natural low caffeine level and is therefore a good choice for people are sensitive to caffeine or for drinking in the late afternoon or evening.
Bancha and Houjicha are the other Japanese tea styles with a natural, very low caffeine level as they are produced from the bigger leaves, picked at the end of the harvest. In general the tea plant has a lot of caffeine in the young shoots and leaves, as this works as a natural pesticide to defend the plant from insects. When the leaves grow bigger, they do not produce caffeine and at the same time develop more vitamins and minerals. Bancha is normally produced from the more developed leaves, picked at the end of the summer and autumn harvest and processed like any Japanese steamed green tea. In contrast, Yangicha Bancha is picked at the very end of the first harvest. In normal harvests (first, second and third) only the new shoots are picked, while for the Yanagicha harvest, the cutting height of the harvest machine is adjusted lower to the ground, which means it picks young shoots and stems, together with some older leaves. Therefore Yanagicha combines the freshness of the young shoots and the maturity and higher tannin content of the older leaves. Houjicha in general is harvested in autumn and processed like the Bancha, but at the end of processing, it is gently roasted and this results in a less green tea but one having roasted and comforting flavours for cold winter days.
The most precious of Japanese teas are the shaded teas or Kabusecha. Most of the Kabusecha plants are kept in the shade for between seven to ten days before harvesting but for certain types of Kabusecha the time spent in the shade can be longer. Kabusecha is not so much a style of green tea, but a category or set of styles of green tea, since it is possible to produce many different green teas from shaded tea plants. For example, Gyokuro occupies a prominent place within the category of Kabusecha teas and is considered to be the reference for Japanese teas. The tea plants are placed in the shade for about three weeks before being harvested. As the shading period is very long the nets cannot be placed directly on the plants as the young shoots would grow through the nets. So, for Gyokuro, the shading has to be built using a structure, with the shading nets at some distance from the tea plants. In the shade the leaves grow less and develop less bitterness but gain more complexity and concentration. Gyokuro, which means “dew drops tea” has a refined flavour with Umami flavours and is therefore a special experience for the palate. This tea is usually is prepared in very small teapots, from which multiple infusions from the same leaves can be made.
Drinking and enjoying tea can connect people. When I met my partner, the wine producer Dirk Niepoort, we soon discovered a shared passion not just for wine but also for tea. Sometimes we would be sitting together and would think about producing a tea of our own. What started as a dream, became real, when we realised that the tea plant is a species of Camellia and that we lived close to the so-called “land of the Camellias” on the northern Portuguese coast.
Investigating a little further, we found historical records about a small tea plantation started in the middle of the 19th century, near Ponte de Lima (located in the Costa Verde region of northern Portugal). Although this plantation had started well, tea was never produced as the owner returned to his native Brazil. Knowing that tea production is very demanding (the plants need to grow at least five years before the first harvest and the actual production of tea involves several processes) made us realise that these are probably the main reasons why nobody has successfully grown and produced tea in mainland Portugal.
As we like challenges, in 2011, we planted 200 Camellia sinensis in the garden of our house in Porto. These first plants thrived and we realised that the local weather conditions are very suitable and this gave us the confidence to continue. So, in 2014, we decided to change our plans and moved the plants to the Vila do Conde region (located about 30km north of Porto), where, step by step, we are significantly increasing their numbers. We very much believe in the importance of a healthy and natural diet and therefore at our tea plantation we work according to organic and biodynamic principles.
Our aim is to produce a high quality Portuguese green tea and being very aware that the tea production is a very complex process, we consulted with green tea producers in Japan. This is because, while we fully acknowledge that there are many wonderful teas from several countries round the world, we believe the Japanese green tea is the most refined and delicate of all teas. In 2012, Haruyo and Shigeru Morimoto from Miyazaki prefecture in the south of Japan, visited us for the first time and embraced our tea project. Both of them have over 40 years of tea growing and tea production experience and they helped us greatly with their knowledge of the cultivation and production of tea.
As we like to share our fascination of the complex world of tea, we started importing organic green teas from the Morimotos and other small family farmers in Japan. At the same time we searched for other teas, which, while not from Japan, are of excellent quality. Thus, we are constantly learning more and more about tea and wish to share our experiences with other people who are either just starting to become interested in tea or who are tea enthusiasts.
Nina Gruntkowski was born in Germany, where she studied geography and social anthropology. For many years she worked for the German public radio broadcasting company ARD, specialising on Brazil and the Portuguese speaking countries of Africa. When she met her partner Dirk Niepoort, she moved to Portugal and while she was working on a radio programme on tea, she discovered that the tea plant is a species of Camelia, which grow exceptionally well in the north of Portugal (also known as “the land of the camellia trees”). Both Nina and Dirk have a great fondness for quality tea and on discovering the above, they started the Camélia project and are busy creating a tea plantation in the north of Portugal. Nina lives in Porto and conducts tea tastings and tea workshops with an emphasis on Japanese green tea.