Sugimoto Temomi Shincha

Tasting Temomi Shincha

About a month ago, I was given a wonderful gift.  Kyohei Sugimoto, head of Sugimoto USA, the American branch of Sugimoto Seicha Co., Ltd., was kind enough to give me a taste of Temomi Shincha that had been made by his mother, Kazue Sugimoto, and a group of temomi artists in Shizuoka, Japan.

Temomi Shincha leafIt came in a small, ornately decorated, foil bag with 10 grams of tea leaf–enough for a single brewing.  According to the package, it was made on 26 April 2010, and that the group spent about 8 hours to make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of finished tea.  Unless I confused a decimal place somewhere, that means only 100 packages could be made.

The term temomi means hand-kneeded, or as one Japanese scientific paper described it, “massaged by hand”.  Shincha, of course, is the first picking of the season.  So this Temomi Shincha is a hand-made tea made from the first leaves picked in 2010 from those plants.  But that doesn’t really tell the whole story of this tea; in the highly mechanized world of Japanese green teas, this Temomi-cha was made entirely without machinery–just as the tea would have been made a couple of centuries ago.  In that sense, the opportunity to taste this tea was an opportunity to go back in time.

Temomi Shincha liquor of three steepsI followed the instructions that came with the tea package.  I used a 5-ounce clay teapot as suggested (though it was a Chinese-style pot, but my Japanese teapot is both too large and has no filter; I’ve had some brewing disasters using it).  The first brewing was for 3 minutes at 100F (40C).  Much of the water was absorbed by the leaves, but the liquor produced was strong and brothy-sweet.

For those not used to really fantastic Japanese green tea, the strong flavor was there without any bitterness or astringency.  This is due mainly to the use of cooler water, which pulls out more amino acids than it does the bitter catechins and caffeine.  The flavor was dense, thick, and intense, but without an edge.  It lingered after swallowing, too.  Not as long as some great wulongs do, but more than almost any green I can think of.

Temomi Shincha infusionAt another tea event with Kyohei Sugimoto, he had brewed some teas with cool water then switched to hotter water “so we can enjoy the bitterness.”  The idea being that you brew cold for sweet, then hot for bitter, and that both are to be enjoyed as aspects of the tea leaf.  The second and third brews were done with 130F (54C) water for a minute each, as per the instructions, and I did indeed enjoy the bitter.  It wasn’t knock-your-socks-off bitter, but not out of line with other bitter foods.  (I don’t drink alcohol, but my tasting partner described the bitterness of these steepings as somewhere between beer and bitters.)  The photo above shows a sample from each steeping–I’m surprised by how little the color changes from the cold to hot brewing.

After drinking the tea, we ate the leaves–or at least the ones we didn’t pull out to examine and admire.  The texture was something like lightly steamed spinach.  The leaves still had a little bitterness left, but it wasn’t more than you’d find in the greens of a fancy salad.

Meeting the Maker

Michael J. Coffey with the SugimotosIt was my pleasure, then, a couple of weeks later to meet both Tea Maestro Hiroyuki Sugimoto and Temomi Master Kazue Sugimoto at the World Tea Expo.  I expressed my thanks and honor at being able to try the Temomi Shincha that she had made.  She asked (via an interpreter who, I’m embarrased to admit, I don’t recall the name of) if I’d like to try any of the teas they had on display.  I chose the tea with the least well-known Japanese tea name, konacha, which is essentially the tea of Japanese sushi restaurants.  She gave me a look that said, “Hmm, interesting choice.”  Apparently, even though the expo was half over, nobody had yet asked to taste their konacha.

Also, having had some heated discussions with American tea people about how Japanese green tea is “supposed” to be brewed, I asked Hiroyuki Sugimoto (with Kyohei serving as interpreter) how he brewed his tea.  He said he always brewed his teas with boiling water.  He explained that with boiling water, it is easier to tell if there are flaws in the tea making.  I asked what he looked for as a sign of quality, he answered that it was a balance of factors.  Essentially, he tasted a tea specifically looking for flaws.  If he couldn’t find any, it was a good tea.  He would be unable to distinguish a well-made tea from a poorly-made tea, then, unless he brewed it with boiling water.

I was thrilled to have been able to meet these wonderful people, and happy to share tea with them!

Restaurant Tea Service: Carmelita

I think most tea lovers (at least the geeky ones) will agree with me that restaurants, as a whole, are a terrible place to have tea.  The standard seems to be a thick mug with a teabag in it, too-cool water, and no idea how long it’s been steeping when it comes to the table or where the teabag came from.

For the last several months, my partner and I have been “eating down the street”–that is, each Friday we go out to dinner at the next neighborhood, locally-owned restaurant down the street.  Not only is it a nice break from having to do the dishes but it also started as a way to help the local economy by spending money at places owned by our neighbors.  Last night, though, it struck me that I should talk about the tea service at these places–or, as my partner put it, “a very highly specialized subset of restaurant reviews.”

So I start with last night’s experience at Carmelita, a trendy, high-end vegetarian restaurant.  The first thing I noticed (about the tea, at least) was the menu.  It was better than most in that it gave both the brand/vendor name–Barnes & Watson Fine Teas–and specifically which teas/flavors they carried as well as a brief description of each tea.  Full disclosure: I have a business relationship with Barnes & Watson, though I’m not receiving anything for this mention of them, nor anything special from Carmelita.

I ordered the Genmaicha (“Japanese Sencha green tea and toasted rice”) and my partner ordered the Tahitian Blend Iced Tea (“black tea blend, tropical fruit flavor and citrus”).  The hot tea came as loose tea leaf in a French press and our server informed me that it had been steeping for about one minute so that I could gauge how long to continue steeping.  (I got distracted with a discussion of the menu, though, so I let it steep too long anyway and didn’t really notice the water temperature…but the fact that I was given the time it had been in the water already without having to ask earns lots of points.)

The iced tea came as you might expect, in a tall glass with ice and a straw, a slice of lemon on the side.  In addition, in another nice touch, there was a small creamer-style pitcher of simple syrup rather than the usual box of sugar packets.  As my partner pointed out, it made it much easier to sweeten the iced tea without constant stirring to dissolve solid sugar.

As I said, I let my Genmaicha brew too long (my own fault) so that wasn’t an ideal experience.  The refill on the iced tea must have been from the bottom of the batch or something because after the glass was topped off it was a little too…something slightly unpleasant.  Metallic-tasting, maybe?  However, on the whole, Carmelita seemed to be getting it right in ways that most restaurants don’t–loose tea, important brewing information, simple syrup instead of dry sugar for an iced tea, and actually listing where the tea came from and the various flavors rather than just “Tea” on the menu.  Oh, and the tea, both hot and iced, was $2 each.