Sunday, September 12, 2010

HOUJICHA green tea..

I first encountered this distinctive and unusual Japanese green tea last winter and decided to revisit it today since I was looking for something low in caffeine.  Almost all green teas in Japan are steamed to prevent oxidation (whereas in China currently the majority are fired -- pan frying, toasting in baskets, oven baking, etc).  Houjicha (sometimes spelled Hojicha) is both steamed and toasted, which give its dry leaves their warm brown fluffy look, its liquor the golden-brown colour and its distinctive strong toasty aroma and flavour.  The first three processing steps of Houjicha are the same as for Sencha: 1) Steaming, 2) Drying and Crumpling, and 3) Shaping. Then the tea goes through one special additional step: 4) Roasting in high heat.  The process was invented in Kyoto, Japan in the 1920s.

Warm brown lightly  fluffy dry leaves of
Houjicha from Tealish

Houjicha is usually made from bancha, a term to describe late harvest tea.  As such it's composed of larger, more mature leaves and, if from when the bushes are being trimmed to level them down, will include bits and pieces of twigs too.  Keep in mind that the tea bushes are machine harvested in Japan, not hand-plucked.  In general, bancha's considered a 'common' class or lower quality tea.  I really admire that there's a "use everything" approach to the tea plant though.  As the delicious osso bucco of Italy uses the tough leg hocks of the lamb to make a delicous meal, so tea growers have traditionally made use of every part of the plant and developed ways to process the material to make a delicious beverage.

There are a number of variables with houjicha -- some is made from grades of tea besides bancha, and it can be lightly or heavily toasted, creating different flavour profiles. In fact if you start looking around the Japanese tea sites (only those in english, in my case), you can see that hojicha is made from the leaves/twigs of all kinds of tea -- sencha, bancha, even gyokuro.  Which, of course, makes sense since all tea plants will have older leaves and twigs that are a shame to waste.

Houjicha is touted by the resource books I have and on many websites as being very low in caffeine which is usually accredited to the roasting process.  No scientific data is provided to support that though.  I'm a girl that likes such things.

We know that the further away you get from the leaf bud, and the later in the season it is harvested that there will be less caffeine in the leaves or plant parts.  This is because everything is concentrated in the youngest buds and the plant has more energy and focus in the spring.  All to say, I find the explanation on Tea Laden to make sense -- "Since the leaves used to make Bancha are coarser and contain some stalks and stems the resulting tea generally contains less caffeine or tannin then the finer grades of Japanese tea. Also the cup tends to be somewhat milder." 

Whether you prefer the science or the "roasting" story, I can report that I've not got much of a buzz after having two cups on each of the past two mornings.

In brewing the tea I took the advice of  the Japanese site Hibiki-an and brewed 7 grams of leaves in 7 oz of boiling water for 30 seconds.  For the second infusion I did 45 seconds.

I have to say that the dry leaves of this tea which I bought at Tealish last spring have a noticeable musty aroma followed closely by toasty and roasty.  It's the only Houjicha I've had so I don't know if this is usual.

Wet Leaves:
There's a rush of sweet vegetal that's gone in a nano second and then the full strong aroma of roasted coffee!  On a whiff it gives me the warm rich nutty aroma of a good dense wholewheat bread, followed by a bit of bitterness, mustyness, a truly distinct, odd, boiled-forest-twigs aroma.  I find myself vascillating between concentrating on breaking down and identifying the aromas and thinking good grief who the heck thought this was a good idea.

Houjicha -- the first, weaker brew.  Golden brown and
less red than most fully oxidised 'red' tea.

Light mouthfeel, no tartness, a big toasty, strong flavour, with a slight marine hint that's quite startling if you've never had this tea before.  There is an after-flavour of light bitterness which gives this some backbone.  It's a bitterness that doesn't taste bitter, which I know doesn't make sense.

On the second morning I tried this with milk, as if it was a black tea which rounded and sweetened the flavour profile but doesn't really enhance the tea -- wouldn't recommend it.  Hmmm, I can see how a committed coffee drinker might find this tasting like watery coffee grounds rather than a big-flavoured tea.  It has a somewhat similar taste profile without the big body of coffee.

I really want to love this low-caffeine tea but I don't -- but interestingly, when I gave my sister-in-law (not a big tea drinker) two other green teas and the hojicha to try she immediately liked the hojicha best.  A wonderful example of how tea tasting is such a personal journey.

