Competition Grade Tea
- Origin of Matcha
- Organizational Support for Tea Competition
- Growing Competition Grade Tea
- Why Do Farmers Grow Competition Grade Tea?
- Tea Competition
- What is Competition Grade Tea?
- 2017 Award Competition Grade Matcha: Available This Time Only
- What is Blended Sencha?
- Processing by Traditional Method
- Competition Grade Tea / Blended Sencha Items: Now Available!
Origin of Matcha
Buddhist monk Eisai popularized the idea of drinking tea for good health in the 12th century. At that time, tea was considered precious medicine, and the flavor seems to have been quite bitter. It was very long afterward that tea became flavorful.
Tea popularized by Eisai was crushed into rough powder or tiny pieces and then brewed by boiling in water. It is said that the stone mill was used to grind tea into powder from around 14th century. It is believed that at that time, tea was whisked like Matcha of today.
Today, tea leaves for Matcha are shaded from sunlight by a canopy called TANA, for 20 to 30 days just before harvest, to create a source of mellow taste, Theanine in tea leaves. The shading method started around 15th or 16th century. Though the canopy was close to the Tana canopy of today, the shading at beginning was not to create a source of mellow taste, Theanine, but to prevent damage by frost. Indeed, at beginning tea leaves were covered by canopy in February and March just before sprouts appear. In contrast, modern tea leaves are covered by canopy after sprouts appear. It is believed that tea farmers discovered by accident that tea leaves grown in shade have mellow taste, and then began to shade tea leaves from sunlight after sprouts appear to create the mellow taste.
Rikyu Sen (1522 - 1591) popularized the tea ceremony around late 16th century. Rules of the Japanese tea ceremony governed that Matcha should be served with confections or candy. So, at that time Matcha must have still had a bitter taste.
Judging from transport history of fertilizers, it was around 17th or 18th century that farmers began introducing fertilizing techniques for Matcha. Matcha taste probably became mellow and smooth around 18th century by the popularization of fertilizing techniques and shading techniques. It is said that high quality Matcha at the beginning of the 19th century was very mellow and smooth, similar to the high quality Matcha of today.
Cultivation technique has significantly progressed since that time. Now extremely mellow flavor Matcha like Competition Grade Matcha can be grown. Would you enjoy the unique mellow flavor of Competition Grade tea which is the result of farmers' efforts over many generations?
Traditional stone mill following the traditional design from long ago.
Printing of TANA canopy long ago. It looks very much the same as today's HONZU TANA canopy.
(Reference from UJI SEICHA EMAKI at KONNICHI AN Library)
Today's HONZU TANA canopy, following the traditional design, looks the same as long ago.
Organizational Support for Tea Competition
The Tea Competition in Japan requires the support of many people working together. It sustains the tea industry, because the purpose of the tea competition is to improve Japanese tea agricultural and manufacturing techniques.
It requires organizational strength, steering strength, judging technical strength, and so on at a high level to convene the tea competition every year. From 600 to 1000 teas are contributed, and the first place tea in each category: Gyokuro, Sencha, and Matcha, wins the award of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. To ensure a successful tea competition, about 1000 teas should be contributed and 80 to 100 expertise personnel should be involved.
Large numbers of teas are typically contributed to the competition during an economic boom because the competition teas are bid at relatively high prices and farmers can recover the costs and labors to grow competition tea. However, during an economic depression, most competition teas except only the awarded teas are bid at relatively low prices and farmers can't recover the costs and labors. At that time, the secretariat strives to encourage farmers to increase the number of teas contributed to the competition. The tea competition is an important activity to raise the level of agricultural and manufacturing techniques throughout Japan.
About 20 Judges are called away from the tea research laboratory organized within the farm ministry, and major tea merchants who all evaluate several thousand teas every year to improve defects on cultivating and processing, or to bid. Judging tea is the most important job governing their principal occupations. So, their judging technical strengths have been continuously kept at an amazingly high level.
