Tea review: Organic Watanabe Kabuse Shincha 2020

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Thinking in retrospective, I should have started my blog by reviewing all the teas being sold in the shop. However, since I do everything on my own, from social media to accountancy, there is always something in the way so I end talking about other tea related topics. Reviewing teas requires time, I need to sit down, take a notebook and brew for a couple of hours paying attention to every subtle detail.
 
I don’t really want that the blog only contains reviews of Japanese teas I sell since I also want it to have interesting articles on multiple subjects. However, with the arrival of the new and fresh teas from Japan it feels to me that a review is well deserved and well overdue. So here you are my very first thorough Japanese tea review. Before I talk about the tea itself and share my review with you all, I want to provide a bit more of context. So I will first talk about Yakushima Island, the place where the Watanabe Kabuse Shincha (among other teas in the shop) come from.
The Japanese Tea Hub

WHERE IS YAKUSHIMA?

Yakushima(屋久島) is one of the Ōsumi Islands(大隅諸島) which belong to the Kagoshima (鹿児島県) prefecture, in Japan. The island is 504.88 km2 and has over 13.000 inhabitants. Within Yakushima there is an area of almost 19.000 ha. that was designated as a Unesco Man and the Biosphere Reserve.

Yakushima is Japan’s wettest and southernmost place, its climate is humid due to its high rainfall which often exceeds 8.000 mm annually. Its locals usually say it rains 35 days a month. Its unique ecosystem, makes Yakushima an idyllic place to travel to, around 300.000 people per year pay a visit to the island. A fun fact that many people don’t usually know about, Studio Ghibli got inspired by the Yakushima Forest for the setting of their famous anime film Princess Mononoke. A Japanese guy who used to work with me in Glasgow told me about this. Since then I have been interested in visiting the island yet I haven’t had the chance so far. This was years before I got to find out that there was tea growing in Yakushima.

 

The Japanese Tea Hub

BUT WAIT, DIDN'T YOU KNOW THERE WAS TEA BEING GROWN IN YAKUSHIMA?

Neither did I. During my time living in Munich I discovered several Japanese teas. One of them was the Shimadori Watanabe Kabusecha which became a favourite of mine. This is the reason I carry it in the shop. Later on, I also discovered their genmaicha (which is delightful, very different from other genmaicha I have had in the past) and of course their shincha of that particular year. In fact, now that I do daily tea & food pairings on Instagram, I have been contacted by several people asking me things or just to provide some feedback. Some Japanese people, one of them being a tea instructor herself, told me that they did not know they grew tea in Yakushima. While becoming more popular and gaining some recognition year after year of delivering teas of outstanding quality, the teas from Yakushima aren’t widely known, even in Japan. Let’s change that!
The Japanese Tea Hub

WHO MAKES YAKUSHIMA TEAS?

According to this interesting article about the island, there are 25 tea gardens in Yakushima. I have yet to visit the island myself (is in my list of things to do in Japan, together with going to an onsen, visiting Kamakura and enjoying the hanami among other things) so I have not been able to visit any tea farms over there. However, I have read a lot about the Watanabe’s family tea garden and this is the one and this is the one I will mention here, even though there are more tea gardens in Yakushima. I have yet to try more teas produced in the island, if they are as good as the teas Mankichi Watanabe makes then they are all well worth it.
 
Mr Watanabe switched to organic farming in the 90’s thanks to a friend of his who told him about this cultivation method. Due to his garden placement in the middle of nowhere within the island, it was easy for Mankichi san to convert his tea garden into an ecological one. Usually, this process is not as easy, specially if other tea farms surrounding an organic farm aren’t. One peculiar detail about Mr Watanabe’s tea garden is the large variety of cultivars grown. Yabukita is the predominant cultivar, making around 70% to 80% of the total amount of tea plants in Japan. However, Mankichi san favours other varieties and even though he also grows Yabukita in his tea garden, it is not the predominant variety.

The Watanabe tea garden (Hachimanjyu Yakushima Tea Garden) is run by Mr Watanabe along with his family. They live close by to the tea garden and they take great care on the products they produce. For their genmaicha, they roast the organic rice themselves, which they source from a local farm in Kyushu. I am in love with their teas since the first time I had a sip several years ago and this is why I decided to source them for the shop. But not only because of that but also because I want to support small tea gardens run with love and care.

