In the wide world of tea, there are many factors that affect the properties of the leaves and the flavor of the brew. Shading the tea trees before harvest, such as for gyokuro, softens the leaves and brings out a sweetness in the finished brew. Allowing the leaves to oxidize partially after harvesting, such as for oolongs, can produce a lovely floral flavor. Tea grown in tightly-packed soil, such as in forests, makes for a rich, nutritious tea. Another of these factors is the elevation at which the tea bushes are grown: teas grown at a high elevation are characterized by a smooth, sweet flavor and a creamy texture, and are considered by many to be particularly delicious.
One of our favorite high-elevation tea regions in Japan is Kasuga village in Gifu prefecture, nestled behind the Ibuki mountain range that separates Gifu from the neighboring Shiga prefecture. It has been nicknamed Japan’s Machu Picchu after its gorgeous mountainous landscape. The environmental conditions in this area are ideal for tea—and for other plants too. Kasuga has long been renowned for medicinal herbs, with a history going back over 760 years.
So what exactly makes this area ideal? For one, the climate is cooler. This encourages the tea to grow more slowly, so the roots grow deeper and build up more nutrients over the long winter—in particular, starch. This starch will produce amino acids in the leaves, and the finished brew will be sweeter. Secondly, the light, loosely packed soil allows plants to dig deep into the earth and collect nutrients from far below the surface. Thanks to that, tea in Kasuga doesn’t require much fertilizer. That, combined with the cooler climate, means that bugs are less of a problem and there is not as much need for pesticides. Our producer, in fact, does not use any fertilizer or pesticides at all.
The location is not without its downsides, however. The slow growth rate of the tea bushes makes it difficult to produce in enough quantity to compete with larger producers. The harvest season is also later than for farms at lower elevations and in warmer climates, lagging weeks behind the competitive start of the new tea, or shincha, season. Finally, native seed-grown bushes, while they fare well in the cooler climate, do not grow as uniformly as cultivar bushes do; they therefore have to be harvested by hand rather than by machine, further delaying the spring harvest.
Cultivation and production practices in Kasuga have remained largely the same through the centuries, untouched by the influence of modern manufacturing. Through this tea, we can get a glimpse into history and even experience for ourselves how tea tasted a hundred years ago. However, Kasuga and many other local tea regions are facing hurdles in the era of mass-produced and blended tea, not to mention Japan’s aging population poses a threat to any traditional product. By including it in our selection, we hope to do our small part in keeping this unique tea region thriving. You can try a few other traditionally grown and produced teas with our Liquid Jade series of three native seed-grown senchas out of some of the most fascinating tea regions across Japan.
Read more about Kasuga village here:
Shincha, highly anticipated Spring tea
So why is the new harvest season so competitive? During the winter, the nutrients and flavor in the tea plant build up in the leaves. The resulting tea is rich and sweet, anticipated by many for months in advance. But the climate can drastically change a year’s new harvest. 2020 and 2021’s shincha was affected by frost, decreasing yield; in 2022, we finally made it through the spring without frost, but the climate still fluctuated enough to affect the tea. It is not as full-bodied and flavorful as you might expect from the usual shincha. Rather, it is light and subtle, complex and delicious in its own right.
In order to give you the full experience of the difference between this year’s harvest and last year’s, and so that you can discover not only how tea changes depending on the different weather conditions but also how it can mature and change after processing, our Tea Club this month featured a shincha from this year and the same tea by the same producer from last year’s harvest: native seed-grown sencha from Kasuga. We encourage you to take some time to brew both of them and compare how they are similar and different.
This month’s Tea Club selection in depth
The first tea this month is the 2021 harvest of Kasuga’s native sencha. As mentioned before, the overall yield of last year’s harvest suffered as a result of a late-season frost that damaged the delicate new growth on tea bushes—the second year in a row that producers throughout the country were hit by a spring frost. The remaining tea, however, was just as delicious as in previous years. It is light and sweet, thanks to the high-elevation environment where it was grown, and there is a warm, honey-like aftertaste that fades after the first brew into a light, fresh astringency. Experienced tea drinkers may also notice the creamy texture that follows, which is part of what makes this tea unique.
The second tea this month is this year’s version of the same Kasuga sencha. 2022’s new tea is uncharacteristically muted—the fluctuating temperatures during the growing seasons caused the tea bushes to slow down new growth, while normally they would grow and fortify the leaves uninterrupted throughout the spring. This resulted in a much subtler tea than other years, a young and shy tea.
But that doesn’t mean this year’s harvest is bland or low-quality. Despite the light, subtle flavor, it is quite powerful, and will leave you feeling warm and energized. You may also be able to detect the faint honey flavor that is prominent in last year’s sencha. And though it may take a sensitive palate to fully appreciate this tea now, that may not be true in a few months or even weeks; tea doesn’t stop developing after it’s harvested and processed, it continues to develop all the way up until it is brewed. This aging and oxidation is part of the reason the flavor is different between the two years: in addition to the different weather conditions prior to harvest, 2021’s tea has had a full year to develop. This year’s tea will also open up and mature over time, filling out and expanding in flavor. We have already observed this in other shincha from earlier in the season, which changed drastically between brews just a few days apart.
It is important to compare this year’s young, fresh tea to last year’s harvest, to see the potential of what this year’s shincha could develop into. Without that comparison, it would be easy to dismiss this year’s shincha as weak and bland. We highly recommend coming back to this tea and brewing a cup every once in a while to see how it has changed.
Bonus: another process of aging tea
For our tasting of this month’s teas, we also happened to have a batch of last year’s harvest that had been stored in a copper canister rather than a bag. We tasted that as well to see how the tea had aged differently.
Our teas are packaged in aluminum-lined airtight bags, which protects it from heat, light, air, and humidity. Generally it is considered best practice to protect tea from the elements as much as possible to prevent it from oxidizing and keep it fresh. Green tea is especially important to store carefully, as it doesn’t tend to age as well as other types. The canister, on the other hand, isn’t as airtight as the bags, and there is no vacuum sealing. Then, every time it is opened, it again lets in air and light. This caused the tea to oxidize, which, as we discovered in the tasting, changed it dramatically in both appearance and flavor. It had a slight brown color and a sweet, honey-like flavor. The tea stored in the bag had been sealed for the past year until we opened it for the tasting, and it was noticeably greener. It also had a slightly astringent freshness. After tasting both, we could detect the same honey flavor in the vacuum-sealed tea as well, underneath the astringency.
Aging tea is a fascinating process and has a lot of potential for exploration. The result can vary quite a bit depending not only on the type of tea, but also many other factors from growing conditions to storage conditions. It is impossible to predict how a particular tea will change as it ages. This was a rare opportunity to see the process for ourselves.
About the Tea Club:
Our monthly subscription box is a collection of unique and special organic teas from across Japan. Each month you will receive two to three full-size bags from our selection of specialty teas.
Sign up to The Tea Crane Tea Club Now.