Number of administrative support personnel range from 60 to 80 people, who are mainly called away from agricultural cooperatives, the tea research laboratory, and tea industry association.
Needless to say, all competition teas should be judged under quite equal conditions. It is not easy at all but requires much time and effort. Once contributed, the teas should be strictly preserved in order not to deteriorate. And at examining meeting, for example, over 100 contributed teas at one category should be extracted in the same condition, with the same water temperature, same amount of water, same amount of tea leaves (and same content rate of specks and tiny tea leaves), for the same brewing time. All tea should be deftly and properly extracted in a short time. Even if there is just a small difference in each extracting condition, the flavor or tea color can't be judged fairly.
To handle and to prepare all competition tea properly, every procedure and every step are clearly standardized. And all of the administrative support personnel should become adept at the procedures, and strictly conduct each step. To do that, huge organizational strength as well as steering strength is required.
Examination criteria for the tea competition should be modified and improved over time. Factory automation has found its way into tea agriculture. In contrast, traditional agricultural and processing techniques should be preserved. So the examination criteria must include both the traditional and the modern. And each production center seems to want to alter the examination criteria in their own favor. So, the improvement of the examination criteria is not always easy.
The national tea competition is supported by a great number of individuals throughout Japan, but this strong and continuous effort raises the level of agricultural and manufacturing techniques and benefits everyone from the tea farmer to the tea shop to you, our customers.
Administrative support personnel meeting in the morning of the tea competition.
Progress chart for the tea competition. All teas contributed (around 1000 teas) are judged. The process takes two full days.
All contributed teas for the competition are stored in steel airtight containers. They are all strictly preserved.
Approximately 200 litters or more of boiling water is needed for the tea competition. It is very hard work and needs the certain organized operation just to prepare such large amount of boiling water.
Teas are extracted strictly following the procedures. In this picture, they are carefully checking if the poured water amounts are all equal.
Timing measurement to check the brewing time.
Evaluation is almost done. Judges check this year's qualities.
Growing Competition Grade Tea
As introduced on other columns, growing competition grade tea requires a surprising amount of money and effort. We introduce a few topics on competition grade tea below.
Fertilizer for competition grade tea costs several times more than usual high grade tea. A few times amount and more expensive fertilizer is used. For example, the below pictures show herrings used as fertilizer. Whole herrings, which are also edible for humans, are fragmented into small pieces, and they are carefully distributed at the roots of the tea trees and among the tea trees. When the tea trees absorb the nutrition of fertilizer, the tea leaves for competition tea have an amazing glossy brilliance, much more so than tea leaves for other tea. Even the tea leaves for usual high grade hand picked tea shine more than common machine trimmed tea. You can see this in the below pictures. They are never unveiled.
In the case of Gyokuro and Matcha, one of the most difficult issues is knowing exactly when to shade the tea leaves from sunlight. If too early, tea leaves can't absorb nutrition and the flavor is weak. If too late, the noble mellow aroma is weak. As the time for shading approaches, the farmer carefully checks tea leaves growth and condition quite frequently. Our tea farmer says that when shade is required, the tea leaves talk and ask him to provide shade from sunlight.
(Harvest / Processing)
Competition tea is harvested when the tea tree has only one or two sprouts. In general, the flavor of the tea becomes more intense when the tea tree produces two to five sprouts. If the quantity of tea leaves is too small, the tea can't be processed, so a good amount of tea leaves are required. Therefore, double or triple the number of hand pickers are needed. Arrangement of gathering hand pickers is one of the difficulties with growing competition tea. Fresh tea leaves are processed just after harvest. Processing is one of the most important factors for competition tea. To process competition grade tea, the farmer has many special and wise techniques learned over generations and through trial and error, including subtle yet vitally important adjustments to temperature, time, and the production environment.
Herrings fragmented into small pieces just before being used as fertilizer
Herrings distributed at the roots of tea trees and among tea trees. Distributed a few times from the end of February to the end of March.
