It’s 7:30 a.m., and you’ve been up for almost two hours. A handmade basket is in your dew-drenched palms. You stroll between waist-high rows of lush bushes, streaks of water running down your thighs as you stretch across the row, damp tea leaves tickling your wrist as you seek the ideal pluck: two leaves, one bud. You squeeze the base of the elastic stem between your thumb and fingers, snap it off, and put it into your basket, your eyes already looking for your next leaf. Welcome to your first step in making Japanese tea by hand!
Nowadays, you won’t find much tea rolled by hand in Japan. More than 99% of Japanese tea is produced on factory lines. Making tea by hand is time-consuming, which is why machines are used. A machine run by one person can harvest nearly 40 times the amount of tea that the same person could pick by hand. Plucking tea by hand is time-consuming, but it results in a high-quality finished product.
Prior to the introduction of Japanese tea technology in 1896, rolling tea by hand (temomi, pronounced tay-mo-me) was the greatest way to manufacture Japanese sencha green tea. Prior to hand-rolling, tea in Japan was frequently uneven and irregular in appearance. Souen Nagatani designed Temomi in 1783. He was a Japanese tea farmer and trader who was known for strengthening the reputation and purity of Japanese tea. When I read about him, I was reminded of Thomas Lipton, who in the 1890s and early 1900s captured the Sri Lankan tea export market by developing a standard and shipping method that supplied a trustworthy product. In business, there’s something to be said about being predictable.
Nagatani developed sencha (currently the most popular type of tea cultivated and drank in Japan) by developing a tea processing method, which he termed the ‘blue sencha recipe.’ This Recipe’ is essentially the same procedure used to make all sencha tea today, and it serves as the foundation for the recommended method we’ll use to roll Japanese tea by hand. By applying heat, pressure, and time to the leaves in a certain order, rolling tea by hand produces exquisite and delectable Japanese green tea.
You need to understand that Japanese tea prior to the introduction of hand-rolling lacked both quality and uniformity. The leaves were brown at times, green at others, coiled at times, and not twisted at all. Nagatani Recipe’ resulted in a high-quality, consistent sweet, refined green tea flavour – developed the profile of a thin, needle-shaped leaf that is now synonymous with high-quality Japanese tea.
Hand-rolling is being preserved by family enterprises and associations such as the Tea Hand Rolling Preservation Associations in tea-growing villages such as Wazuka, which host yearly community festivals. Each time, it takes a whole day to pluck, steam, roll, shape, and dry the leaf. You get up early in the morning and, if you’re lucky, by suppertime, you have some nice, fresh tea ready to drink. The community normally makes a day of it, complete with lunch and refreshments.
The Technique Of Hand-Rolling Tea
The first step is to walk out into the tea fields early in the morning. In the summer, you could get up at 5 a.m. or so to get out when the buds are still somewhat chilly and drenched in dew. The tea field you’re visiting may also be located high up in the mountain fields, rather than in the hamlet, which will add time to your travel.
When it comes to tea, the ideal pluck comprises one bud and two leaves. When harvesting tea of this calibre, it’s better to pluck the leaves by hand rather than using typical machine cutters. To walk away with a bag of tea, you’ll need to collect a significant amount of fresh leaves. Whatever you choose will be reduced to a fourth of its original weight. Pluck 10 pounds of tea, and you’ll wind up with just 2.5 pounds of finished tea.
To prevent oxidation, steam the new leaves as soon as feasible. Oxidation, like cutting an apple, will turn the tea leaves brown, and finally black (in fact, this is how you make oolong and black teas). So, to keep the leaves green and retain the desirable, traditional Japanese green tea properties, you’ve to steam them.
One at a time, bamboo baskets packed with tea leaves are raised over a gas-heated stainless steel drum filled with boiling water, forcing steam up into the baskets. It’s similar to cooking dumplings. The leaves are flash-steamed before proceeding to the next stage.
