“Steaming” and “drying” to bring out the best in tea
Tea is made by steaming the tea leaves and then drying them. The tea leaves that are dried while rolling are gyokuro or sencha, and those that are dried without any rolling are called tencha, which is used to make matcha. Matcha is simply ground tencha. First, let us introduce our unique way of making tencha.
Making tea is basically all about “steaming”, a teaching that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Once the tea leaves are picked, oxidative enzymes are activated and fermentation immediately begins. If the picked tea leaves are left on its own, the leaves will sweat and lose their flavor, color, and aroma as they breathe. To produce green tea, which is a non-fermented tea, the picked tea leaves must be immediately taken to a factory for processing.
Fermentation is stopped by steaming the tea leaves under high temperatures. For sencha, there are more and more products on the market that are steamed longer, called “deeply-steamed tea”, but the green tea that we produce is generally called “moderately-steamed tea”. Deep steaming was originally devised to improve the flavor of some tea leaves which are astringent and bitter unless steamed to the core. However, if the tea leaves are steamed longer than necessary, their tissues will break down and the tea will taste odd. Steaming tea leaves properly according to the condition of them is the best way to bring out their characteristics.
The steaming time is only a mere 15 to 30 seconds. If the tea leaves are steamed for too long, they will lose their color and aroma; if they are not steamed long enough, a raw vegetal odor will remain. A quick check of the aroma, color and luster of the steamed shoots is crucial here: Has it been too lightly steamed? Was it overly deeply-steamed? Was it properly steamed? Making this call requires one to make use of one’s all senses that go beyond mere numbers. Blindly following numbers will not help us produce good teas. These few seconds can make or break the tea that has been cultivated for an entire year. It is a nerve-wracking moment no matter how many times it is performed.
State of "steaming"
Cool the steamed tea leaves immediately.Chojiro III devised a "scattering machine" that scatters leaves in the air
Drying, the process after steaming, also requires the same level of skills. The appropriate heating temperature will determine the quality of the tea leaves. This is where the “Horii style tencha dryer” comes into play.
This dryer was groundbreaking in that it utilized two types of heat: “radiant heat” at the opening of the heat source and “convection heat” at locations far away from the heat source. Unlike the tea leaves that were simply dried, tea leaves that were dried in this dryer were infused with a fragrant “hika” (literally “fire aroma”) that enhances the tea’s natural aroma, resulting in a more flavorful tencha.
Aracha of Tencha
Flavor that you can only get from grinding with a tea millstone
The resulting tencha is repeatedly cut and sifted to shape it. The hard parts like the stems and veins are removed using wind, and the soft parts of the leaf tips are ground into matcha using a millstone called “chausu”.
The tencha that we carefully selected and procured from tea farmers is also finished in the same way as the tencha grown and processed at Okunoyama Tea Garden, which is subsequently used to make matcha. There are three things that we have continued to observe for the Uji’s traditional way of making matcha that we hold dear to our heart.
First, we only use shade-grown tea leaves. Second, we do not use anything other than the first-picked tea picked in May or June of the year. The brilliant green color of matcha is the result of shade-grown cultivation. The rich flavor of matcha can also only be produced by first-picked teas.
Third, we grind everything with the tea millstone. In fact, only a small amount of tea leaves – about 40 grams – can be ground in an hour with one tea millstone. That is why nowadays, ceramic ball mills (a type of grinder) are sometimes used instead of tea millstones. Although grinding tencha in a tea millstone and pounding it in a ceramic ball mill use different principles to produce the same fine powder, the finishes are different.
The tea millstone has an upper millstone and a lower millstone, where the weight of the upper millstone evenly grinds the tea leaves as it rotates. The tencha that is fed from the center of the upper millstone spills out as the lush green matcha from where the upper and lower mortars overlap. The size of the particles is only about 10 microns; this fineness is what that creates a smooth mouthfeel.
It has a thick layer of foam, a rich rising aroma, a smooth texture, and a deep and strong umami flavor.
So how do we go about creating the unique taste of matcha? We just need to bring out the delicate individuality that has been nurtured by nature. We never cut corners, but we also do not do anything that is unnecessary. The answer to the right balance always lies in the tea leaves in front of us.