You’ve heard of ice wine, right?
That super concentrated dessert wine made from ripe grapes that were allowed to freeze while still on the vines and then quickly handpicked during the night so that they never thawed? Because the water within each grape freezes but the sugars don’t, the grape dehydrates and you end up with concentrated juice—which results in a very sweet, rich, and complex wine.
But did you know that there’s a tea equivalent of sorts?
Because while we generally think of Japan’s tea gardens as looking something like this,
this is what a frostbitten garden looks like:
Rather than bright green leaves,
we have very dark green—frozen—leaves beautifully rimmed with hoarfrost.
And in Japan, these frozen tea leaves are processed, resulting in a unique black tea!
Takatomo Katagi—the seventh-generation head of Katagi Koukaen in Asamiya—is committed to producing excellent teas, including frozen tea.
His family has produced completely organic tea for the past forty years because, as Taka explains, “tea leaves will never undergo washing before packaging. . . . [and] organic tea has a deeper flavor and aroma, embodying the truest taste of the tea” (Cool Shiga 2019). Growing tea organically also rules out mass production, so quantities of each tea type produced from Taka’s garden are limited—but quality is paramount!
Asamiya itself is located in the Shigaraki Plateau within the Shiga Prefecture on Japan’s largest island, Honshu. The area has natural clay deposits ideal for pottery—for which Shiga is well known—as well as mountain slopes that give Asamiya tea its unique flavor (see earlier post, Pottery and Tea in Shigaraki, Japan). Pottery-making, known as Shigarakiyaki, began around the thirteenth century and remains a robust industry today, with an emphasis on earth tones and rough textures along with raccoon-like animals that symbolize good fortune.
And Shiga is even tea’s birthplace in the country. According to the stories, back in the first century a Buddhist monk, Saicho, returned from a visit to China carrying tea seeds, which he planted in Sakamoto, near Mt. Hiei. The plants flourished, and in 815 AD the abbot of Sufuku-ji Temple served tea (apparently something like today’s sencha) to Emperor Saga (Iguchi 1975:99).
So with well over a millennium of tea-growing experience, it’s no surprise that the tea produced here is of the highest quality and that innovation is valued.
Returning to those frozen tea leaves—generally tea growers go to great lengths to protect the plants from frost, especially in spring when new leaves emerge. Mechanical fans (like those pictured in the first photo above) cycle warm air downward, or water sprinklers keep the leaves wet and above 32°F.
But for Frozen Black Tea, the frozen leaves are harvested.
Taka puts the frozen leaves into a shallow bamboo basket and then manipulates them with his hands for about 30 minutes.
As I discussed in my previous post (The Quality of Tea Both Shapes and Reflects Social Standing), tea production is a melding of science and art, and that definitely is the case with Taka’s frozen tea!
The science is what happens mechanically and chemically as the tea leaves are bruised when Taka pushes them against the basket itself, as they rub against each other, and from the pressure of Taka’s fingers.
To produce black tea, you want the leaves to oxidize, so the rough treatment is intentional. Cell walls break down, allowing the cell’s contents to mix together—and to be exposed to oxygen. This sets off a chemical process, converting the catechin polyphenols into the flavonoids theaflavin and thearubigin, which give black tea its bright taste, depth, briskness, and color.
Normally, this process would be done by machinery that macerates, rolls, or tumbles the leaves, depending on the type of tea desired; this mechanical process is tightly controlled and then stopped, in a specific way and at a specific time, again depending on what is being produced.
Clearly, Taka’s hand-processing incorporates the mechanical breakdown of the cells that sets off a chemical reaction—but all of these science-based steps are controlled by Taka’s knowledge, skill, “feel” for the tea, those elements that veer more into the artistry of tea-making.
He understands how the specific basket that he uses will affect the process, and just how much pressure he must apply to the leaves, and for how long.
Kunbing Xiao rather poetically describes how evaluating tea quality can pull from its historical and cultural basis while simultaneously drawing on modern entrepreneurship, and I believe that we can easily apply this concept to Taka’s hand-produced tea:
[the] capacity to mix and alternate between . . . two discourses [for Taka’s tea, science and art] sustains the mystique of tea quality as being beyond fixed and regular explanation and as ambivalently, yet also holistically, drawing on ecology, body, mind and spirit as elements in its creation. (2017:4)
As you might imagine, oxidizing frozen tea leaves by hand is time consuming and must be done in very small batches to ensure even oxidation.
Consequently, only a limited amount of this tea exists—as in a maximum of five kilos! As our translator wrote to us, “Since he used his own hands to make this tea, he could not make a lot of them.” Further, the taste and characteristics of this year’s Frozen Black Tea will never be precisely duplicated.
Are you curious about the flavor? Does this unique tea hold up to other fine teas?
Because Taka and Lisa McDonald of TeaHaus in Ann Arbor share a passion for fine teas and are committed to bringing them to others, Taka sent some of his tea to Michigan, so a limited amount of Frozen Black Tea is currently available at TeaHaus.com.
Be one of the few in the world to try this intriguing rarity!
–Cool Shiga, vol. 5, Shiga Prefecture, October 2019.
–Iguchi, Kaisen, Tea Ceremony, 3rd ed., Hoikusha Publishing, Osaka, Japan, 1977.
–Xiao, Kunbing, “The taste of tea,” Journal of Material Culture 22(1):3–18. 2017.
Photos by Lisa McDonald unless otherwise noted.