Frequently asked questions
What’s the difference between a tea bag and loose-leaf tea?
For most Westerners—whether they consider themselves tea drinkers or not—the first image they will have of tea is that of the tea bag. This is only natural. After all, the tea bag was invented by American merchants around the year 1900 in order to make tea more convenient. Although the actual ‘inventor’ of the tea bag is disputed—it may have been two ingenious women in Milwaukee who filed for a patent called a ‘tea leaf holder’or a tea importer in New York City—what is not debatable is just how much the tea bag took over the world. Whether on café menus or in kitchen cupboards across the world,the tea bag is the dominant vehicle in which much of the world’s tea is transported. The problem, of course, is that what was sacrificed at the expense of convenience was quality. One basic measure of tea quality is how intact the leaves of the plant are by the time someone sits down to drink it. More often the narrow paper envelope of a tea bag is stuffed with some of the lowest grade tea produced, mere pieces of leaves that qualify as little more than tea dust. In the 2000s, a select few tea manufacturers, recognizing both the convenience of tea bags and the quality gap they have with loose-leaf teas, have undertaken the challenge of finding a balance between the two. By designing more roomy, three-dimensional tea bags—often in the shape of a triangle—manufactures have been able to add more full leaves and less dust. Since there is invariably some breakage and mixing during transportation, it’s rare for these bags to contain fully the same fully intact leaves as their loose-leaf counterpart but it’s safe to say they are a lot closer to loose-leaf tea thanthe flat envelope-style tea bags that have been in heavy use for more than a century.These manufacturers have also experimented with building the bag out of differentmaterials, allowing for better steeping and also re-use. At Tea Master, we recognize that our guests sometimes need or prefer the convenience of a tea bag for brewing and we’re grateful to work with tea manufacturers that produce high-quality tea bags.Whether for hot or cold brewed tea, the tea bags in our store deliver both quality and convenience.
If you are looking to enjoy the best quality tea available today, the best way to do so is with loose-leaf tea. No matter how good tea bags get, it’s hard to imagine any tea manufacturer putting their very best teas into a tea bag. Though it’s not always convenient to serve or clean up—and can take some learning to do in a way that you like—we encourage our tea-bag loving tea guests to give loose-leaf teas a try. The one thing we’ve seen time and again is that when someone’s entire tea experience has been trapped in a bag, they’ve not had a chance to taste what the leaves can offer when they’re free to dance in the water and allow their full essence to expand. At Tea Master, we are happy to offer both bagged and loose-leaf tea, and believe strongly that there is a time and place for everything in our collective journey to tea mastery.
Why is first-harvest important?
So, as our guests often ask when they visit our store, why does the first harvest matter? Like any plant that stays dormant during the winter, tea bushes store nutrients during the non-harvesting season. Think of it as a kind of reverse hibernation. When animals hibernate they slowly consume their stored-up food only to wake up in spring with empty stomachs. When plants hibernate, they absorb all the nutrients while they are resting—essentially generating more energy, flavor and color—and then they explode to life with the first harvest of the year. For this reason, throughout the tea world, especially when it comes to green tea, first harvests are prized for their spectacular taste and nutrients. While most Japanese tea drinkers tend to think of sencha, gyukuro or higher-grade matchas when it comes to first-harvest teas, those same qualities can elevate a culinary grade matcha as well: our Culinary Matcha Powder and Deluxe Culinary Matcha Powder, for example. All of the matchas we serve at our café and sell at our shop are first-harvest matchas.
What’s the difference between organic and conventional matcha / tea?
Great tea is combination of people and nature working together. Whenever we find good quality, well-made teas that we enjoy ourselves, we like to offer them to our guests. We pay special attention to certified organic teas because we believe in the collective responsibility we all have to sustain our planet by supporting the health of natural environment and all the beings who live here. Our guests often share these views and year by year we are offering more organic teas whenever possible but it’s important to explain why we don’t offer exclusively organic teas at our shop.
