Ashikita Zairai Kamairicha (芦北町在来釜炒り茶) is an unusual Japanese green tea crafted from a zairai or ‘native’ cultivar. Unlike most Japanese green teas, this tea is pan-fried rather than steamed, resulting in a more balanced and nuanced character. The farmer utilises a zairai tea plant as well as a heritage processing style to create a tea that is a journey into the past of Japanese tea culture. We source this tea with a help of a specialist tea merchant based in Kyoto directly from the garden. This tea is grown on a tea farm that is run to organic standards in Ashikita District of Kumamoto Prefecture and the current crop on offer is from spring 2017.
This Ashikita Zairai Kamairicha green tea is crafted from a zairai (在来), or ‘native’ cultivar. In reality, this term does not refer to a single cultivar in a classic sense. Rather zairai in Japan refers to any collection of ‘native’ tea plants. Generally these are old tea gardens with plants that pre-exist modern cultivars and have therefore evolved on their own. Most times these plants would also be grown from seeds rather than cuttings, thus greatly diversifying the variety with the plants of the garden. Generally zairai gardens produce lower yields and are less uniform in output. This is a negative aspect for the farmers as it makes harvesting and processing more costly and complicated while yielding lower returns. However zairai gardens are very much part of the Japanese tea heritage and give a fascinating insight into what tea used to be like before modern selection processes and cultivars were introduced. The zairai plants at this tea garden were planted over 60 years ago using seeds from other ‘native’ tea plants.
Ashikita Zairai Kamairicha is also a pan fried tea; kamairicha (釜炒り茶) literally translates as ‘pan-fried tea’. Pan-frying or steaming fresh tea leaves is the process that stops oxidation of the leaves, making green tea. Most Japanese green teas are steamed, which results in a distinctive taste that tends to be heavy on grassy, savoury and astringent flavours. By contrast, kamairicha undergoes pan frying that results in a different flavour profile that is more balanced with sweeter and lighter green notes. Less than 5% of current Japan’s tea output is within the pan-fried category.
The process of pan-frying of tea leaves first arrived to Japan from China in the Edo period, around the 17th century. This was the preferred method for stopping leaf oxidation in order to produce green tea. To this day, this is the most common green tea production process around the world. It is considered that the first time steamed tea was produced in Japan was in 1737 when a tea grower named Nagatani Sōen developed a new process of tea production. This process, which consists of steaming the tea leaves fist, then rolling them and finally drying them in the oven is considered to be the standard production method of tea in modern Japan. By contrast, pan-frying has fallen out of favour due to demand for steamed Japanese style of tea as well as the ease of processing steamed tea. It is much easier to automate steamed tea production, thus greatly reducing production costs. By contrast pan-frying is still largely performed by hand and requires great skill by the tea master to achieve the perfect results. Hence the general rarity and higher costs for kamairicha pan-fried green tea.
This Ashikita Zairai Kamairicha green tea is truly an experience of the past. Utilising traditional zairai plants and heritage processing methods, this kamairicha is a unique experience, allowing us to travel back in time to experience Japanese tea style from many centuries ago. This green tea has dark green curled dry leaves that are very neat in appearance. The liquor has a bright yellow-green colour and is slightly misty in appearance with a vegetal aroma. The taste of this Ashikita Zairai Kamairicha is very clean, thirst quenching and quite exciting. It is completely different to the usual Japanese style green teas, having a much finer balance of flavours. The character is savoury and grassy, with umami and vegetal notes that are very nicely balanced by the more sweet, herbaceous and citrus flavours. There is a slight drying aftertaste without astringency and with freshly cut grass and sweet floral top notes on the roof of your mouth. The clean finish nicely rounds the flavour of this unusual tea.
It is best brewed at 80°C for around 2-3 minutes, with multiple infusions.