This picture was taken at the end of March. Tea leaves for usual high grade hand picked tea have a lovely shine.
This picture was also taken at the end of March. These are leaves for competition grade tea. To compare both pictures, you can see that tea leaves for competition tea have an amazing glossy brilliance.
It is difficult issues to know exactly when to shade the tea leaves from sunlight.
Because competition tea is harvested when the tea leaves are quite young, double or triple the number of hand pickers are needed.
This is the fire pit for Tencha (Matcha). To process competition grade tea, the farmer makes subtle yet vitally important adjustments to temperature, time, and the production environment.
Why Do Farmers Grow Competition Grade Tea?
Of all the tea farms in Japan, only a small number of tea farmers grow competition grade tea. If the tea contributed to Japan's National Tea Competition wins the award of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, it brings extreme and deep honor for the farmer. However, growing competition grade tea requires a surprising amount of money and effort. So, why do farmers grow this special tea? If a farmer grows competition grade tea, through his experience growing the tea, along with having the tea critiqued by experts at the National Tea Competition, he gains much knowledge about how to perfect not only his competition grade tea but his entire tea crop. The quality improves across all kinds of tea produced by the farmer.
It usually takes at least a decade to perfect a tea worthy of submitting to Japan's National Tea Competition. Once the farmer starts growing competition grade tea, all of his agricultural processes, even daily tasks that before seemed repetitive or unimportant, become filled with concentration and intensity. To grow excellent tea, every step is important. The farmer must try his best at all times.
The most vital steps which must be done extremely cautiously are: seeking out new types of fertilizer, and in the case of Gyokuro and Matcha, shading the tea plants from sunlight. Fertilizing techniques advance at a rapid pace, even in modern agriculture, so farmers must discover which new fertilizers work best. Before applying a new fertilizer to the tea crop, it is not uncommon for the farmer to taste the fertilizer to gauge its effect on the tea plant. The farmer knows the tea plant well enough to understand if this fertilizer is what the plant needs. For example, if a fertilizer is too salty, it is generally not good for the tea plant.
In the case of Gyokuro and Matcha, one of the most difficult issues is knowing exactly when to shade the tea leaves from sunlight. If too early, tea leaves can't absorb nutrition and the flavor is weak. If too late, the noble mellow aroma is weak. Through growing competition grade tea, the farmer acquires the ability to tell the best time to shade from sunlight. The farmer that truly knows his tea plants gauges the best time to shade from sunlight not by the calendar, but by looking closely at the tea leaves. Our tea farmer says that when shade is required, the tea leaves talk and ask him to provide shade from sunlight.
Competition grade tea production requires a surprising amount of money and effort. About three times the amount of fertilizer is used to grow competition grade tea. And all growing processes must be carefully completed. In addition, the yield amount is about one fifth of common tea, because competition tea is harvested when the tea leaves are very young. Though competition grade teas bring high prices, the extra money earned does not cover all the costs involved in growing and production. But, farmers do not grow competition grade tea for profit. Farmers grow this special tea to gain knowledge and expertise, with the goal of producing the perfect tea.
After winning a national award from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for his competition grade tea, one experienced farmer, who has grown competition grade tea for more than 10 years, said he feels the most delight when his tea plants grow the way he intends. While honored by the recognition and award, the farmer's greatest satisfaction is knowing that his efforts resulted in such a special, memorable tea.
Executives of the tea industry association serve as judges of the exclusive competition. They strictly judge and critique the contributed teas to provide feedback to tea farmers and producers in order to improve Japanese tea. Contributed teas are judged on appearance, aroma, flavor, color of the brewed tea infusion, used tea leaves, and so on for each category: Gyokuro, Sencha, and Matcha. In the case of Matcha, Tencha, which is the form before being ground into powder, is evaluated.