For an industry that’s thousands of years old, certified organic farming is a relatively new development in the world of tea. Of course, there have always been farmers across the ages and tea producing countries like China, Japan and India that used exclusively natural methods for cultivating and processing tea. Some farmers, even after the introduction of industrial farming, continued to make teas in an entirely organic fashion. The biggest difference today is that there governmental and private organizations that certify those processes as organic, allowing farmers and merchants to market their products accordingly. In Japan, since 2000, the duty of certifying agricultural and processed foods as organic —thus allowing them to be marketed as such — has fallen on Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS), a division of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries) Organic certification in Japan can be a slow, expensive, and not always rewarding process for farmers and producers. Transitioning to conventional tea farming to organic tea farming takes time. Since global demand for certain Japanese teas—especially matcha—has only increased, not all farmers and producers have found a way to make the transition to fully organic farming yet. Producing matcha, for example, requires highly skilled farming and production methods that happen on a tight schedule and are always at the whims of mother nature (if there’s not enough of any one element, or if it happens too late or too early, it can be hard for farmers to keep up). Conventional farming where producers can use fertilizers that contain nitrogen, for example, can offer a more reliable yield. Although studies about nitrogen fertilizers have been\ shown to effect water runoff from farms that use them—causing concerns in local populations where they are used at too large of a scale, too often—there has been little to no evidence of nitrogen fertilizers harming finished tea. Obviously organic fertilizers would eliminate most of these concerns but until organic farming can catch up to conventional farming methods—which has been in place for decades—the transition will continue to be slow and costly for producers. Organic farming is spreading in the tea world but it is happening gradually. Unlike premium coffee in many parts of the world, where the best beans are often exported for drinkers abroad, tea from many famous growing countries (China, India, and Taiwan, for example) is still mostly consumed in the countries where it is grown. The same is true in Japan. Unlike many countries in the West, including the United States, consumers in tea-producing countries have simply not yet demanded fully organic farming processes in the same volumes that they have elsewhere. As more and more tea drinkers show producers that they care about organic farming, the certification process should speed up, hopefully become more affordable and common, and ultimately be worth it for the farmers themselves. The reality is that although incredible organic teas are on the rise in Japan—and we offer some of them in our shop—the consistently highest quality teas, made by the most skilled producers in the country, are often still conventional teas. We look forward to this balance continuing to shift going forward as all of us—famers, producers, consumers, and vendors—support the practices that help our planet continue to thrive and work with nature to create delicious teas.
What are cultivars?
Cultivars are different varieties of the tea plant (camellia sinensis) chosen to suit the climate and type of tea a farmer wants to produce. There are over 50 different cultivars in Japan, some more widely used than others, but all with their own characteristics. At tea master, we carry different teas from different cultivars as well as blends that use multiple cultivars in a single tea. As the dominant form of tea in Japan, the options for steamed green tea — or sencha (煎茶) — are plentiful. First there are teas from different regions, from some of our preferred places like Mie and Yame to the more larger farm production areas like Kyoto, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima. Then, there are the different styles of steaming including light Asamushi (浅蒸し), medium (chumushi 中蒸し), and deep-steamed (fukamushicha深蒸し), sencha. There are senchas that are picked earlier in the year and those that are picked later. Some are covered during the growing process; others are aged afterward. All of these parameters add different characteristics to a finished tea but perhaps none has as big of an effect on the sencha someone will eventually drink as which cultivars are chosen. Yabukita, Shizu 7132, and Asatsuyu are three of the oldest and most popular cultivars, the latter being especially common in the Uji region of Kyoto to grow the more umami-rich gyokuro teas. Over time, tea researchers and farmers have often crossed different cultivars together to make combine aspects of cultivars they liked to create new ones. For example, the higher quality Asatsuyu cultivar and the high-yielding Yabukita cultivar was crossed to create Saemidori. Asatsuyu and Shizu 7132 were crossed to make Tsuyuhikari. Some cultivars are more susceptible to plant diseases or insects than others. Some have a harder time resisting frost. Some need to be picked earlier or later and finally, some blend better with one type of cultivar or another when it comes to creating a blended, finished tea. We encourage our guests who want to know more about the different Japanese green teas cultivars to do their own research to dive deeper and learn more about cultivars as we at Tea Master are always doing ourselves. Consider starting by taking a look at Colombian-born Japanese tea aficionado Ricardo Caicedo’s excellent and informative website My Japanese Green Tea which includes a list and breakdown of many of the Japanese green tea cultivars.
More to come!