Friday, July 3, 2009

Brewing Sencha

This week, Winnie and I want to answer your questions about brewing techniques for Japanese Sencha. There is more than one appropriate way to brew and I'm sure some will disagree with the information in this post. There's lots of instruction available online but we just wanted to share some of the tips we've picked up from other tea masters. We also encourage every one to experiment and decide what works best for their own preferences.

The heated water is first poured into a cooling vessel.
Water temperature is judged in stages and this is the first part. The rising steam is beautiful to look at as it curls and dances away from the water. But it also tells us the temperature is too hot to start brewing. Usually, the water is then poured into the empty teapot to warm up the clay and then returned to the cooling pitcher. This helps to dissipate some of the water's excess heat. Many people brew sencha at 175-185 degrees Fahrenheit but I feel that cooks the delicate, fresh leaves. Then you end up with broth, not tea. Lower is always better for me and I usually wait til the water temp. is at least 140 -150 degrees (F). A basic rule for green tea is "to brew longer, not hotter". Brewing with lukewarm or room temperature water is a different matter entirely.

The Asatsuyu sencha is poured into the heated teapot. The warmed tea leaves give off a soft and savory aroma.

So the tea leaves are ready and we want to double check the heat of the water. We often run the cooled water very quickly over our fingertips to help us gauge the heat level and calculate how long the brewing time will be. Sane people use a thermometer. Let me just add, we are NOT pouring scalding water over our skin. The water is already cooled a bit and we are using the sensitivity of our fingertips to judge if it's ready to brew tea. It should feel like dipping a toe into a fresh hot bath. Almost too hot to bear but endurable. You know what... just get a thermometer. I do not want to receive emails from people with scalded body parts.
I think the terracotta color of the tokoname ceramics complements the emerald green of the tea. The water is now poured over the leaves and the lid is placed on the pot. It's only a matter of seconds before the first brew is ready for us.

Now it's time to serve the tea. Some pour the tea into the cooling vessel and serve from there. But is also acceptable to pour directly into the cups, provided that each cup only receives a little at a time as illustrated. The timing is important for this part. Especially for the first brew, the initial pour looks more like water but by the time you've emptied the teapot, each teacup holds a beautiful shade of green.
While you are serving tea in this manner, the start and stop effect keeps the tea leaves in constant motion. The idea is not to agitate the leaves but to gently swirl them around and keep them suspended in the water. This prevents the smallest particles that get bitter very quickly from settling at the bottom of the pot. Instead, they usually pass through the teapot's strainer into the cup. You can strain out the particles if you wish but we like the depth of flavor and texture they add.

I know it's far easier to show a brewing technique rather than explain the process in words. So I did a quick and terribly executed video of Winnie brewing sencha. The quality's just so-so (used the new IPhone video tool) and the lighting is worse but I figure it saves me some words. Also, I hope this answers some of the other aspects I did not really address. This video is a first for us and a spur of the moment thing. So please don't judge too harshly.
I should mention that Michael was not around when I did this. Otherwise, there would be proper lighting, stable camera work and it would be a million times better. In fact, I know he's going to cringe when he sees this. Fortunately for me, my vacation starts tomorrow and I can deal with it when I get back.
Happy Independence Day.


toki said...

You gang made my Holiday! Thanks again for those helpful brewing tips, and so glad to see you guys all set up and back : ) Cheers - T

yumcha said...

Thanks Toki!

Anonymous said...

Actually the video was quite helpful in illustrating how your constant movement keeps the Sencha from settling at the bottom. It seems like it steeps for a very short time but is still a dark-enough green color. What I'd like to know is how this method relates to the Japanese tea ceremony. Are there some similarities and differences there? --Jason

yumcha said...

Hi Jason,
That's a good question and I wish I knew the answer. I have heard of a separate traditional sencha ceremony but never personally witnessed it.
I'm glad you found the video useful, one friend said it was just grainy enough to spot bigfoot lurking in the background haha...

Anonymous said...

I tried brewing Sencha with a lower temperature water (140-150) as you suggested. Very nice! The tea has an even more delicate flavor now.
I have tried buying Sencha from many different sources, and I always end up going back to Peets - I wonder if they are getting early-harvest Sencha. It always seems so good.
Thank you for your helpful advice.

Anonymous said...

I like the Bonsai in the background...I have experimented with temps from cool to boiling and seem to like the 150 degree range and steeped a bit longer to extract the cachtechins(sp)