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The Moriuchis: A Venerable Husband and Wife Team Making Tea By Centuries-Old Traditions

Taylor Cowan

For anyone who has fantasized about leaving civilization behind and starting a small farm with your spouse using sustainable ecology, hosting guests “agriturismo” style, and maybe entering (and winning) some competitions for your craft—look no further than the husband and wife team of Yoshio and Masumi Moriuchi: the husband and wife team based in Uchimaki and creators of some of the finest, handcrafted sencha in Shizuoka. After the crisis of 2020, we were finally able to buy three lots of their truly special, first harvest, handcrafted shinchas this year: a clean and structured Saemidori; savory and vegetal Yume Suruga (Dream of Suruga); and heady and floral Si Ji Chun (Four Seasons of Spring).

The Moriuchis are a living example of a fading, varietal tea culture; each parcel of their gardens was deliberately selected for its suitability to the cultivar planted in them. Along the Abe river valley, the hills of their gardens are steep, well-drained and naturally rife in soil nutrients. Each tea bush is free-seeded and not planted in commodity method. Only a natural, homemade fertilizer blend is employed. During early spring, Mr. Moriuchi will select the deliberate few days to pick shincha by hand, varying from plant to plant. In 2021 it was a particularly early first harvest, among the first days of April. In these early days, new growth is a brilliant, light green color, soft to the touch, thin and delicate. Handpicking shincha is a race against time and the plant's flushing cycle—too late and the juvenescent material is squandered. The tea plant, a perennial, goes into a dormancy period during the winter, storing nutrients like a bear hibernating. When spring returns, this awesome concentration of nutrients emerges, exactly once, in the new growth of the first flush.

Their gardens are planted in the free-seeded shizen jitate style (自然仕立て). Tea trees grow naturally and upright, which puts machine harvesting out of the question. Hand harvesting, virtually extinct as a business practice in Japan, comes at an opportunity cost of at least 60%. Each batch of tea leaves is lightly steamed and then hand rolled over the course of hours, to further soften the delicate leaves, and ultimately shape them. Because of the high cost of pickers, and a yield that is ultimately less than half of commercial cultivation, the Moriuchis select a very limited number of buyers they work with each year. Though we spent time with them in 2019, the pandemic meant we were unable to return the next year. This year, we were lucky to have our bid approved and are honored to support the cause of truly handmade tea. If you visit, the couple host guests for tea and guided tastings at their 150-year-old tea house at the base of the hills.

Varietal Tea

Saemidori is known affectionately as "Queen of Cultivars" and with good reason. The variety at its best, and certainly in this Moriuchi production, is bright, clean, and structured. The infusion is a bright and pale green and carries an aroma of early spring vegetables. It's a tea to sit with, contemplate, and enjoy one that Mrs. Moriuchi aptly and succinctly called "elegant." The Dream of Suruga is a relatively new variety in Japan, created in the eighties by crossing the ubiquitous and vigorous 'Yabukita' with the delicate, shade-favoring  'Okuhikari'. The plant combines the heartiness of the former with the melt-in-mouth savoriness and textures of the latte. This was the tea I jotted down in my notebook at the couple's teahouse, wrote a gushing description, underlined several times, then was promptly forced to forget during 2020. Four Seasons of Spring is a cultivar most well known as Taiwanese oolong stock. The Moriuchis received the plants as a gift years ago, and are now hand-processing the material into sencha. This was another unforgettable sip from our visit. It functions best as a window into experimentation, international tea dialogue, and the indelibility of cultivar.  

Steeping Instructions

For each of these teas, we selected a very typical, clean senchado style infusion—as an homage to how Mrs. Moriuchi will prepare you the teas when you go to visit. A simple ceramic kyusu, glazed or unglazed, is the preferable vessel. Lately, I also like to make these futanashi 蓋なし style. Because the climatological and atmospheric considerations for these three are remarkably similar (the biggest difference being their harvest dates and steaming/fixing profile), we found an agreeable uniform infusion specification. Saemidori with its soft, tender leaves and early harvest does well with more time, and is amenable to higher ratio. Dream of Suruga with its rich umami and basil-like savoriness operates well with a higher tea-to-water ratio, but reduce the time to less than a minute. Four Seasons of Spring, being an outlier all of its own, actually does very well as stated. The first infusion can be as short as one minute and as long as one minute and twenty seconds (though you should decrease the dose in this instance). It's worth noting that the second infusion for each of these teas, though written as "15 seconds," is a near-immediate decant: as soon as you've finished filling the kyusu, lift the pot and wait a moment or two, then pour. 

Saemidori

Variety: Saemidori (Lucid Green)
Fixing: 10s. (Asamushi)
Harvest Date: April 8, 2021
Brewing Recommendation:

Two steeps. Combined, or enjoyed individually.

5g tea | 170ml | 170F | 1 minute 15 seconds (1st steep)

| 170ml | 170F | 15 seconds (2nd steep)

 

Dream of Suruga


Variety: Yume Suruga (Dream of Suruga)
Fixing: 30s (Chiyomushi)
Harvest Date: May 2, 2021
Brewing Recommendation:

Two steeps. Combined, or enjoyed individually.

5g tea | 170ml | 170F | 1 minute 15 seconds (1st steep)

| 170ml | 170F | 15 seconds (2nd steep)

 

Four Seasons of Spring


Variety: Si Ji Chun (Four Seasons of Spring)
Steaming Profile: 45s (Chiyomushi)
Harvest Date: May 2, 2021
Brewing Recommendation:

Two steeps. Combined, or enjoyed individually.

5g tea | 170ml | 170F | 1 minute 15 seconds (1st steep)

| 170ml | 170F | 15 seconds (2nd steep)


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