These days often we associate green tea with the Spring being that green tea shares energetic similarities with the season and has even come to represent the change of season. The first flushes, the first picks, the pre qing-mings, the ujeons, and the shinchas remind us that spring is finally here. In Japan the first picks of the year, the shinchas, still represent spring but it is often said that green tea is best in the Fall and that Fall is the season for green tea. Japan has a few Autumnal tea traditions that remind the Japanese about the relationship between green tea and Autumn.
Traditionally, the matcha season starts in the fall. Until this time matcha from the previous season was consumed. Although the full leaf precursor to matcha, tencha, is picked and processed in the early spring, it has spent the summer sealed in a container with the teamasters mark on it and buried underground. In the fall the container is retrieved, the seal broken, and the tencha is ground with a stone grinder into this seasons matcha. The ceremony is called Kuchikiri, or opening the mouth. This ceremony is often held in conjunction with the symbolic change in Japanese tea rooms from the smaller furo hearth of the summer season to the larger and warmer ro. This ceremony is called Robiraki and marks a new season of tea in Japan.
Tencha, the precursor to matcha, is not the only Japanese tea that undergoes this tradition of burying during the summer. Some shincha also goes through this procedure. They are called aki shincha (new fall shincha), kuchikiri shincha (opening the mouth shincha), or kuradashi shincha (shincha from the vault). These teas are buried only part way processed and undergo a final drying procedure to bring out their nature after they are unburied in the Fall.
A long time ago, before the age of nitro flushing, vacuum sealing, or foil packs this was the only way to protect the quality of tea leaves through the warm humid Summer which tended to quickly degrade the tea. So nowadays with all the latest packing technology why do they continue to make these autumnal teas in Japan?
Many tea masters claim that Fall tea simply tastes the best. They claim that it has more depth to its flavour and is more round in the mouth. The mellowing through the summer definitely gives these teas more depth as well as curb the excess of sweeter, lighter, qualities. Energetically these teas also change. They loose the strong rising and falling directional nature and become softer and slower in their movement throughout the body. This is the result of the slow changes they absorbed while buried underground. They become slightly warmer in thermal nature due to the heat they have generated throughout the summer and due to the final heat drying stage that occurs after they are unburied. For these reasons autumnal shincha and even matcha is much nicer on the stomach and is much more suitable for consumption during the Fall and Winter seasons.
In Korea, although they don't have a formal ceremony, they do drink green tea differently in the fall. In the South they sometimes roast their green tea in the Fall before consumption to give it more fire and warmth thereby harmonizing it with the seasonal change. Last year one drank a Korean tea that was picked in the spring and was left to ferment throughout the Summer before being finished with a traditional firing over an iron caldron in the Fall before being packaged. These interesting teas are quite rare in Korea.
This year one has been enjoying a seasonal shincha kindly gifted from Chado Tea House. This Autumnal/Winter shincha is apty named Hikozo (secret, jar, warehouse), secretly stored tea. It was first picked early in the Spring then stored in an abandon train tunnel that is used for wine and tea storage until being finished with a final drying in the fall. It is warmer in nature with a deep, rich, woody, meaty taste compared to the cooler, greener, lighter, fresher notes and feeling of spring shincha. It feels about as right as green tea can feel on this cold wintery day.
One wanted to also mention the role 'earth' plays in the energetic change that takes place with autumnal green teas but forgot to add this idea to the main body of the post.
It is important to note that autumnal/winter green tea is traditionally stored in earthenware pots when it is buried or stored. These pots contain the energies of Earth and Fire within them. Long storage in these containers imparts the energy of the storage vessel- the energy of Earth and Fire. Earth energy is stable, harmonious, and, of course, earthy. The energy of fire is warming. This is yet another subtle influence on autumnal green teas. If the tea is buried in the earth or at least stored underground, the Earth energy that surrounds it will also influence its subtle nature.