Toward the end of the competition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries selects the most excellent tea in each category: Gyokuro, Sencha, and Matcha. All teas contributed to the exclusive competition are generally of premium quality. And, if the judges find any defect, imperfection, or area that needs improvement, this information is passed on to the tea farmers so that they can improve their agricultural techniques.
When the judges evaluate the tea's appearance, the tea leaves are checked for uniformity of shape and color: bright, deep green, etc. More healthy and vigorous tea leaves are bright and deep green. And the most unique feature of teas contributed to the competition is that they are quite short and fine, like tiny green needles, because they are harvested as very young tea sprouts and processed accordingly. Although generally the best time to gather tea leaves is when the tea tree has five sprouts, and three sprouts for even the highest grade tea, these tea leaves are picked when the tea tree has only one or two sprouts. It is quite different from general teas which are not so fine like needles. And farmers specially process the tea so the leaves retain their fine needle shape for the exclusive tea competition.
When the judges critique the color of the brewed tea infusion, teas are evaluated for color brightness and imperfections. Tea which is healthy and vigorous has a very bright color. If the tea leaves have any imperfections, even if quite small, the imperfection can be identified in the brewed tea infusion. Negative indications include a red or black tint to the brewed infusion or an infusion that is too yellow, along with turbidity, strength or intensity, deposition condition, and so on.
As for the aroma and flavor, teas are evaluated for generous, smooth, and mellow flavor and aroma, and various imperfections. Teas contributed to the National Tea Competition usually have a full and generous flavor that is smooth, mellow, and deep, along with the fresh aroma of young sprouts. Gyokuro and Matcha have an especially noble aroma created by shading the tea plants from sunlight for more than 20 days before harvest.
As above, teas contributed to the competition are harvested when the tea tree has only one or two sprouts. In general, the flavor of the tea becomes more intense when the tea tree produces two to five sprouts. When the tree has only one or two sprouts, the flavor is usually quite weak because the tea tree is unable to fully absorb nutrition from the soil. Therefore, to grow tea for the National Tea Competition, farmers must encourage the tea trees to absorb much more nutrition from fertilizer when the tea tree has only one or two sprouts. It is common for even the highest grade teas to be harvested when the tea tree has three to five sprouts. It is very difficult and requires knowledge and wisdom accumulated through time and tradition and daily great efforts. The knowledge accumulated through growing teas for the National Tea Competition not only helps to improve the farming and production of high grade tea, improved techniques learned through tea production can often be used in other areas of agriculture, all around Japan.
The site of the national tea competition
Evaluating the appearance of Gyokuro and Sencha
Evaluating the appearance of Matcha (Tencha)
Evaluating water color
Evaluated teas are sorted in descending order
This monument was built in honor of the establishment of Uji cha green tea Hall, where the competition grade teas are evaluated.
What is Competition Grade Tea?
Competition Grade Tea and Belended Sencha are now available. They are all limited edition only available this winter season.
The National Tea Competition is held several times a year in Japan. Sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and attended by executives of the Japanese tea industry, the event provides a venue for tea farmers and producers to receive feedback in order to improve Japanese tea agricultural and manufacturing techniques, and to congratulate and encourage those that have produced outstanding tea.
Teas contributed to the National Tea Competition usually have a full and generous flavor that is smooth, mellow, and deep, along with the fresh aroma of young sprouts. Gyokuro and Matcha have an especially noble aroma created by shading the tea plants from sunlight for more than 20 days before harvest. The feature of the flavor and aroma is unique only to teas contributed to the exclusive competition and quite different from usual tea. Competition grade teas outshine even the highest grade teas found in tea shops in Japan.
Competition Grade Tea is available only at the National Tea Fair of Japan, attended by those within the Japanese green tea industry. Even in Japan it is almost impossible to find tea of this quality - this is one of the very best available anywhere. This is quite a unique opportunity to try the deep mellow taste, fresh aroma of young tea sprouts, and noble flavor found only at Japan's National Tea Competition.
Competition grade Matcha is a bright green color.
