Thanks to Dr. Bushberg & Co. at T-Ching for arranging this tasting of the fresh 2007 shaded-growth Japanese teas. Grown relatively low-altitude (compared to other major tea-growing nations), the leaves flush under shade for the final few weeks before picking, allegedly to emulate "wild" growing conditions.
I'm not clear of the relationship between Tenbu [tianwu? / heaven-dance?] and gyokuro [luyu / jade-dew], excepting the latter's infamous rarity, and its primary retention for the Japanese market.
Do please click on any of the posted images for more detail. I am quietly proud of the clouds-and-tea cup shown above-right, attempting to rival the current champion photograph by Doddy...
Received wisdom has it that gyokuro and its ilk should be brewed at particularly low temperatures (50-60C), with a surprisingly large leaf-to-water ratio - large even by gongfucha standards. The first infusion is traditionally held much longer than usual, for reasons that I could not uncover.
T-Ching has recommended infusion parameters (I believe passed on from the distributor) in line with this: 3g of leaf to 200ml of water; infusion times of 60s, 15s, 15s, 15s, 30s, 40s, 60s at 60C. Following Sandy's request that we attempt brewing with the suggested parameters, our first session obliged (using a little less water), but the results were poor. I will be the first to confess that Japanese tea and its brewing is something with which I need more practice.
For the second session, which yielded particularly pleasant results, I reverted to familiar Chinese gongfucha-style parameters: 1.5g leaf in a 100ml gaiwan, water at 60C, with infusion times 2s, 8s, 16s, 30s.
Given the immense amount of chopping that these Japanese teas undergo, it is reasonable to assume that they obey similar laws to chopped hongcha: juices, exposed during the chopping process, are dried onto the outside of the small leaf segments, which rapidly make their may into the brew during the first few infusions. Thus, brewing Japanese teas via Chinese gongfucha methods, we find that the first few infusions are most flavoursome, with a rapid decline after the second. Also, this immediate solubility of the dried juices from the chopped leaf surface results in particularly potent first infusions; we keep the first few brews particularly short in order to avoid excess bitterness. Furthermore, we perform no rinse, in order to avoid discarding all of this dried leaf-juice before tasting.
Results are pleasant, but I suspect not what might be achieved if we had more familiarity with Japanese brewing styles.
Throughout this article, the Tenbu and Tenbu Fuka will be designated A and B, respectively, and appear in photographs left and right, respectively. Excellent reviews of these same teas may be found at palatabilitTEA, Tea Nerd, and the aforementioned Palais de Doddy.
Method: simultaneous comparison in 2 gaiwan-gongdaobei sets; Caledonian Springs @ 60C, no rinse.
A: finely chopped, rather dark and homogenous with the occassional twig that appears to have survived the ubiquitous industrial chopping process. Light, grassy aroma.
B: similar, if a touch darker, with a lower bass aroma - also containing a little of the "fishiness" that is sought after by some. From the appearance and aroma of the leaves, we wonder if Tenbu Fuka is a larger-leaf, perhaps lower-stalk, variety, compared to Tenbu. Web-based information on this seems limited.
Tea A appears particularly lime in colour, captured well by the imfamous Dodd photograph, while B is more yellow/green. Could this confirm the suggestion that A is a lighter, tippier grade than B?
A: a creaminess in the mid-taste that melts into a light, fresh grassiness of flavour and aroma. This pollenated grass sits in the nose for the long, enduring aftertaste. A hint of roasting, and a touch of welcome sourness near the finish.
B: Similar in fresh grass to its cousin, but with a richer, deeper base with a constant, gentle aroma and flavour of fish. This is a calming tea, in comparison to the brightness and energy of A.
Both teas perform similarly in duration: they are enduring in the wenxiangbei for the first two infusions, before vanishing entirely. Aroma is largely representative of the flavour: there is little complexity in the interplay between them (compared to, for example, zhuyeqing lucha, in which the grass notes of the aroma play well against a reedy, "yellower" flavour). What we experience is straightforward, but definitely fine and pleasant.
For complexity and depth, B shows more variety. The first infusion even has a brief lengxiang, of sticky-sweet candy. We particularly enjoyed the gradual and smooth evolution of deeper flavours in comparison to the more up-front, vigorous, and yet one-dimensional A.
We look forward to experimenting further with infusing parameters, using the remainder of the samples, in order to better approximate that which a Japanese might enjoy from these refined and yet uncomplex leaves.