Competition Grade Tea
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.
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.
They arrange contributed teas as soon as possible.
Timing measurement to check the brewing time.
Teas are extracted strictly following the procedures. In this picture, they are carefully checking if the poured water amounts are all equal.
Tallying up the screening result.
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.
It is difficult issues to know exactly when to shade the tea leaves from sunlight.
Tea leaves for usual high-grade hand-picked tea have a lovely shine.
Because competition tea is harvested when the tea leaves are quite young, double or triple the number of hand pickers are needed.
Hand-picker carefully picks soft young tea leaves.
Drying process of Tencha (Matcha).
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.
Meeting of judges in the morning of the 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.
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.
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.
Blending technique as well as evaluating technique are important factors for tea manufacturers and tea merchants in order to intensify the flavor, fill in gaps of flavor, or keep the flavor equalized throughout the year.
Our Blended Sencha Premium and Super Premium are blended in order to dramatically intensify the flavor. Depending on the skill of the tea manufacturer, the flavor of blended tea will either become dramatically intensified or completely destroyed.
The taste and aroma of the tea leaves to be blended must work well together. Most teas actually do not taste well when blended together, so the tea manufacturer must have a thorough understanding of the blending technique, as well as specific knowledge of which finished teas and breeds of tea can be blended. Some teas create excellent harmony when blended together. The tea manufacturer must choose these teas wisely to create a top-quality finished product. In addition, the difference in degrees of diffused sunlight before harvest affects the final product of the blended tea. It does not work well to blend tea leaves grown in full sunlight and tea leaves grown in totally diffused sunlight. Extreme flavors don't work well in most cases.
The above factors, especially the breed of tea and growing technique (diffusion of sunlight), largely influences the blended flavor. They are central in blending. Therefore, the tea manufacturer must train on a day-to-day basis - the blending of tea is a true art form and the manufacturer must be a skilled alchemist.
Needless to say, all our tea leaves used for blending are healthy and in ideal condition. It is impossible to redeem defective tea leaves with blending techniques. If defective tea leaves are blended with healthy leaves, unfortunately the healthy leaves absorb the unexpected flavors of the defective leaves, and the entire batch is ruined. Therefore, it is extremely important for farmer and tea producer to grow and buy only healthy tea leaves. The purity and quality of the final tea product depends on the careful and vigilant discipline of the farmer and tea producer every day from conditioning the soil and growing the tea leaves to harvest and packaging. In this way, we ensure that only healthy, top quality tea leaves are sold to the customer. This way of producing green tea with an eye to detail and quality is an important part of Japanese green tea culture and tradition.
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.
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...
[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...