Houjicha has a distinct, strong toasty flavour that is truly intriguing and unusual  -- so I know I'll be back to try it again.  After 3:30 or 4pm I'm always on the hunt for a delicious hot, low-caffeine beverage.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Two Ceylons from Tealish that I haven't tried yet.  Nice way to start the day. I've been enjoying Ceylon for breakfast all summer and really appreciating that thirst-quenching, light lemony briskness they're famous for.

There are six principal tea growing regions in Sri Lanka and the tea is generally classified as low grown (below 2000 feet), mid grown (2000 to to 4000 feet) or high grown (4000 feet and up).  The six districts are Nuwara Eliya (the highest, a plateau at 6000 feet), Dimbula (3500 to 5000 feet), Uva (3000 to 5000 feet)), Kandy (considered low-grown, around 1500 to 2000 feet), and the low-grown districts of Galle and Ratnapura (less than 2000 feet).  One of the reasons to mention all this is that elevation has alot to do with the taste of a tea, with most saying the higher the elevation the better the tea.  In general, I've found the higher elevation teas are lighter bodied and the lower elevation ones, fuller bodied with bolder flavours.  Think high-grown Ceylon versus a typical Assam.  Of course, in the end "best" is all in your taste buds.

Both these teas were brewed just off the boil for 2 minutes.

I've ended up spending way too much time tripping about the internet searching for info about this estate -- specifically what altitude the tea is grown at.  So far the Serendipitea site says their Venture Estate tea is grown in the Nuwara Eliya district (which is the highest altitude area), the Leafspa site says their Venture Estate FBOP comes from the Uva district and the Sereni-tea site says their Venture Estate OP1 is from Dimbula district.  (The Tea Drinker's Handbook says all three of these districts produce what is know as "highgrown" tea.)   However, in this 2007 article on Sri Lankan organic tea gardens, including local sentiment both pro and con, I finally found that Venture Estate is situated in the Bogowanthalawa Valley in Sri Lanka's Dimbulla region at an elevation of 1,100 to 1,300 meters (3600 to 4300 feet) which would be considered high grown.  Phew.

The reason I was curious about the elevation is because the liquor of this tea and it's flavour and mouth feel suggest it's highgrown, particularly in relation to the Golden Garden Estate tea.

But starting with the dry leaves -- they are a very dark grey/black with the chunky appearance of a fairly large-sized broken leaf done in a medium twist.  An attractive, even dry leaf as you can see in the photo below, and very different from the other Ceylon I'm trying this morning.

Venture on the left is lighter and more orangey
than the Golden Garden.  Both look great in the
morning sun.

The liquor colour is a beautiful, bright orangey-red -- compared to the deeper slightly browny-red of the Golden Garden.  In the mouth it's a refreshing, light-bodied, medium brisk tea that leaves a clean, light lemony tang at the back of tongue.  The wet leaves give me a light honey, warm woody scent.  Overall, for me, this tea is more about the mouth-feel than any single strong flavour.  Although when I took the last sip from the now-cooled and milked (I always add milk to finish the cup) tea I got a wonderful, distinct lime marmalade hit.

I can't find any info on the net about this tea estate except from seller's website which just aren't very informative.  I mean, they have info, bless them, just not the kind of details that I want -- elevation, exact location, ownership, etc etc.  I'm a nosey girl.

(Note: later discovered the estate's in the Uva district, 2000 to 3500 feet ie: low to mid grown)

Venture Estate wet and dry on left, Golden Garden on right. 
Not sure if you can see in this photo but the Venture's wet
leaves are a maroonish colour, like seaweed.

So -- on to the tea itself, then.  The tea leaves are very small, fine, thin and wiry speckled with a few silvery-gold tips.  Very distinct from the much larger-leafed, chunky looking Venture Estate.  As I mentioned above the liquor is a rich amber-red.  The wet leaves are full of soft flavour notes: spicy, nutty (almond?), cinnamon, orange peel.  On the mouth its a big, full-bodied tea giving my tongue a furry feel and it has a tang to it, abit of bitterness.  This tea is very flavourful.  Given it's full-bodied-ness I'm wondering if this is a low-grown tea.  Hmmm.

I think I prefer the Venture for my morning tea -- I really do like that light lemony pucker first thing in the morning.  And will reserve the Golden Garden for my afternoon tea when I'm looking for good full flavour to tickle my taste buds.

I can't believe it.  It's 2:45pm and I started brewing the tea and these notes at 9:30 this morning.  You see?  That's why this blog will never live up to its name.  There's simply not enough hours in the day to write a tasting a day and keep up with the gardening.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea dry leaves.