WHAT ABOUT THE TASTE OF WATANABE KABUSE SHINCHA?

The first thing that caught my attention is the beautiful packaging. A thin cardboard sleeve with a delicate illustration of a zosterops ( I did not know its name but gaufrettematcha told me about it actually) and a tree painted in Asian style. Obviously, we are not purchasing tea by its packaging yet it is nice to get nice visuals. Inside there are multiple photos of Mr Watanabe, his tea garden and Yakushima. Upon opening the tea pouch and smelling the dry leaves a refreshing aroma welcomes my olfactory senses. The smell reminds me of the taste I usually get from high quality extra virgin olive oil. I get a slight hint of roastiness as well, quite subtle. I used a banko yaki houhin (ほうひん) a Japanese teapot without a handle reminiscent of a gaiwan for this review and I did two rounds using slightly different parameters. The dry leaves are dark green in colour, they look tight. I tried some, they taste intense, sharp and they leave a slight hint of subtle bitterness aftertaste.

FIRST ROUND

1st brew (My favourite)
The teapot was heated with boiling water for under a minute. 3 grams of leaves were used. The leaves were warmed up for 30 secs inside the teapot with the lid on. 70 ml of water, 65 degrees Celsius, 60 secs.
Smelling the dry leaves that have been warmed up brings up roastiness. Wet leaves open gradually during the infusion, I perceive marine notes. The liquor is slightly cloudy, light green.
The smell of the wet leaves is fresh. The liquor obtained is a bit sharp, grassy, reminds me a bit of hay. I tried the wet leaves, they taste intense, a bit sharp, and I get a slight roasty note in the aftertaste. 2nd brew
Same leaves.
70 ml water, 70 degrees Celsius, 35 secs.
The liquor is slightly cloudy, the green is more intense.
The taste of the brew is sharper, bolder and I get a lot of more of roastiness notes.
The leaves were almost fully open at this point, their colour was lighter. 3rd brew
Same leaves.
70 ml water, 70 degrees Celsius, 30 secs. The liquor is much cleaner and greener, I start perceiving the bitterness, very subtly roastiness.
The aftertaste is quite vegetal, the feeling in mouth at this point is slightly astringent.

SECOND ROUND

1st brew The teapot was heated.
The leaves weren’t heated this time, I wanted to make a comparison.
70 ml water, 60 degrees Celsius, 40 secs.
Wet leaves look tighter during the brewing.
Intense vegetal smell with a hint of roastiness.
The liquor is light green, slightly cloudy, the taste is gentle and subtle, a bit mild.
2nd brew (My favourite) 70 ml water, 65 degrees Celsius, 35 seconds. The leaves start to open slightly, they have a vegetal smell subtle roastiness hint.
So far no bitterness.
The liquor is a bit cloudy, bright green, intense, slight roastiness, a bit robust with a hint of an aged taste.
3rd brew 70 ml water, 70 degrees Celsius, 30seconds. The leaves open up quicker now.
The leaves colour is lighter.
The liquor is greener, less cloudy, a bit sharper, a hint of bitter aftertaste and some astringency in mouth, very subtle.
I did not take photos of every single steps since I did not want the tea to over-steep. Here you have some of the ones managed to take.

I could have done a fourth brew during the second round, however, I was already feeling tea drunk already so I gave up. Shincha teas seem to have a potent effect on me despite my high levels of tea consumption. Obviously there are other combinations that could be tested by changing the type of teapot, the water quality, the amount of leaves or water used, the starting temperature among many other things. And we have to keep in mind that everyone’s palate is different, the flavours or smells we perceive are the ones we have been exposed to in the past. Recognizing smells we have never experienced before is tricky.

WHAT'S THE CONCLUSION?

The Watanabe Kabuse Shincha 2020 is indeed beautiful, fresh and elegant. It will perform best by starting with lower temperatures and increasing it gradually. Another possible option I haven’t tried yet is brewing it like we would brew gyokuro, in that case 60 secs would make sense. If you like the type of teas that are fresh, smooth, elegant and that make you feel happy with a drunk feeling this is definitely the tea for you.
 

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The Spanish version of this article should be released at some point on the Spanish blog.

Keep sipping on great organic whole leaf Japanese teas! Until next Monday!

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