Taylor Cowan • August 08, 2022
The Yamaguchi Family's Suppin Shincha
In the sheltered, verdant valleys of the Minou Mountains fifty miles southeast of the shores of the Genkai Sea, in the forested slopes of fir, bamboo, and pine, amid acidic and green shale soils formed during the Cenozoic era, lies one of the premier tea makers in the archipelago.
Each trip to Japan, there’s a strange reoccurrence. In a land of devout and steadfast traditions and distinct craftsmanship, it seems nigh on impossible that there would be consensus among the disparate provenances: seabreeze Shizuoka in the shadow of Fuji; the ancient, riverside gardens of Uji; and modernized, volcanic Kagoshima. But there is one odd exception.
Often in Japan, our producer partners will ask “who else are you visiting on your trip?” This may seem a bit of a pointed remark—but ultimately is not intended as such and I’ve learned to let go of suspicion and fear of judgement and just disclose. But whenever I mention that we’ll be visiting the Yamaguchis in Fukuoka, the response is very often recognition, respect and praise. It’s extremely rare to see that magnanimity with any producer, in any country. It’s often said that a mark of greatness is the endorsement of your peers—in this case: your competitors.
Yame and The Yamaguchis
Shinya Yamaguchi’s fastidious devotion to tea making—honed over years of practice—is unmistakable. From electric-green, milky matcha; to dewy gyokuro; savory senchas; and supple shincha—he boasts a gamut of masterly productions, with a bespoke eye for matching materiel to result. The Yamaguchis source from more than eighty small farms in the region. Blending those harvests with an understanding of ecology is no small feat.
Though not hungry for the camera per se, Shinya Yamaguchi is a bit of a local marvel and has helped design teapots with Hario (see the Kuro) and worked with Lexus in commercial cross-promotion. This is why we were so glad to be able to spend time with him on our trip. Shinya is a level-10 Tea Master Blender and Appraiser. Though hundreds vie for the certification each year, only about a dozen exist. And though I can’t say for certain, I’d be willing to bet he was one of the youngest to receive the certification—he’s a veritable prodigy of his craft.
On the day of our visit, Shinya led us through a tasting exercise to help understand blending. We chose and mixed various cultivars, lots and harvests, attempting to make our own field blends. Suffice to say, they paled in comparison to the master tracks.
The Yamaguchis have a dedication to storage that I haven’t seen anywhere else in my tea travels. We strolled through each precisely climate-controlled production floor, marveling at the care and attention. The matcha milling rooms are hermetically enclosed from the rest of the plant. Dry, cool rooms meet the sealed steel sliding doors of dry freezes.
Kenji, our guide to the facilities and longtime representative on the family’s behalf, was a businessman in the States before he worked for the makers. I joked that the matcha store room was cold, “but not Chicago cold.”
“I know,” he said, with grave seriousness, “I’ve seen Blues Brothers.”
Lastly, but essential to the Yamaguchis theaculture, are the gigantic brick ovens they use for shiage (finishing), whose taste pervades the indication's terroir. Hoshino employs different roasting temperatures for different ages of pluck. For instance, this shincha from tender, soft new leaves will be roasted at 80 celsius—but for later harvest times when the leaves have matured on the shoot, even a week later, 100 celsius roasting is employed. In general, the leaves of Fukuoka and on the island of Kyushu are thicker and require more explicit cooking in their fixing and finishing.
Each year, the Yamaguchis have asked us to carry their finer productions—and I admit we’ve been dragging our feet for no particular reason. While you may know them best as the producer of our Kodemari matcha and Kodama Sencha—delicious teas themselves—we feel to appreciate the scope and magnitude of the genius of Shinya Yamaguchi, the Suppin Shincha must be experienced.
Harvest, Process and Variety
‘Saemidori’, hailed “Queen of Cultivars,” is normally selected for its suitability as a gyokuro leaf in Fukuoka, but here comprises a fifth of Suppin. Representing a rough third, ‘Tsuyuhikari’ was registered as a cultivar in Shizuoka in 2003 and has enjoyed growing popularity and selection for its vigor and high yields; greater even than the bulk of this blend, the ubiquitous ‘Yabukita'. ‘Tsuyuhikari’ has a natural floral redolence, which sings in the high notes of Suppin. New ‘Tsuyuhikari’ shoots are a lovely, pale green and flush a few days before ‘Yabukita’. Crucially, the cultivar is tolerant to the cold and dewy spring mountain mornings it experiences beneath mottled tarp shades.
March and April of 2022 were unseasonably cool for the region, leading to slow leaf growth and greatly increased umami. Lots for the blend were harvested between April 20th and the end of the month. Each of the constituent gardens selected for Suppin were shaded for 10-14 days to suppress amino depletion by sunlight. Aracha for the blend was stored (in their immaculate facilities) until closer to the prefectural competition at the end of the month, when it was retrieved and finished with the family’s signature shiage.
This was a true descent into madness. Over several days I endeavored to find the “perfect” recipe for this tea before conceding it is virtually impossible—at least from the framework of repeatability, simplicity, and objectiveness. Low, slow steeping hovering around 60 celsius allows for a full extraction and gentle appreciation of the aminos in the cup—but a more western senchado style at 75 celsius yields a rewarding, crisp cup whilst still showcasing the lovely layers of flavor.
Included below are three different options for those who dare. I encourage you to try your own way and see what you like.
Suppin "Slow and Low"
- Pre-warm your teapot.
- Measure 5 grams of leaf into your teapot.
- Pour 340ml of spring or carbon-filtered 140F water.
- Steep for 1 minute 30 seconds.
- For a second steep, increase temperature to 170F and steep for 20 seconds.
- For a third steep, increase temperature to 180F and steep for 45 seconds.
Suppin "Middle Brew"
- Pre-warm your teapot (I used a Standard Brewer).
- Measure 5 grams of leaf into your teapot.
- Pour 340ml of 175F water,
- Steep for 1 minute 15 seconds.
- For a second steep, repeat step 3 for 25 seconds.
- For a third steep, increase temperature slightly and steep for 45 seconds.
Suppin "Kyusu style"
- Prewarm your teapot (I used a Kyusu).
- Measure 4 grams of tea into your teapot.
- Pour 120ml of 170 water into your teapot.
- Steep for 1 minute.
- Decant and enjoy!
- For a second steep, maintain temperature and steep for 20 seconds.
- For a third steep, slightly increase temperature and steep for 45 seconds.