Tea has been grown on the island of São Miguel in the Azores for over a hundred years. It has a hot and humid climate, acidic volcanic soil, and a mountainous terrain. That’s all it takes for the tea plant to feel at home here.
The difference between the climate in the north and south of Japan, combined with the cultivars used in the country, some of which are earlier than others, mean the spring teas vary greatly in terms of when they become available. Traditionally, the well-known Japanese Ichibanchas are picked and processed at the start of May. But with global warming and the new cultivars being used by farmers branching out from the traditional Yabukita, some harvests are taking place earlier in the year. For example, Mr Matsushita’s Shoju, produced using an early tea cultivar grown on the island of Tanegashima, in the south of the archipelago, is already available. It has floral, vegetal and iodine notes. A foretaste of open horizons, and a pure delight.
With so much focus on the benefits of the vaccination needle, despite its brief sting, I wanted to look at a comparable phenomenon that affects the tea plant, in which momentary “pain” is beneficial. In some parts of the world, such as Taiwan and Darjeeling, a particular insect – a type of leafhopper called Jacobiasca formosana – likes to munch on the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The plant’s chemical response to this attack results in a rare, highly sought-after aroma in the cup. You will find this bouquet in an Oriental Beauty, for example, or a Darjeeling Muscatel. In these regions, farmers actively protect the insect to make sure they visit the plants and eat their leaves.
The island of Taiwan is famous for its Oolong teas. They are oxidised to varying degrees and so develop notes that are more vegetal, or on the contrary, more woody. But these teas, which are also known as blue-green teas, do not represent all of the island’s production. There are also green teas and black teas in Taiwan. Regarding the black teas, here is the building where they were processed, at the time of the occupation and when the Japanese were toying with the idea of making Taiwan one of the world’s biggest producers of black teas. The Japanese wanted to compete with British teas made in India.
We might want to drink a tea for its flavour qualities, but at the same time we can be aware of its benefits and in particular its polyphenol content. One of the varieties with the most antioxidants is TRFK 306/1. It was developed by the well-known Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK), which I have visited. What is special about this variety, in addition to its polyphenol content, which is 1.5 times higher than other teas, is the colour of its leaves. You can see here, on the right, their lovely purple hue.
Last week I talked about how the mixing of tea leaves by Japanese co-operatives can limit the range of flavours in the country’s teas, but there are also some very positive developments coming from Japan. For example, a few decades ago, the country could be described as mono-cultivar: the vast majority of growers used the Yabukita variety. Happily, today, there are an increasing number of cultivars used in Japan, such as sae-midori, oku-hikari and asatsuyu. A greater range of cultivars means that once the tea is infused, it produces a wider palette of aromas and flavours. And that is good news for tea lovers.
Now that the Darjeeling First Flush season is well underway, today I’d like to introduce you to my favourite tea plant in this region. Its name is AV2, short for “Ambari Vegetative 2”. Despite its slightly spindly appearance, this cultivar produces the best teas.
I’ve just bought a single lot, Puttabong DJ7 “Clonal Queen”. Its producer reserves this prestigious name for lots plucked exclusively from AV2 plants. So this is not a blend. It has remarkable delicate aromatic notes that are both vegetal and floral.
In the same way that wine can be made using different grape varieties, tea comes from different plants, each with its own characteristics. In this photo you can see the main cultivars used in the Darjeeling region (India). When a particular lot of tea is made solely from these varieties, Indians call it “clonal”. The word “clonal” on a label does not mean the tea comes from a cloned plant, but simply that the leaves were harvested from very specific cultivars. Some of these cultivars have been developed by an agronomic research institute and are known for their excellent quality and flavour.
Here we have, from left to right: B157, P312 and AV2. These are their familiar names. Their full names are as follows: Bannockburn 157, Phoobsering 312 and Ambari Vegetative 2. They are cultivars, or “clonals”, as they are called here: tea plants created using different methods, generally by taking cuttings.
Each of the three cultivars has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of its weather hardiness and resistance to pests, its taste and aromatic qualities, and its productivity. They take their names from the plantation that created them.
These cultivars, along with some 30 others developed by the Tea Research Association, are suited to the Darjeeling region. Different cultivars are grown in other parts of the world.
While all tea plants belong to the camellia family, you know that there are different cultivars within that family. Here in Japan, the tea plant most commonly grown is Yabukita. It accounts for 85% of the tea crop, unlike in other tea producing countries, where many different varieties cohabit.
Yabukita is easy to recognise with its long, straight, intense green leaf. It also has its own way of growing, very straight, reaching up for the sky.