Kumamoto Prefecture, “the origin of the bear,” is home to one of the world’s largest calderas in the world, and offers great Japanese teas.
I asked Paul Kotta of Mellow Monk Japanese Green Tea to tell us about Kumamoto teas. Paul has worked to develop strong connections among Kyushu Island growers, and has been able to source award-winning teas.
How does Kumamoto compare to other areas, (especially Kagoshima) in terms of production levels, tea character, etc.
Paul: In total production, Kumamoto produces less tea than Kagoshima, although areas such as Kumamoto’s Kuma region are particularly well known in the world of Japanese green tea. Generally, Kumamoto ranks 9th among Japan’s prefectures in tea production but 4th in land under cultivation. This lower ranking for area than production reflects the less mechanized nature of Kumamoto tea production.
What are the primary cultivars used in Kumamoto, and how does that compare to other production areas? For example, I have seen saemidori mentioned more often in reference to Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
Paul: The primary cultivar in Kumamoto is yabukita, which is actually used widely throughout Japan, not just Kyushu.
How are production practices different? For example, I read that tamaryokucha or guricha is produced more often in Kyushu? Is there a dominant, or preferred level of steaming: asa, chu, or fukamushi?
Paul: Tamaryokucha/guricha (the terms usually refer to the same thing) is definitely more popular in Kumamoto and Kyushu in general. Chumushi may be the most common of the three steaming levels, although personally I seek out artisans who use fukamushi because of the tea’s flavor.
In your experience, what teaware or preparation methods bring out the best of Kumamoto teas?
Paul: If I had to narrow it down to one thing, it’s this: Give the tea room to bloom. Don’t pack your tea leaves into a tea ball, but instead give them the most room possible to unfurl and swirl around during steeping, like a good-sized tea basket or a small teapot if possible.
Paul: Don’t use water that’s too hot. Just-boiled water will scald green tea leaves and harm the flavor. Green tea instead needs water at about 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit).
If you don’t have a thermometer, what you can do is boil your water, pour it into the mug or teapot, and then let it sit a couple of minutes before putting in the tea leaves. When heating water, you can also watch for the small bubbles that form on the bottom of the kettle, although this can be tricky depending on how quickly your stove or electric kettle heats water.
Thanks to Paul and Mellow Monk for sharing his experience.
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