“Shizuoka for the color, Uji for the aroma, Sayama for the taste.”
The deliciousness of Sayama tea has been sung about since ancient times, and we feel it every time we drink it.
Sayama has continued producing and selling its tea on a small scale, with little intervention from tea merchants. As a result, the individuality of each producer shines through, making tea according to the taste of the customer, not according to the tea merchants.
Takahiro Yokota, the young owner of Yokota Tea Farm, a tea producer in Sayama, is dedicated to producing delicious sencha.
He continues to improve his tea taste every year while searching for a way to make sencha that can only be produced in Sayama.
Over 100 years of history.
It takes about an hour from Tokyo by train. However, unlike the mountains of Shizuoka or the great plains of Kagoshima, where we often visit, it is hard to get used to the sight of tea fields suddenly appearing in the city.
Most of the tea growers in Sayama, which is close to the city and therefore does not have a large production scale, have their stores to sell their tea. Consequently, they do not sell their tea at tea merchants or tea markets but their stores. Instead, they produce tea for customers within their own eyes and reach.
While the number of producers opening online stores is rapidly increasing, the tea production of Sayama producers, who have maintained a management style close to their customers for decades, seems to be overwhelmingly customer-oriented.
Takahiro is only 31 years old (as of 2021). However, he is a very logical and passionate grower. He not only produces tea for Yokota Tea Farnm's customers but also thinks through what kind of tea should be produced in the region of Sayama.
Preparations for next year to begin
In the fields of Yokota Tea Farm, preparations were already moving for next year.
The photo shows a tea field after completing a process called "mid-level shear." Every few years, the tops of the tea trees are cut off, branch by branch, leaving the fields completely bare.
This process aims to cut off the thinner tea branches and pick tea from the thicker ones again.
As a tea tree grows, its branches gradually become thinner and more numerous. In this state, the number of tea buds is enormous, and the yield is high, but the quality is slightly lower because the nutrients in each bud are dispersed.
By cutting off the thin upper branches, the tea will sprout again from the thicker branches the following year, and although the number of buds will decrease, it will be possible to produce a tea with a rich umami.
Takahiro says that he will not pick the second tea this year to prepare for next year. Even though he has just finished this year's first tea, he is still preparing for next year's first tea.
Rich soil created with organic fertilizers
Three years ago, Yokota Tea Farm switched its fertilizers from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers.
"We used to use a lot of chemical fertilizers, but now we are using organic fertilizers that utilize the power of the ground."
Strangely enough, the amount of amino acids, which is the umami component of tea, is higher in tea produced with chemical fertilizers than in tea made with organic fertilizers. Still, in a sensory test where people evaluate the taste of tea, many people feel that tea produced with organic fertilizers has more robust umami.
When you dig up the soil between the rows, you can see fungus and small insects here and there, which clearly shows how rich the soil is growing.
The leaves and branches cut off in the mid-level shear are not removed from the field but left between the rows. This is because microorganisms take time to decompose and return to the soil.
A lot of life takes root in the fields where this cycle is achieved in a manner close to nature.
Small insects and microorganisms decompose the leaves and branches to create rich soil. The fungus that takes root in the soil protects the roots of the tea tree, and the delicious tea grows.
This year's tea, produced by Takahiro in a beautiful cycle, is tastier than last year's.
Searching for "Sayama's tea"
As we mentioned earlier, Takahiro's tea is produced after much thought about what kind of tea should be made for Yokota Tea Farm and Sayama as a tea production area.
Currently, there are 15 to 6 cultivars of tea grown at Yokota Tea Farm. He is considering whether we can utilize them as the tea of Yokotaen based on various factors such as taste, aroma, yield, and ease of processing.
What we found particularly interesting was the approach to "wilting."
Wilting is a process in which tea is left to wilt after being picked. During this process, the tea undergoes oxidative fermentation, which brings out a gorgeous aroma that is not present in freshly picked leaves.
Wilting is used to make semi-fermented and fermented teas such as oolong and black tea. In recent years, however, more and more tea growers are using wilting to produce fragrant teas.
"When it comes to making tea with covering, we are not as good as the large tea-producing areas in Shizuoka and Kyushu, so I wanted to see if I could bring out the best of Saitama. In terms of wilting and the aroma of the tea."
Takahiro's idea is why many cultivars, such as Okuharuka, Nagomiyutaka, and Fukumidori, have a unique aroma that can be brought out by wilting.
Among Takahiro's teas, he made a unique tea for the first time this year that I still remember.
Yonkon-tea made with Yabukita
It is a Yonkon-tea made from Yabukita.
Yonkon-tea is a tea made without the process of "fine rolling," which is the process of making regular sencha.
Fine rolling is the process of shaping the tea leaves to make them straight. Therefore, if you look at the tea leaves of Yonkon-tea, you can see that they are bent.
In addition, without fine rolling reduces the astringency and gives the tea a clean and refreshing taste.
Takahiro made this Yonkon-tea using Yabukita, which has been wilted to bring out its aroma.
It has a mild, round taste and a delicate wilted aroma that refreshingly passes through the nose. The taste of the organic fertilizer used to make this tea is refreshing, and its clear flavor makes it easy to drink as many cups as you like.
This is the first year for this tea, and it was made as an experiment. We were surprised at the fact that the tea tasted so good even though it was made for the first time, but another thing that surprised us was the story of the dryer, which is essential for making this tea.
Delicate firing made possible by a precious drying machine.
The drying process is essential to the processing of tea leaves. Heat is constantly applied to the tea leaves while rolling, such as during the rough, medium, and fine rolling processes, to remove the moisture from the leaves.
If you think about it, Yonkon-tea omits fine rolling. So to get the final moisture content, the final drying process has to be longer.
However, the more heat or air is applied, the more the tea loses its aroma. Therefore, if you want to make the most of the cultivar and wilting aroma, it is ideal for processing the tea with as little heat as possible.
At that time, Takahiro paid attention to a Kuriyama-style dryer lying dormant in the factory.
This dryer contains several shelves lined with Japanese paper. We have been to dozens of factories, but we have never seen this one.
When we asked Takahiro about it, he told us that there was no manufacturer, and the only place he had seen one was the Tea Research Institute.
This dryer was the last piece of the puzzle for making Yonkon-tea, which requires delicate heat treatment to keep the wilted aroma intact.
It does not dry by direct hot air like other dryers but by heating the air inside and circulating it. The air inside the dryer is heated and spread to dry the tea.
"There is a fragrance that lingers in the teacup when the fire scent is applied. So I replaced the scent with wilted incense and heated the teacups so that the wilted incense would remain in the teacups."
Takahiro's ideal brewing process was achieved with the Kuriyama dryer. It was a miraculous encounter that made me realize that only Takahiro could have made this tea.
What we can do because we are small. The way of sencha.
"The wilting process benefits from being a small-scale tea producer, and I think we should have a weapon to make a tea that can be drunk by its aroma without forcing the covering process."
Wilting takes a lot of time, space, and effort. Moreover, it is not an easy task for a large-scale farm, as it requires special equipment and is greatly affected by the weather.
In addition to wilting, it is essential to identify the best aroma of each cultivar and process it to maximize the scent. The tea produced by Takahiro is a tea with its individuality that shines at its best.
We had received samples from Takahiro last year. What surprised us was that this year's sample was much tastier than the one we received then. We may have been fortunate with the weather, but this improvement results from Takahiro's study.
Drinking tea in a way that allows you to enjoy the taste that changes every year, which is possible because it is the single origin.
Takahiro has only been growing tea for eight years. We are looking forward to next year's tea produced by the young producer in Sayama.