A wide variety of products on offer is what sets them apart.
Even within the same price range, Uogashi Meicha offers several products with different flavors and aromas so that customers can choose the one that best suits their tastes.
We’ve gathered three people who play central roles in product creation to talk about the process of making Uogashi Meicha teas. Tomohiro Tsuchiya is the president and in charge of blending. Michinori Masuda, the plant manager, communicates with the tea farmers. Yoshiro Ishida, the director of the raw material management department, is in charge of drying process. Please enjoy a rare peek behind the scenes of this premier teahouse.
――What type of tea does Uogashi Meicha procure?
President Tsuchiya: We mainly use Issaku tea leaves, which are picked only once a year, from Gaju-gata tea farms, which try to grow thicker branches of the tea plant.
Masuda Plant Manager: It’s common to pick tea several times a year, for second or third harvests. However, the farmers from which Uogashi Meicha procures mainly produce once-a-year crops. The strength of a tea depends heavily on the duration of the growing period.
First harvest tea is regarded as the best because it has so long to grow after the previous year's leaves are picked. This is what makes these once-a-year teas so much more robust.
President Tsuchiya: The raw leaves of Issaku teas have thicker and stronger stems. Similar to Gaju-gata, they have thick and strong leaves.
Masuda Plant Manager: The branches of the tea plant spread out from where they are cut, creating more thin branches. This is called the Gasu-gata. It makes for taller tea plants with more surface area, resulting in a higher yield. It is also characterized by the fact that the thickness of the tea leaves tends to be uniform, which has its merits.
However, at Uogashi Meicha, we ask our farmers to use the Gaju-gata method, which requires more work.
The advantage of the Gaju-gata method is that the thickness of each tea leaf increases because there are not as many branches.
President Tsuchiya: With the Gaju-gata method, branches have more space, creating less friction between leaves.
When the wind blows, the leaves can rub against each other and get scratched, or in severe cases, torn into pieces, or get broken off.
Director Ishida: Thicker and better condition tea allow us to apply a broader range of drying. Able to withstand high heat, they can be made into a fragrant tea with a roasted taste.
――Why do you insist on using single crop and Gaju-gata teas?
President Tsuchiya: We want to express the individuality of each tea. The more times tea leaves are picked, the more potency is lost. Tea made from such tea plants will have a clean taste at best, and a characterless taste at worst. The same goes for tea grown with the Gasu-gata method. It’s easy to produce tea of uniform and mild quality with no peculiarities, so they’re good for big manufacturers that want to appeal to the masses. Uogashi Meicha strives for something different.
Director Ishida: No matter how much effort you invest in the post-harvest process, you will not be able to make a tea that is better than the potential of the raw tea leaves. For example, in drying, we must devise ways to make the best use of the tea leaves we have. That’s why procuring robust tea leaves is so vital.
President Tsuchiya: The wide product lineup is also possible because of the individuality of the tea leaves. For example, if the tea leaves have a clean and clear aftertaste, they can be used in U-nu-bo-re and Tote-Shan. And if the tea leaves have a deep umami flavor, they can be used in Tenka-ichi and Shan. There is no one product that is best, and each customer has his or her own preference, so we want to offer a wide range of choices. Currently, we have relationships with about 15 tea farmers, and each of them produces unique tea leaves.
Masuda Plant Manager: What’s interesting about Uogashi Meicha is that we give feedback to the farmers on how the tea leaves we purchase turn out. Normally, the supplier buys the tea and the farmer sells it—end of story. We are different. We say to the farmers, "We made such and such changes this year, and this is how the tea leaves turned out. So let us try this next." Because we have been doing things that way for years, farmers ask us, "How was it this year? We actually changed the fertilizer," and so on. There’s this amazing dialogue.
――So, you value creating trust with your farmers?
President Tsuchiya: That's the most important thing. Even if you want to pay a lot of money to buy good tea, it's not something you can just buy. Really fine teas are not available on the market. You have to communicate directly with the farmer to get these teas.
Masuda Plant Manager: Farmers may feel uneasy about producing really unique tea leaves. It's better to grow tea in the conventional way and produce tea leaves with no peculiarities so that they can appeal to the masses. To have them bend their ways, we need to tell them clearly that we really want those teas and we will surely buy from them. It’s my job to build up trust with them as we continue our relationships every year.
Director Ishida: I think he’s doing an excellent job of building relationships. We used to buy from a lot more farmers in the past, but we can't expect all of those teas to be of good quality. When it comes to drying, some were just difficult. Now, the flavors or tastes may be unique, but we are getting teas that are stable quality-wise. It has become much easier to make our products thanks to that.
Masuda Plant Manager: Our relationship with farmers is like warp and weft. I believe that we can only make good tea by respecting each other, just as we can make strong fabric by weaving both together. When we ask for a particular type of tea leaves, we may be told to go and try managing a tea plantation for a year on our own, but we can’t do it like the real farmers can.
We each play a role—the farmers who produce the tea leaves, and we who make their tea into products.
――How are this year's teas turning out?
Masuda plant manager: They are gentle teas this year.
President Tsuchiya: The taste is good because it was a warm year. In warmer years, leaves grow faster and the taste gets richer. So, some are saying this year's tea leaves are really good. However, I would say the aroma is a little weak, so in terms of tea making, this year is a little difficult. Tea leaves that grow slowly in the cold tend to have a stronger aroma. We differentiate our products by their aromas. That is the aspect in which we are most different from other shops.
Director Ishida: Many other stores focus on sweetness, umami, and color. Uogashi Meicha is all about aroma. The fragrant aroma of roasted tea, the aroma of new tea, the aroma of the variety.... We make our products stand out by their aroma.
President Tsuchiya: This year, it seems to be more difficult to express that. Even so, they have that much more taste, so we’re confident you will enjoy them.
――The aroma and taste change depending on the climate?
It's similar to vintage wines. Wine drinkers may understand this analogy. If we compare it to Burgundy, this year's tea is like 2018, and last year's tea was like 2017. 2018 was a warm year, so it was fruity and rich, and the Parker points (scores given by the famous American wine critic Robert Parker Jr.) were very high. 2017 was not too hot or too cold, so it had a good balance of acidity and fruitiness. Those who like Burgundy would enjoy the products of 2017 because they have the typical Burgundy qualities.
Director Ishida: Wine is similar to teas?
President Tsuchiya: You two don't drink, so you don't know. It doesn't have to be alcohol, but you should try a lot of drinks other than Japanese tea.
You'll learn how tastes are made and how to make more attractive products. I've digressed, but I think this year's new teas will have a deep flavor. I'd like you to compare them.