Japanese culture and cuisine feed into many of the creations from the Lab. Toshio Tanahashi, the acclaimed Shojin-ryori chef, has be a strong influence on Christophe, our Creative Director, hence the fascination with the rare and special Eastern ingredients that feature in our drinks. We are also big tea fans and connoisseurs. Not the regular English Breakfast sort which has its place in life for sure, but not in the Lab. Specialty green teas from Japan are our thing under the guidance of Tim d'Offay from Postcard Teas.
Although all teas come from the same camellia sinensis plant, the key difference between Japanese green tea and other teas (black tea, oolong tea, Chinese green tea) is that Japanese tea leaves are steamed after harvest to prevent oxidation. The steaming process lasts for about 15 – 20 seconds, and is performed soon (within 12 – 20 hours) after the leaves are picked. Thanks to this steaming process, and in part to the subsequent rolling process, most of the leaves' natural green colour, fragrance and nutritional components are retained.
The first documented evidence of tea in Japan dates to the 9th century, when it was taken by the Buddhist monk Eichū (永忠) on his return from China. It is documented that Eichū personally prepared and served sencha to Emperor Saga in the year 815. By Imperial Order in the year 816, tea plantations began to be cultivated in the Kinki region of Japan. However, the interest in tea in Japan faded after this.
Around the end of the 12th century, the style of tea preparation called "tencha" (点茶?), in which powdered matcha was placed into a bowl, hot water added, and the tea and hot water whipped together, was introduced to Japan by Eisai, another monk, on his return from China. He also took tea seeds back with him, which eventually produced tea that was considered to be the most superb quality in all of Japan.
This powdered green tea was first used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. By the 13th century, tea and the luxuries associated with it became a kind of status symbol among the warrior class, and tea-tasting parties emerged where contestants could win extravagant prizes for guessing the best quality tea—mostly grown in Kyoto from the seeds that Eisai brought from China.
When it comes to the green tea harvest, the general consensus is the earlier the better. ‘First flush’ is the year’s first harvest of young leaves, considered by connoisseurs to be the absolute finest in quality, freshness and flavor. The quality (and price) of the leaves are largely dependent on the time of harvest with the first harvest, Shincha, being the most sought after.
Aside from Shincha, Japan has four other harvest periods:
- Ichibancha “first tea”: this refers to the entire first harvest season, including shincha and typically occurs from late April to May.
- The first new shoots after this period are of the highest quality in flavour and nutrition making them the most sought after and usually the most expensive. This ‘first flush’ is full of nutrients, as thanks to the cold temperature and slow growing hibernation in Winter, the leaves contain three times more L-theanine than that of the second harvest, Nibancha. L-theanine is the source of the sweetness of the tea.
- Nibancha – “Second tea”.
- Sanbancha – “third tea”.
Matcha preparation starts several weeks before harvest when the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight and to slow down the growth of the Camellia Sinensis plant. During this shaded period, the leaves are turned a darker shade of green, producing more of the amino acid theanine and caffeine.
Only the finest tea buds are picked and then laid out flat to dry, causing them to crumble. They are then de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone ground to produce the fine, bright green powder we have come to love. The grinding process is slow. The stones must stay at a moderate temperature in order to preserve the flavour of the leaves (it can take up to an hour to grind 30grams of matcha powder).
Traditionally, Buddhist monks drank matcha to assist in their meditation, as the synergy between matcha’s amino acids and its caffeine content offer a sustained calm alertness. L-theanine, is known to relax the mind which contributes to matcha’s reputation as a mood enhancer. The flavour profile of matcha is dominated by its amino acid profile. These contribute to what is known as the fifth taste, or umami and are characterized by a rich vegetal, astringent taste which blossoms into a lingering sweetness.
The highest grade matcha (ours is ceremonial grade directly from a supplier in Kyoto), has an intense sweetness and deeper flavour than standard grade matcha harvested later in the year. As we consume the entire plant when drinking matcha we are ingesting a much higher dose of antioxidants, polyphenols and chlorophyll.
The most popular tea in Japan, Sencha accounts for more than 80% of Japanese tea production.
Unlike the shade-cultivated matcha leaves, sencha leaves are exposed to direct sunlight for their entire life cycle, and accordingly exhibit rapid growth.
The younger higher quality leaves of the upper shoots are then picked and steamed to prevent oxidation. Although the process is brief, lasting less than a minute, this is the most important step and the main point of difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea which is pan-fried instead of steamed.
Next, the leaves are dried and rolled to attain the familiar needle shape and release the juices inside thus intensifying the taste.
The full exposure to sunlight during the growth period results in an abundance of vitamin C, as well as a relatively high level of tannin. It is this high tannin content that gives sencha its characteristic sharp flavour.
You will find significant quantities of superior grade matcha, directly from our supplier in Kyoto in PLANTMILK 3 and with sencha featuring in VITALISE from our Botanics cold pressed range. To pick up the best quality teas in London, head to our friends at Postcard Teas in Mayfair who specialise in premium teas from small producers from across the world.