Nicole Wong • August 10, 2020
Master Kobayashi's Kakuun
We actually wrote a (relatively) brief overview on matcha and tencha. The Sparknotes version of our article is that it’s a specialty shade-grown, deveined, and finely-ground powdered subset of Japanese green tea. Though culinary and ceremonial grade monikers are somewhat meaningless, there are ways to distinguish quality matcha across the wide breadth of its availability. If you’re able to answer “yes” to these questions, you’ve likely struck green: 1) Is it grown in the shade of straw and reed mats? 2) Is it plucked in May/June by hand/hand-harvested machines? and 3) Is it ground slowly by stone mill? The silkier, finer, and greener it is, the more delicate and reserved for usucha or koicha it oughta be.
While you might be already familiar with matcha via lattes, smoothies, or shots from your favorite cafe, here’s an overview of its history:
In one of its earliest incarnations, tea leaves were transported in bricks for easy trade and storage. If you wanted a cup, you chipped off the block, roasted and pulverized the tea, and decocted its concoction into hot water, adding salt. By that time (around the Tang dynasty, 618-907), tea was enjoyed as a medicinal beverage and a Zen practice--emphasizing meditation, health, and a good ol’ Buddhist koan to ponder over. It was during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that chanoyu develops into a ceremony and tea becomes ritualized into what we’re familiar with today--a liquid that can be supped between 3-4 people, chugged single-handedly, or blended into a supergreen tonic.
Our general guideline to modern usucha:
- Heat up your water to 160°-170°F.
- Pre-warm the bowl, making sure to dry it thoroughly.
- Measure 2 grams of powder and sift it directly into the warmed bowl.
- Slowly and gently pour 50mL of water in a clockwise motion, making sure not to splash the powder.
- Whisk in a “M”-like motion until just blended or frothy; either form is accepted.
- Sip, and in between drinks, nibble on a daifuku or red bean sweet.
Using water that’s too hot could burn the delicate, moisture-dense powder, giving it an over-boiled vegetal taste, which ends up insulting everyone involved. However, matcha is a distinctively watercress, saline experience--which is why we recommend taking small bites of a sweet cake (if you can find wagashi, konoko-powdered bean cakes, shortbread, or even dark chocolate, all the better) to balance matcha’s intense flavors.
There is little information about koicha (“thick tea”), but Yuko Eguchi, professor of East Asian Studies, told us that koicha also began as a medicinal beverage among the aristocratic classes when chanoyu was exclusive to nobility only. Since tea was prohibitively expensive, the gesture of preparing such a highly-concentrated concoction was an extension of hospitality and generosity towards the guest lucky enough to receive it. Traditionally, koicha was made with twice the amount of matcha needed for usucha--around 3.5 to 4 grams, with the same amount of water. According to The Tea Ceremony, by Seno and Sendo Tanaka, “it is said that the best koicha results when the correct amount of tea for 3-5 persons is made in one bowl.”
(Another fun fact to contextualize koicha, from the same source: In the olden days, it was said that a tea master needed the experience of making one kanme’s (8.25 lbs, 3.75 kg) worth of thick tea before they could make it properly. At the rate of 1 tea ceremony held for 5 persons once a week, this would mean someone would have to practice this art for 5 years before producing a good cup of tea.)
What we can tell you is that it can be a deeply polarizing flavor and experience--prepared in any form, its lukewarm temperature and slow drip to trickle into your throat is a uniquely felt powerful sense of dread. However, we recommend everyone try it at least once for the uncanny experience and getting a drop of an intensely potent, paint-textured potion.
About the Producer
Mr. Kobayashi is a character; he’s a youngblood compared to the Ents of Japanese tea production, most of whom are multi-generational farmholding grandfathers. That’s not to say he’s completely non-traditional; his family’s company has been in operation since 1827. Though he speaks between drags on his e-cigarette and scrutinizes the quality of aracha in Adidas and Nike, his knowledge shouldn’t be underestimated: he’s a level 10 tea master in Japan (dan), of which only 13 other people have qualified for in the 65 years the test has been available. What’s more impressive is the process that goes into blending.
Japanese tea production tends to be mechanized, automated, and efficient. This is by no means an insult or a lesser comparative to other tea producing cultures, but does mean that its way of creation also should have different expectations in how we appreciate, taste, and evaluate it. In our experience, Japanese tea is about standardizing flavors and cultivars, and with all other variables (like weather, soil, fertilizer, organic production, etc.) controlled and uncontrolled, means you get a dependable outcome. Cultivars like Benifuuki are fruity; cultivars like Koushun are cinnamon-like; the ubiquitous Yabukita cultivar is known to be frost-resistant, hearty, and a good balance of expected flavors: sweetness, umami, bitterness, and astringency.
Farms may grow the tea leaves, but many do not finish/roast the leaves. Instead, unfinished tea (aracha) heads to auction, where it will be bought by the kilogram and mixed with other harvests and cultivars depending on the flavor profile the tea master is looking for. This is where Mr. Kobayashi’s skill becomes a very impressive, almost incredulous aspect of Japanese tea culture.
The tea master will judge the unfinished tea by its scent first. Then, with boiling water kettles, the tea is cupped, testing the leaves’ wet aroma and its liquor. However, chashos are not looking for the best taste, but flaws--which boiling water will highlight with punishing astringency and bitterness. Knowing their own personal roasting technique, they then create a ratio of 2-5 cultivars blended together, predicting its finished cup in their mind. (I don’t know about you, but this was fucking astounding to see and realize in person.)
Another incredible, unique aspect to Master Kobayashi’s farm is its organic approach to tea farming, shumei. Japanese tea production was heavily reliant on nitrogen-rich fertilizers and pesticides to obtain the expected flavors of their beloved teas, and it’s only recently that organic production has become a priority to help preserve an eroding landscape. Enhancing nature’s inherent strengths in regrowth and renewal, he takes tea farming--and blending--with compassionate reverence, enunciating the best profiles his tea bushes produce each season through careful observation, tending, and production. It is already a rarity to find a great matcha, but an superior organic matcha is like finding a needle in a stack of needles: in our thorough sourcing search, we felt we were the luckiest SOB's on earth.