Old Tree Bancha. Does that mean bancha made of leaves from ancient tea plants (good)? Or bancha that’s been sitting around awhile (bad)? Actually, neither.
I had never heard of this tea until Lisa of TeaHaus told me about it after touring Japan’s tea gardens in Shiga Prefecture back in 2018, having been invited by the Japanese External Trade Organization. She arranged to have some sent to her when it was available, so recently received a small quantity.
Now fans of Japanese green teas most likely know bancha as an inexpensive green tea. Because it consists of the more mature leaves harvested later in the season, it’s considered a lower-grade tea—although many of us would argue that its light, mild, pleasant flavor is something to be enjoyed.
But originally, “bancha” didn’t mean a specific tea. Rather:
in preindustrial days, it referred to teas consumed by the common people, as opposed to Matcha and higher quality leaf tea that was affordable only for those of higher ranks in society. (Brekell 2018:22)
And if you go back to the early 1690s, German doctor Engelbert Kaempfer wrote that the Japanese made tea by three methods: (1) brewing tea leaves in hot water, (2) making tea from ground tea leaves, and (3)
by a perfect boiling, which goes further than a simple infusion, and is used by the vulgar and Country people, who drink of it all day long. (Faulkner 2003:46)
Faulkner (2003:53) affirms the doctor’s account, but notes that the practice of boiling/simmering tea leaves petered out in the early 1800s.
However, this isn’t quite the entire story.
With limited land and natural resources, Japanese farmers have long needed to maximize what they could get out of their crops. They found that after they harvested the tea leaves, they could make tea out of the twigs that were left behind. Selling the leaf tea, they consumed the twig tea themselves. Today, kukicha (kuki, or stalks) is intentionally produced, and because it contains little to no leaves, is very low in caffeine.
Further, when stalks and/or mature leaves (bancha) are roasted, you end up with houjicha. For the roasting process, tea is put into a rotating drum and roasted at approximately 200°C (392°F) and then cooled. This sets off chemical changes in the tea leaves, reducing the caffeine level even further.
So with a deep history of :
- using as many parts of the tea plant as possible,
- finding a way to make a palatable and even desirable tea out of what was at hand, and
- optimizing the brewing method,
it really isn’t surprising that Old Tree Bancha was a thing.
But it’s also not surprising that major tea gardens don’t bother producing it today, especially when high-end teas are guaranteed to generate income and acclaim.
Because just what is Old Tree Bancha?
It’s tea produced from entire tea plants, excluding only the roots!
Such as this one made by Mandokoro, a small tea garden in the higher elevations of Shiga Prefecture. A garden in which the average age of the women who harvest tea leaves is 70+. A garden in which making Old Tree Bancha is tradition!
When the tea plants are past their useful life, or at fifty years old, they are cut down to allow new growth from the roots.
But these tea plants still have value at Mandokoro! To celebrate the plants’ long lives and in appreciation for what they have provided, the entire plants are made into a special tea, Old Tree Bancha.
The plants are broken by hand into smaller pieces that are fed—quite dangerously!—the video makes me shudder!—into a grinder.
The chipped pieces are then fed into the rotating, roasting drum,
which is heated by a wood fire, fed by hand.
The roasted tea pours out and is collected.
Alternately, the pieces may be roasted in a small container over a fire and hand stirred. Clearly a labor-intensive project!
And the finished product?
Roasted pieces of leaf, bark, twig, trunk!
Putting 2 heaping teaspoons into 10 oz of water, I boiled the tea for 10 minutes. This tea has almost no caffeine because first of all, it contains few leaves, and secondly, because the slow roasting process removes caffeine.
The liquor is a deep copper color with an aroma that is sweet and caramel-like.
And the flavor? It’s sort of like when you get a whiff of campfire smoke—but not at all like a lapsang souchong smokiness.
Rather, it’s a caramel tobacco, with that soft pleasant smokiness that makes sitting around a wood fire so alluring.
Fittingly, the flavor lingers, but in an agreeable way, in a way that reminds you to be mindful and, along with Mandokoro, to celebrate and appreciate what tea plants provide.
Definitely a tea to savor on a wintry night.
–Brekell, Per Oscar, The Book of Japanese Tea, Tankosha Publishing Co., 2018.
–Faulkner, R., editor. Tea: East and West, V&A Publications, London, 2003.