Tea leaves of competition grade Gyokuro and Sencha are quite short and fine, like tiny green needles.
Evaluating water color and flavor. The flavor is quite different from usual tea.
2017 Award Competition Grade Matcha: Available This Time Only
This item is limited edition of 250 packages available at this time only. It is unknown how many years it may be before we could sell Award Competition Grade again. (shopping page: click here)
This Competition Grade Matcha won the Japan Tea Industry Central Association President Award, and finished second place at the National Tea Fair of Japan. This is the second highest award for tea in Japan.
The price of tea finished in the second or third highest place is more moderate than the first highest place tea, though there is no significant difference in quality. Indeed, it seems that the mellowness and deepness of this Matcha is almost the same as last year's #1 Awarded Competition Matcha, which the farmer won the first highest award in 2012 and 2016, and the color may possibly be even brighter.
The year 2012 #1 Award Competition Grade Matcha sold out much earlier than expected, and we received many requests from customers to offer it again, if possible.
You can prepare approximately 9 or 10 bowls of Matcha with this Competition Grade Matcha. If 30% is deducted as a handsel for the farmer, the cost would be less than US$5 (2012 #1 Awarded: US$8) for each bowl of this Matcha. We are certain this Matcha will be the ICHIGO ICHIE precious experience of your life.
The unique flavor, deep mellow taste and fresh young aroma of this 2017 Award Competition Grade Matcha is outstanding even in upper level competition Matcha.
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What is Blended Sencha?
Competition Grade Tea and Belended Sencha are now available. They are all limited edition only available this winter season.
With a single cup of Blended Sencha, one can concurrently enjoy two different characteristics: the aroma of Sencha and the taste of Gyokuro. Blended Sencha is more sweet and mellow than basic Sencha, characteristic of Gyokuro. But, it has a more refreshing aroma than Gyokuro, characteristic of Sencha.
The aroma of Sencha and the taste of Gyokuro are created by a labor-intensive blending technique similar to that of Blended Sencha Premium or Super Premium.
Arcanum is a great secret of nature, a natural mystery or special blend of natural ingredients, known only to a small group of specialists, such as alchemists. We call this tea "Arcanum" because it is a special blend of Sencha which provides a dramatically intense and balanced flavor.
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Processing by Traditional Method
To produce a substantial amount of tea, today's processing machines are very convenient with amazing high productivity relative to some decades ago. To process highest grade tea, especially highest grade Sencha, precision is required in each process like sorting, blending, drying, and so on. In this case, processing by skilled hand is ideal. Processing machines of some decades ago are quite close to hand processing methods though old-fashioned and primitive in design, and not superior in productivity relative to modern ones.
Blended Sencha is processed by the traditional method using old-fashioned machines and by skilled hand. We introduce a few processes in detail below.
At sorting process, tea leaves are sorted into uniform size for good appearance and easy brewing. At first, tea leaves are sorted into very small size, small size, and large size. Large leaves are cut into small leaves, and then mixed with small leaves. The batch size of old-fashioned machines and hand processing is about 30 to 120kg (66 to 265lb). ARACHA (processed by farmer) packaging size is 30kg (66lb) each. Modern sorting machines produce about 4 to 6 times more than old-fashioned machines and require about 500 to 800kg (1,100 to 1,800lb) per batch. Traditional methods enable us to check the quality by small batch. To produce the highest grade tea, we run each farm's tea separately in a small batch in order to evaluate the quality each small batch and provide feedback to the farmers who grow the tea with the goal of improving the next year's crop. However, to process by modern machine, tea producers have no other choice but to mix teas from different farms to make a large batch. It is impossible to check the quality by each tea farm.
At blending process, we blend about 90kg (200lb) of tea leaves in 15 minutes by hand, and 900kg (2,000lb) in 15 minutes by modern blending machine. The modern blending machine productivity is 10 times the amount of processing by hand and the results are quite good.
