How does a tea hunter hunt for tea?

  • Holly Helt

I’m a Tea Hunter living in Kyushu. It’s here where some of the very best Japanese tea leaves are grown, processed, blended and produced. But the question I’m asked most is, “how do you find your teas?”

And what a brilliant question that is! The simple answer is to hunt…and hunt and HUNT, usually getting lost in the process. And folks, only the brave trust Google maps, which will usually take you where no man has dared to go before. Back roads are a Tea Hunter’s dream and Kyushu’s network is one of the best, often revealing an unknown artisan producer or leading to a rare tea from a hidden location.

In the quest for hunting down the finest leaves in Kyushu, it surprised me that I hadn’t found amazing, mind-blowing tea on the eastern side of the island in the four years of living here. But that changed just two days before Typhoon Talim smashed into the eastern side of Kyushu in September. 

Friends in the tea community had given me a tip that there was a small farmer somewhere in Miyazaki Prefecture, producing some pretty remarkable tea, and award-winning no less. That’s all I needed to know to jump in the car and head east.

Miyazaki is laid back. It’s where the Japanese go to surf the big waves. It has some of the oldest trees in Japan with shrines built around them. It’s also famous for the labyrinth of multicolored wildflowers in spring calling out to millions of visitors and of course home to the breathtaking Takachiho gorge.

Even with all of the natural beauty, one thing Miyazaki Prefecture isn’t synonymous with is Japanese tea. When you think of Kyushu teas, Chiran (Kagoshima Prefecture) and Yame (Fukuoka Prefecture, near Saga Prefecture) claim the fame. But Miyazaki’s climate is ideal for growing tea and the soil is incredible. It’s rich and dark: comparable in color to a block of Valrhona 86% cacao. In fact, I haven’t seen soil as dark as this anywhere else in Japan.

As I was trying to recover from a Google map mishap, I saw a child-height plastic Matcha ice cream cone proudly displayed in front of a small tea shop. Having driven in circles for what seemed like hours, I was in dire need of Matcha in any form it was delivered and stopped at the tiny shop for a cone.

As I parted the outdoor curtain and excused myself upon entering, I found a clean, wonderful, fairly modern little tea shop. The aroma of fresh tea leaves filled the air. One side of the shop was filled to the brim with cold tea brewers, tea snacks of all shapes and sizes, tea cups and pots. Along the adjacent wall was a very tidy display of teas packaged in simple but elegant bags. Two large award certificates hung proudly on the wall. I knew this must be the place my tea friends were mentioning. 

Within seconds of entering, a young girl rushed over with a small cup of tea, explaining that it was their new autumn blend. The color was intense and the taste deep and layered with a roasted backend. I knew they added a higher heat during the final stages of drying to achieve that fired characteristic. I personally like teas that don’t use too much heat at the end as I don’t want to mask the true taste of the leaves. However, this tea was lovely and certainly not over fired. 

The Master blender, Kuroki-san, suddenly appeared on the scene to answer some of my questions. I was immediately taken by his joyful energy and passion which bubbled over as soon as he found out that he didn’t need to speak English. He spoke enthusiastically about the cultivars in each of his teas and how he perceives their specific personalities. “Saemidori to me is like royalty and Okumidori reminds me of an elegant lady that lights up a room!” He went on to discuss how he likes to bring certain flavors to the forefront using temperatures to control the tea’s release. 

Master Kuroki also explained that while they weren’t certified organic, they favor natural farming techniques and are well below the government standards on mild pesticides, unlike the large farms that often blanket the fields with protection using remote controlled planes. 

As a Tea Hunter, I’m looking for that something special…a particular way a farmer goes about producing his tea. Does the farmer look at the different cultivars and blend them to bring out the best flavors? Or does he simply stick to Yabukita, the main cultivar known for being robust, and use steaming times to achieve a flavor? Does he choose to use heat during the drying cycle and cover up some of the leaves natural personality? How does he treat his Hojicha, the roasted tea – leaves only, twigs only or a mix of both? How about his Shiraore (karigane) – is it milky or fired and where do the stems come from? What kind of rice does he use in his Genmaicha and are his leaves first harvest or the standard Yanagicha? And one look at his packaging says a lot: can you see the tea through the package? Are there any bulk bins of teas with glass lids that let the sun in? 

Master Kuroki certainly knows his tea, but I wanted a taste. I suggested trying his Shiraore (stem tea). Since I’m so particular with how it is handled during the final stages, this would be a good indication if we were like minds…

On the very first sip of his Shiraore kabusecha, I knew we were kindred spirits! There was a milky, creamy feeling on my tongue and none of the roasted backend that so many producers use to mask the perceived inferior stems. Master Kuroki is as picky about the stems as he is the processing method. He selects only kabusecha or gyokuro stems, and processes it in a way that allows the natural taste of the leaves and stems to shine through. One look at the cup and you can SEE the energy bounding forth. 

After that sublime Shiraore, I knew I needed to try all of his teas and scooped up the lot. We are currently tasting them… It’s pretty clear that Master Kuroki will join our team of Rockstar producers!

About Holly Helt

Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.

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