Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Koukien Tea Garden, a tea farm based near Makizono-cho, Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture. They are a family doing agriculture all year round including rice and shitake mushrooms. An integral part of their work is the cultivation and processing of organic Japanese tea (green tea, hojicha, Japanese black tea). The youngest members of the family are sisters Yurie and Akane Kawaguchi and these were the women that kindly welcomed us to their tea fields and factory in mid- March.
Yurie and Akane Kawaguchi showing us their family tea factory. They shared that in about one month, they will be very busy with tea harvest and processing, with no time to pause!
One of the sisters, Akane, knows how to hand roll tea as it is a skill she acquired during her studies in Shizuoka Prefecture. This made me more intrigued with the process as she touched on her experiences but also pointed out how the standard machines used for sencha processing mimic the hand rolling process as we walked through different machines in their tea factory. So today, I would like to share with you a bit about the hand rolling process (Japanese: temomi) of sencha as shincha season is just around the corner!
Koukien Tea Garden's Akane Kawaguchi describing how the tea factory machines mimic the hand-rolling process.
As many of you may already be aware, today, all but the rarest competition grade sencha is processed through the machine rolling process. Hand-rolled tea that has been stretched beautifully and slender like a needle, is truly a work of art! In addition to the artistic appearance, and thanksto the fact that hand-rolled tea is not handled by the excessive force of machines, it can retain the original shape of the tea leaves. This means that when the hand-rolled tea leaves are steeped in hot water, one will be able to clearly identify the shape of the tea leaves when they were first picked. The hand-rolling process for tea however takes approximately 6-7 hours of continuous kneading to make 300g of finished and dried tea (varies due to numerous factors). Even the most crafted experts can only produce 300g of tea as 1.5kg of fresh tea leaves is the limit to how much tea can be hand-rolled. Automating this arduous task is why the machine rolling process was initiated.
To shed light on the history of hand rolling tea a bit, the start of hand rolling dates back to the year 1738 with Soen Nagatani (1681 - 1778), a tea farmer from the Ujitawara region in Kyoto Prefecture. Soen Nagatani is thought to be the father of Japanese sencha as he developed and/or standardized the tea manufacturing method unique to Japanese tea (i.e., sencha). To elaborate, after spending approximately 15 years experimenting with tea manufacturing methods, he is the one who initiated steaming freshly picked tea leaves and then skillfully hand-kneading them on a hoiro table with a low temperature charcoal fire underneath (Note: *A hoiro is a sturdy table covered with traditional Japanese paper called washi).
Prior to Soen Nagatani’s discovery, tea was processed by steaming or boiling the leaves, then drying them by roasting or sun-drying (such as is done to many of the traditional banchas like Mimasaka bancha and kancha), which turns the tea leaves into a brownish color. In contrast, Nagatani’s new way of making tea was considered revolutionary as it resulted in a sencha with a refreshing green color, aroma and flavor. The hand-kneading process involves a combination of the work of loosening, rolling, kneading, and rubbing the tea leaves. Although perhaps, the steps involved in this craftsmanship is best seen and understood by video, below we outline some of the major steps as well as the time required per each step involved in the hand-rolling process. Please note that the steps are simplified and that there are meticulous details when it comes to the art of hand rolling tea leaves in actuality! *After each step, we also have in parenthesis the Japanese name for each step.
Steps involved in hand-rolling Japanese Tea
- Blowing of Tea Leaves (葉ぶるい / haburui) : Drop steamed new tea leaves from chest-level height onto the hoiro table to blow off the dew (60 minutes).
- Rotation (軽回転 / kei-kaiten) : Dry tea leaves by rolling them to remove water from the core (40 minutes).
- Heavy Rotation (重回転 / jyu-kaiten) : Reduce heat, apply more weight/force in the rolling process (20 minutes).
- Mid-process Finishing ( 中上げ/ chu-age)：Loosen up the tea leaves and take out, to clean the hoiro table (15 minutes).
- Massage Through (もみきり/momi kiri) : Hold tea between hands, moving the tea back and forth to rub in a circular motion. Initially, this is done without applying much force, scattering the tea leaves but after the tea leaves feel drier, more pressure is applied and the tea leaves are massaged more thoroughly (60 minutes).
- Turn over, twist-cut, roll-cut (でんぐり / denguri)：Hold the tea bundle, stretch the tea while turning the tea from left to right (30 minutes)
- Final Forming (こくり / kokuri)：Massage tea in the same direction forming the tea into a shiny delicately needle-like shaped tea (60 - 90 minutes)
- Final Drying (乾燥 / kansou) : The tea leaves are spread nicely and evenly over the hoiro table with an empty hole in the middle. Maintain the temperature at approximately 60 degrees Celsius to dry and complete the tea rolling process (90 - 120 minutes).
The final step to complete the art of hand rolling tea!
Preserving the Tradition of Hand Rolling
Hand-rolled tea is a rare treasure nowadays, and the National Hand Rolling Tea Competition is held every year in Japan with the intention to preserve this art and tradition. Oh, and because it is a competition the event determines who can make the highest quality hand-rolled tea! Due to the global pandemic, this event was canceled for two consecutive years in 2020 and 2021. However, after a two year pause, the event was re-initiated again last November in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture. In fact, last year, Koukien Tea Garden’s Akane Kawaguchi’s team was fourth in the competition out of the 26 teams that participated. You may be wondering how long the competition takes. In this case, it took approximately 5 hours for the competitors to hand-roll the fresh tea leaves into thin needle-like tea. And of course, there is the judging process where the judges examine the appearance of the tea leaves as well as the dry appearance, aroma and even the taste of the hand-rolled tea. If hand-rolling tea sparks your interest, this may be a worthwhile event to keep on your radar! Lastly, if you are interested in trying hand-rolled tea, there are several options on Yunomi. For instance, one is from the legendary tea hand rolling master Sumida Yoshiro.
At the National Hand Rolling Tea Competition held November 2022, Akane Kawaguchi (Koukien Tea Garden) in the middle. Akane let us know that she tries to share the hand rolling experience with others and showed us the back of her hoiro table with signatures of previous participants. Her vision is to have the back of her hoiro table full one day!
All photos depicting the hand rolling process for tea were provided by Koukien Tea Garden. Please look forward to reading more about them in the near future and of course, their teas in the Yunomi collection. Matane (See you)!
Koukien Tea Garden's tea fields beginning to sprout for the upcoming shincha season!