Traditional processing method by old-fashioned machines or by hand is ideal to produce highest quality tea and provide feedback to farmers, though it is exhausting work. The productivity of modern processing machines is superior to the old-fashioned way, but the batch size is too large to produce highest grade tea.
Old-fashioned sorting machine, which is very close to hand-processing.
Modern sorting machine. Though the productivity is about 4 to 6 times superior to the old-fashioned way, the batch size is too large to produce highest grade tea.
Blending by hand, which is very exhausting work
Modern blending machine, which blends 900kg (2,000lb) of tea leaves in 15 minutes.
Old-fashioned drying machine. It is heated by gas. All factors like temperature, time, and so on have to be monitored and adjusted.
Modern drying machine, similar to a microwave. It can control temperature, rolling speed of belt conveyor, and so on automatically.
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Competition Grade Tea / Blended Sencha Items: Now Available!
We have arranged to add three limited edition Competition Grade teas and two limited edition Belended Sencha teas.
Competition Grade Tea is extremely rare and available only at the National Tea Fair of Japan, attended by those within the Japanese green tea industry. The flavor is unique only to teas contributed to the exclusive competition and quite different from usual tea.
Belended Sencha has concurrently two different characteristics: the aroma of Sencha and the taste of Gyokuro. They are composed of fine and unique breeds of tea with special characteristics. Each individual tea is more sweet and mellow than basic Sencha, characteristic of Gyokuro. But, it has a more refreshing aroma than Gyokuro, characteristic of Sencha.
Competition Grade Tea is limited edition of just 650 packages each and Blended Sencha is limited edition of just 850 packages each ONLY AVAILABLE this winter season.
Competition Grade Tea
[Limited] Competition Grade Gyokuro Pinnacle (30g/1.06oz): US$38.00 (Now Available)
This Competition Grade Gyokuro Pinnacle has an excellent, deeply mellow taste. The National Tea Competition is held in order to improve Japanese tea agricultural and manufacturing techniques, and to congratulate and encourage those that have produced outstanding tea...
[Limited] Competition Grade Sencha Pinnacle (40g/1.41oz): US$30.00 (Now Available)
Competition Grade Sencha Pinnacle is available only at the National Tea Fair, attended by tea connoisseurs and those within the Japanese green tea industry. This fine green tea has an excellent, deeply mellow taste...
[Limited] Competition Grade Matcha Pinnacle (20g/0.71oz): US$46.00 (Now Available)
This Competition Grade Matcha Pinnacle has an excellent, deeply mellow taste. The National Tea Competition is held several times a year in Japan. Sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and attended by executives of the Japanese tea industry...
[Limited] Competition Grade Matcha Pinnacle Refill (60g/2.12oz): US$115.00 (Now Available)
This Competition Grade Matcha Premium Refill package is an excellent value. The price is actually discounted 17%. This has an excellent, deeply mellow taste. The National Tea Competition is held several times a year in Japan. Sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries...
2017 Award Competition Grade Matcha
[Limited] 2017 Award Competition Grade Matcha (15g/0.53oz): US$65.00 (Now Available)
(This item is limited edition of 250 packages available at this time only. It is unknown how many years it may be before we could sell Award Competition Grade again.) This Matcha won the Japan Tea Industry Central Association President Award, and finished second place at the National Tea Fair of Japan. The price of tea finished in the second or third highest place is more moderate than the first highest place tea, though there is no significant difference in quality....
[Limited] Blended Sencha Super Premium (80g/2.82oz): US$25.00 (Now Available)
Blended Sencha Super Premium is a blend of Ohiwase and Meiryoku breeds of green tea. These tea leaves are sprouts that are small and soft and not fully-grown...
[Limited] Blended Sencha Premium (80g/2.82oz): US$20.00 (Now Available)
Blended Sencha Premium is a blend of Sencha and Gyokuro. This tea is composed of four breeds of green tea: Kanayamidori, Sayamakaori, Yabukita, and Okumidori...