This is an extraordinary looking green tea from China -- big, long leaves pressed flat and having the imprint of either paper or cotton on its leaves.  The dried leaves are whole and 2" and 3" in length -- unusally large for tea.  Another unusual aspect of this tea is that it's both pan fired and basket-fired.  Besides its toasty flavour, the leaves' crispy flatness hints that it's pan-fired -- pressed into a wok-like hot pan. But The Story of Tea explains further that after the pan-firing, the leaves are scattered on a sheet of rice paper, then another sheet is laid on top and the leaves are blotted to remove moisture without removing their aromatics.  This is what's responsible for the distinctive cross-hatched pattern on the dried leaves and, of course, ultimately why the tea is flat.  After this the tea is finished by basket firing.

Tai Ping Hou Kui.  You can still see the distinctive rice-
paper  imprint on the wet leaves.  (Click to enlarge.)

This tea is from Tao's tea house, and the package says its origin is Hou Keng Village in AnHui province (China).  It's considered by some to be one of the "Ten Famous Teas" -- although there is no definitive list of which ten they are*.

"Tai Ping" is a region in the south of the Huang Shan mountains in Anhui province, and "hou kui", according to Babelcarp, means "monkey king."  Some legends say that, due to the area's steep slopes, the locals trained monkeys to pick the tea, but I find that abit of stretch.  According to other googled sites the word "Hou refers to Hou Keng Village where the highest grade of this tea is made and the word Kui refers to a tea-grower Wang Kui-cheng who made this tea by improving the processing of a local green tea Jian Cha around 1900."   The Tea Drinker's Handbook notes that "according to another legend, it is the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s, a tragic epidsode in Chinese history that ends in a bloody repression, which is linked with its name," and further notes that a "special feature of Tai Ping Hou Kui is revealed during the infusion when the veins of the leaves turn bright red -- some claim in tribute to the blood spilled by the rebels during the revolt."

I like to imagine that both might be true.  For usually there are many 'true' histories of a thing.  We come to blend and bend certain stories and events to reflect various people's emotional memory of the time as much as the 'facts' of a time.

I did two steepings.  Both in about 5 ozs of 75C to 80C water for two minutes but the first one had 6 or 7 leaves, which is what I thought I remembered Tao suggesting, and the second had the standard 2.5 grams of leaves.

Tai Ping Hou Kui wet leaves from the 2nd steep  -- large,
 mid-green leaves, showing, particularly on the left sample,
a pluck of a tiny bud, a new young  leaf and two other leaves.

The dry leaves have a surprisingly strong sweet and fresh aroma.  Almost floral.

On the first brew the wet leaves give light aroma of beans and a sweet vegetal scent, along with a light toasty scent of buttery popcorn.  The latter is the smell of the firing and identifies it as a fired not steamed green tea.  I don't see a red leaf vein though.

The liquor is a very pale, elegant blue-green with a light round buttery mouth feel. 

Overall I find this too watery and delicate for my taste-buds -- basically under-brewed, so decide to do a second one with the standard 2.5 grams of tea leaves to 5 oz of water.

This brings forward the toasty buttery aromas of the leaves and flavour to the tongue, along with the usual green-tea vegetal notes and a rich hint of toasted pecans.  This heavier, standard brew also brings a nice light briskness and a bit of sharp bitterness which is actually a nice balance to the quite full round, satiny (oily) mouth feel.  I could perhaps do with one notch lower on the bitterness but it brings a refreshing quality too, and the rest of the cup goes down with no problem.

This tea is so nice I'm trying it again the next morning -- 2.5 grams in 5 oz water at 80C.  This time I don't let it slip over the two-minute steep at all, which takes the slight bitterness down a note.  (It's amazing how little it takes to tip a tea over to bitterness.) The cup is wonderfully round and buttery with light toasty notes followed by the vegetal and the nutty pecan.  A second brew (at two minutes) is less round on the mouth, with abit less of the pecan and almost a mint-tea feel on the tongue as the last sip goes down.  A third brew (in cooler water since the water in my thermos has cooled to 65C) done at 3 minutes gives me another lovely cup of tea -- it doesn't seem to have diminished on the mouth feel by much, a little lighter on the flavour profiles and, surprisingly, the sweet floral note is more dominant. 

As I sit here sewing cosies this afternoon this tea just keeps on giving.  It deserves its moniker as one of the Ten Famous Teas -- rich-tasting and distinctive.

* Before the fall of the Imperial Court in China the Famous Teas were called Imperial Tribute Teas and were apparently for the exclusive pleasure of the emperor.