This procedure takes less than a minute, but it is critical for Japanese green tea. The leaves are steamed for around 20 seconds in tiny batches while being briskly swirled with chopsticks. After the leaves have been steamed, they are transferred to the hoiro, a Japanese tea drying table. The table’s surface is heated. Traditionally, charcoal is used. The table’s surface is composed of thick paper that has been stained with persimmon juice, which, when mixed with generations of leaves rolled on top of it, renders the paper a faint rusty orange tint. The table is fairly heated at the start of this stage. Touching it is like putting your hand on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun on a hot summer day. Later, during the last phase, the heat is reduced.
Shuffling Of the Leaves
In this stage, one picks up moist tea leaves in handfuls, shuffles them softly between fingers, pouring them down on the table’s hot paper surface; eliminating the water from the leaf after heating it and allowing the surface to dry so it’s simpler to roll. The heat and wetness makes the leaves practically sticky at this point. For approximately an hour, you shake and drop the leaves onto the top of the table repeatedly until most of the water has been shaken or evaporated out.
The actual rolling of the leaves consists of many steps, and each school of rolling in Japan has a slightly different technique, but in general, you’ll begin with a gentle rolling technique known as maguri, in which the leaves are softly rolled from side to side by hand to gently squeeze the moisture out of them. Then you’ll go on to kaitenmomi, which translates to “spin-rolling,” in which you’ll begin rolling the leaves into a ball form and rolling harder than in the previous phase. This helps to squeeze water out of the leaf and breaks down the cell walls, releasing sugars from the leaves and resulting in a sweeter-tasting end product.
At this stage, most rollers have settled into a beat, grooving from side to side like in a dance. Rollers are sometimes partnered two or more to a table, so when everyone begins to move from side to side with a little bounce in their knees, it’s very amazing. It’s also excruciating on your back. The leaves will eventually become intertwined and form tightly packed leaf balls.
Breaking of The Balls
After all of that spinning, you’ll want to de-clump your tea leaves and re-spread them thinly on the surface. This is accomplished by carefully rolling them apart and gently moving them over the table to allow them to cool again. Some tasks, like untangling a fishing net, must be done slowly and by hand. Still striving to save the long leaves if at all possible, so this stage is fairly benign. This shouldn’t take more than 10-20 minutes, depending on how much tea you have. Meanwhile, the paper surface of the table is often cleansed of any leaf juice and dirt at this stage to prepare for the following phase.
Have you ever attempted to make a play-do worm? Pick up the clay and shuffle your hands together until you achieve a pleasant, straight line? That is essentially what this is. You’re taking up handfuls of leaves and worming them between your palms as they fall onto the table.
Now place the tea on top of the table and begin rolling the leaves against each other. Due to the obvious reduced water and friction, the leaves here begin to turn a glossy, dark green. They also begin to smell extremely good here.
Rolling on A Board
At this point, we’re putting the finishing touches on our pin-straight leaves in order to get the iconic sencha form. We’re attempting to make them all uniform and this is also the most difficult rolling step since you need someone who understands what they’re doing to achieve the appropriate shape.
You’re rolling the leaves by moving them all together in the shape of a tiny loaf of bread and turning them against each other while clasping them in your palms. You keep halving the leaves and mixing them together such that all of the leaves are rotated and spend time on both the interior and outside of the pile. Depending on where you live, this final phase is known by a variety of various names. Itazurishiage is used in this context. Other areas use other strategies called momikirishiage and kokurishiage. All three are shiagemomi, which translates to ‘final rolling.’
You’ve finally gotten your lovely leaves! You now spread out all of the leaves (which are rather dry by this stage) across the table, which has been heated to around 70 °C (158 °F). Clear a tiny circle every 12 inches or so in the heaps of leaves with your fingertips by skimming a circle across the table surface and then tapping it. This hole is meant to aid in heat dissipation. They’re loaded onto trays and transferred to another oven after drying for a bit here.
These tea-drying furnaces resemble industrial beehives. Consider a towering office file cabinet transformed into an oven. Trays of tea are slotted in and then finished heating in here. When you press on a fragile leaf, you understand you’re through.
Unprocessed tea leaves are paired with polished tea needles finally to give you your long awaited hand-rolled tea.
You’ve successfully prepared tea! This aracha, or ‘raw tea,’ can now be consumed, transported for auction, or combined with other sencha to produce new flavour qualities.