KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 23 — We all drink tea and we all know what tea drinking entails. Or do we?
I discover that there is another side to this ancient activity, which dates back as early as the Tang dynasty of China (618–907 AD), that goes beyond tea ceremonies and a smorgasbord of flavours. My guide in my journey into the finer points of tea drinking is Akira Hojo, the managing director of Hojo Tea, a Japanese specialty tea company.
“I don’t believe in categorising teas,” says Hojo. “Of course we can differentiate between non-fermented teas, which have fresh flavours like fruits and vegetables, and fermented teas, which taste more like dried fruits. But ultimately it is about our own process of learning to taste the tea.”
Hojo likens brewing tea to cooking. “It is about the quality of the ingredients (the tea leaves) and one’s skill in brewing them. These days, however, most of the emphasis is on the ingredient. When an industry matures, the big manufacturers determine which processes are used and which ingredients are the most popular.”
We begin with green tea, one of my favourite types of tea. Hojo prepares two different types of green tea. Kawane Zairai Sencha is a dark-green tea with uniform leaves. Uji Sencha Jubuzan is yellower in colour (even before brewing), and includes both the leaves and stems.
Hojo says, “The first tea is greener due to the use of fertiliser, which makes the tea plant grow faster but also causes the flavours to be thinner.
The second tea may not look as pretty but it is more flavourful and has a more interesting profile.”
Sipping each tea in turn, I’m able to discern the difference in flavours but not what Hojo calls the aftertaste, the feeling of the tea flowing down the throat. He explains, “The stronger the flavours, the more difficult it can be to observe the aftertaste. What is the aftertaste? It’s about flavouring the water. This is a way of modifying the quality of water as the tea leaves release minerals.”
Hojo moves on to pu-erh tea, a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan, China. Its subtler flavours mean that the tea’s other characteristics begin to reveal themselves to me.
“Seasoned tea drinkers focus less on flavours and more on the aftertaste (or vertical dimension), body (the horizontal dimension), and mouthfeel (or texture – whether the tea feels soft or rough),” he says.
Apparently, in days of old, the Emperor of China would partake of such rich and decadent dishes during his multi-course banquets that he would only drink teas that are not strongly flavoured. The royal tea connoisseur would have sought out teas with interesting aftertaste, body, and mouthfeel.
Hojo says, “By enjoying ‘water’ with delicate flavours but a more appealing aftertaste, for example, you are drinking tea like the Emperor! Quite simply, the flavours are a useful guide for beginners. Then as you progress, you start looking for the aftertaste. This needs time to develop though some drinkers are naturally gifted at perceiving this.”
The tea master describes the aftertaste as how the tea lingers after you drink it. “A lot of it has to do with iron in the tea. For example, pregnant women who lack iron would love a longer aftertaste as it reflects higher iron content in the tea. Our bodies are built to detect what they need.”
One way Hojo trains beginners to tea drinking is with strong flavours such as honey and perfume. He explains, “In my experience, with tea as well as wine, the higher its quality, the fewer people can discern how good it is. A common myth is that good quality teas (and wines) have to be expensive. They don’t have to be!”
According to Hojo, very often we end up prioritising aesthetics over taste, hence the high premiums paid for uniformly shaped and outwardly “beautiful” goods. He says, “Tasting is the same for all, be it tea, wine, sake, whisky, or foods. Once you learn how to taste, you can taste everything.”
Hojo travels around the world to remote tea-growing regions such as Yunnan in China. In these poverty-stricken areas, the small farmers he seeks out cannot afford proper brewing facilities.
“Therefore you must be able to detect the quality and profile of the teas without tasting them. In fact, you can ‘taste’ by the smell alone without drinking as well as the condition of the leaves. Basically you cannot depend on tasting alone to judge, especially when travelling when your health may be affected, which in turn affects your sense of taste.”
Hojo advises novice tea drinkers to drink good tea. “Again, good tea doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. Choose from regions where the living standards are lower. In more prosperous areas, the teas are heavily processed so the tea leaves look prettier and more standardised, but the quality tends to be lower. The greener the tea is, the more chlorophyll is present which means the tea plants grew faster than normal thanks to fertiliser.”
Hojo’s intimate knowledge of farming and food science should come as no surprise when one delves into his background. Hailing from an agricultural family, Hojo’s earliest memories are of his father’s apple orchards. He says, “I learned that the bigger and prettier apples may taste very sweet when you first bite into them, but they have no real aftertaste. This was typically due to too much fertiliser used before harvesting.”
At university, Hojo studied food science, followed by research and development in the food industry and even a stint in the spice trade. His past 10 years have been invested in the tea business.
“I’ve always enjoyed tea. Eventually I realised I could bring in better teas myself, which was the catalyst for my entry into the tea industry. I try to buy directly from the farmers so I don’t have go through so many middlemen.”
As a result, Hojo Tea offerings are less mass market and more boutique in nature. Even the range of teapots is carefully crafted as the clays the pots are made of can affect the taste of the tea brewed.
Hojo intends to strengthen his company’s online business next. He adds, “I also plan to bring in honey from the mountains where I source my teas from.
This is natural farming at its best – the farmers harvest teas in spring and collect honey from autumn to winter. Imagine a deep aftertaste, for both the tea and honey.”
I’m imagining honey even an emperor would approve of.
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