Nicole Wong • March 20, 2020

In Too Deep: Kabusecha

In this first part of a series about tea subcategories, we’re learning about kabusecha: the shade-grown tea that’s not quite gyokuro, but not quite sencha. 

Sencha, genmaicha, hojicha, and bancha might be familiar names to the Japanese tea connoisseur. The summer and fall flushes of Japan’s tea harvest, roasted or mixed with toasted rice, make for a pleasant, inoffensive-when-oversteeped tea bag experience from the accessibility of grocery store distribution. It’s there; it’s immediate; it’s an introduction. 

A niche within sencha is kabusecha (lit. “covered tea”). It’s a step below gyokuro--while gyokuro might be shaded for three to four weeks, kabuse tea can be shaded anywhere from one to two weeks. It can vary from region to factory on how long it’s shaded for. (One source had a range as long as two to 25 days!) Both of these specialty teas are somewhat rare in the US, as these shaded teas make up roughly 5% of Japanese tea production. Taking into accord that less than 3% of Japan’s national tea production is available for export, this percentage of a percentage of tea makes it no wonder that they’re such a rarity. 

Why is Shading Such a Big Deal? 

As you can imagine, the idea of creating a canopy in itself is a huge time and labor cost. Using the traditional rice straw and bamboo reeds (tana) or the modern synthetic tarp (jikagise) both involve some level of arduous labor investment. However, the big deal is the results of what that shading produces: a lustrous, pine-green leaf rich in chlorophyll and amino acids. 
kabuse tea canopy
Shaded tea bushes in Uji using the jikagise method of synthetic tea tarps. 

Doug Pallas of Kilogram Tea likened the process to foie gras, and while it’s an unpretty picture, it’s a fairly apt simile for the process. 

In March, as Japan’s winter begins to melt into spring, is when the shading process begins. Structures with a raised height over the leaves will allow a delicate quasi-greenhouse effect of creating a warm, nurturing environment, but limiting the amount of sunlight. These variables cause an intense chain of chemical reactions within the plant since it’s struggling to photosynthesize. In short, somewhat akin to the way a goose is force-fed fat-covered grains and their livers are fattened under stress, the shaded tea bush is stressed to absorb as many nutrients from the soil as it can in the two months before the first spring harvest begins. 

As a result, you get smaller, finer leaves, possessing a naturally deep green color, with the added bonus of increased caffeine and theanine, two components that add that extra umami oomph and brothy-like body to its finished cup. As umami is one of the prized flavor profiles of Japan’s tea (and largely, food) culture, kabusechas and gyokuros become a unique tea unto themselves to savor, all due in part to its labor of love from farmers and chashos, its specialized production process, and resilient varieties cultivated over centuries. 
Curious about kabusecha? Check out Tsuki no Hikari and Yabukita Kabusecha