Those who enjoy Japanese tea know that most tea produced in their tea gardens is traditionally blended tea. Therefore, the elements of terroir such as tea garden location and tea bush cultivar conspire to create many varied tastes rather than the unique and focused flavor found in a single-bush oolong or a cultivar-specific olive oil.
Those elements are brought together in sencha manufacture by the split-second choices made by the tea blender/buyer while tasting samples of ‘aracha’ at the tea market. Local tea bush cultivars can be ‘heirloom’ varieties while others are new cultivars that have been developed by one of the Japanese government’s tea research institutes or by educated and experienced tea farmers such as Takeshi Iizuka and his son Minoru.
The manufacture of black tea is quite a bit more complicated than green tea production in some ways, and ‘just different’ in others! However, both of these gentlemen, in their respective generations, developed a fascination with black tea manufacture, in addition to their outstanding green tea production.
This delicious black tea is not a blended tea. It is made from 100% Yabukita leaf, a popular tea bush cultivar that has become the ‘standard of excellence‘ among knowledgeable tea enthusiasts in Japan for its delicious taste and fragrance. Those of you who drink green tea are likely familiar with this cultivar, as Tea Trekker regularly stocks green tea from the farmers in SOTFU who offer it individually, and it is the predominant flavor in many of the Shizuoka senchas.
This tea, our Iizuka Yabukita Black, is now produced by Minoru, with an occasional assist from his father. Their tea gardens are in Fujieda-shi, a little-known but wonderful area that produces some of the finest sencha and black teas in Shizuoka Prefecture. They have been manufacturing black tea for almost twenty years now and Minoru’s interest and hands-on experience with black tea spans more than a decade.
He says: “This Yabukita cultivar’s harvest time for leaf for black tea manufacture is mid-to-late season. Yabukita is the principal cultivar used for Japanese sencha, and grows extremely well in our gardens. Because we are an organic garden, we do not make very much 2nd Flush green tea, due to the presence of leaf-hoppers and other beneficial insects in our gardens at that time of the season. However, these friendly insects contribute to the taste of our late-harvest leaf. As is the case with many teas from Taiwan, we count on these harmless critters to encourage various amino acids and other native components of the tea plant to react to the presence of the beneficial insects in a positive way. This is particularly wonderful in the manufacture of black tea, with its deeper, and differently complex taste.”
As evidenced here, the tea bush cultivar as well as many other elements of terroir such as soil, climate and the skill of the tea farmer come into play to make something that normally would be ordinary be….’extraordinary’. We at Tea Trekker are quite fortunate to have been offered this selection from Minoru, because we think that this particularly delicious manufacture of Japan’s most-famous cultivar is an example of a tea that is unknown to many tea enthusiasts, but will be of interest to them once they have tasted it (as we have been for several years now!).
This tea, our unique blend of leaf from both 2019 and 2020, is showing the benefits of the resting period that the Iizukas have determined that this tea needs. Their experience led them to experiment with resting and ageing over the last decade. He has come to appreciate that, as with many Yunnan and eastern China black teas, the Yabukita Black leaf needs to be allowed, no…encouraged, to mellow, for a period of between nine months and two years prior to being offered on the market. Once ready for market it is further able to be appreciated for several years without any reduction in complexity or flavorfulness.
The finished leaf of Tea Trekker’s Iizuka Yabukita Black tea is a deep, dark cordovan, chopped to the traditional size expected of a black tea, and perfect for consistent, reliable steeping. The particles are fairly uniform in size, given the handling required during oxidation and drying. The flavor is well-structured and deep, reflecting the time of harvest of the leaf, accentuated by the period of resting that this leaf requires. The taste is pure and straight-forward – fresh, deep, smooth, and sweet. The aroma is deeply vegetal with elusive notes that can be difficult to pinpoint.
The steeped tea liquor is a clear, medium-dark amber, and is an excellent representation of the well-flavored tea that it is.
For the enthusiast as well as the beginner, this tea is easy to measure and steep, and re-steeps extremely well.
Background on our relationship with Minoru and his father, Takeshi:
In 2012 Mary Lou was asked to visit Japan with an international group of tea experts, on a trip to meet with a variety of tea farmers and evaluate the tea market and explore new export potentials for premium tea farmers. In Shizuoka Prefecture she met with a group of farmers who were united in their desire to grow premium tea organically and to attempt to continue to grow some of the more unusual cultivars that many farmers have ceased to maintain. Mary Lou affectionately gave these farmers the moniker of the “Four Musketeers’ of Shizuoka premium organic tea. We have developed a strong relationship with this group in the years since, and their tea has been amazing. One of the farmers in this group was Minoru Iizuka. He has been an organic tea farmer for more than 40 years now, and his eldest son, Iizuka Jr was just starting to follow in his father’s footsteps, learning about sencha manufacture, when Mary Lou visited with them.
For this season (2020) Iizuka, one of the original ‘Four Musketeers’ of SOTFU, is particularly excited about the current status of black tea production in Japan. By analyzing his results over the years and regularly adjusting both the chemistry of the soil and tweaking the oxidation and ‘resting’ period post drying, he has learned how to ‘finesse’ the leaf into the black tea that he knew was possible all along. The family gardens are in a region known as ‘Fujieda-shi’ which is of historical importance regarding both green and black tea manufacture in Japan (for those who follow Japanese tea gardening and manufacture). The Iizuka family is well into their third generation of tea farmers now and we here at Tea Trekker cannot wait to open our samples every spring to see (and taste) what these enthusiastic tea farmers are up to!
We were offered four teas from the Iizuka family’s tea gardens this season and, on tasting them, accepted all without hesitation!
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