Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tradition of Autumnal/ Winter Green Teas

When the coloured leaves start to fall and the days get noticeably shorter, tea drinkers all to often find themselves reaching for a more dark, full bodied, warm natured tea. In couteries where green tea rules the hillsides and pallets all year round, the seasonal change in tea drinking is more subtle.

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.

Double Peace


Michal Tallo said...

Thank you for this post, Matt.

"Many tea masters claim that Fall tea simply tastes the best."
In my eyes, it's impossible and unnecessary to say which tea is better - whether fresh spring Shincha or ripened autumnal tea, they both have something the other one lacks - I would say that the whole point is that teas stored until Kuchikiri no Gi simply suit the season much better. They are deeper, warmer in body, more complicated and tend to completely lack the cooling, refreshing factor (which we long for during spring and summer) and sometimes even tend to resemble chicken soup with their thickness (not by taste nor smell or anything like that, I hope you understand) - in my eyes, as well as - obviously - eyes of the Japanese, these are characteristics which just go perfectly with autumn days.

Traditions also take big role in opinion of these tea masters you've mentioned; after all, things like "Shincha Gyokuro" and "Shinmatcha" are more-or-less modern products; result of high demand for these fresh teas nowadays - no wonder many old masters are often skeptical about these teas (especially those from tea-merchant families with long tradition like Horaido or Marukyu Koyamaen; though Koyamaen started to produce spring Shincha some years ago).

Another thing is region of origin - notice that most Japanese spring tea comes from Shizuoka, then Yame, Kagoshima etc., while most traditionally ripened teas origin in Uji, Kyoto. This is also related to historical background of Japan with Kyoto being the ancient capital, seat of the Emperor and center of the traditional culture, while Shizuoka - connected to and strongly influenced by Tokugawa Ieyasu and Tokugawa shogunate in general - became the center of progress, new technologies and reformation, most obvious of which is Tokugawa's gradual refusal of traditional Sado ceremony and its following decrease, being replaced by consumption of Sencha-type, loose-leaf teas, preferred by shoguns as well as Japanese aristocracy back then. Obviously, this had bigger impact on present-day Japanese tea culture and tea production than we would imagine.

Sorry for the length of this comment; I just felt a need to contribute a bit to this topic by what I have to say.

Matt said...


No need to apologize on length of comment least one would be apologizing every comment. :)

The information you share is excellent and broadens the topic. History should never be discounted when considering the trends of today. The Hikozo is actually from Shizuoka but is stored in a rather modern like fashion- with wine in an abandon railway tunnel.

One has been following your recent tasting of Japanese Autumnal tea on your blog. Here are the links to these wonderful posts on Horaido's Autumnal selection:


David said...

Most impressive article and comment ! I didn't know about Tokugawa Ieyasu, and I am really happy to have learnt about his influence on tea.

I found a great article about his tormented life here.

The article on Toyotomi Hideyoshi is also very interesting.

Matt said...


Thanks for the historical links and enthusiastic support.

Michal's comment really got one thinking about the historical and geographical context of tea- we tend to overlook these influences too much these days because of the open global tea market that we currently enjoy.


David said...

Your remark about nitro flush and vacuum sealed teabags really got me thinking about seasonal tea habits.

Of course it is nice to open up a bag of steel very fresh green tea in the middle of winter.

I guess that is one of these great new inventions, that not intentionally threatens traditions.

Brandon said...

Mr Cha,
That modern porcelain Gaiwan sticks out like a sore thumb in the home of a grizzled old Korean tea master.
And stuffed with sencha?
You boldly challenge the tea orthodoxy.

Ho Go said...


Thanks for a very informative post. By Matt's bringing up of this little known genre of Japanese teas outside of the 'afficcianados', you've taken it to another level.

I would agree that a tea like gyokuro is better some months after harvest, it would be hit or miss whether a sencha would be better unless it was specially processed as mentioned by Matt. Sencha noticeably changes after some months and maybe not for the best. But this buried tea is certainly not ordinary sencha that has been left in its bag for some months.

I find it interesting that the Japanese have never really developed other genres of teas like the Chinese. Is it because of the formalism that has been part of the culture?

That gaiwan really does stick out, Matt. :)

Pedro said...

Matt / Michal,
Thanks for those notes; great reading on a chilly (-8 Celsius) afternoon.
Part of what I enjoy in wine is opening a bottle and experiencing its evolution over the next couple of hours.
The description you made of the evolution of tea in a clay container, the way it absorbs the energies of earth & fire... one may be acquainted with a tea and yet not be aware of what that same tea will reveal the next day.
A good reason to revisit an old friend.

Matt said...


No one can argue that these innovations have lead to tea drinking that is more fresh- capturing the full of essence of tea, especially the more fragile teas such as whites and early spring greens. As a result, we are faced with a choice to turn our back on the seasonal cycle of drinking tea or to continue to follow it.

On the other hand, these packaging technologies have also allowed us to follow our intuition, our preferences, and our internal climate when choosing tea thereby following the internal rhythms of our body and mind rather than the external rhythms of nature and the seasons.

It is worthy of some reflection.


Hahahaha... surely one has the best old Korean man sideburns on this half of the globe... hahaha...

Yes, yes... the porcelain gaiwan. Have been getting grilled on that by every tea chum who notices it!

It was a matter of practicality that one acquired them from an old auction house around the corner. Japanese tea + Korean teaware = clogged filters, overflowing, spilling, ect... it completely erodes the peace in preparing tea.

The story of this latest edition is quite interesting though. Expect a post soon convincing you of their wabi-sabi nature.


You bring up a very interesting question that one has had more than a few times, "Is gyokuro or even shincha better aged or fresh"? It all comes down to personal taste but perhaps the better question is "Does gyokuro or shincha lose its essence when it is aged? Does its essence simply change?, or Does it improve?" It probably brings us back to that conversation we had about the 20 yrs old Tie Guan Yin about a month ago ;)

As far as the Japanese, they tried to grow other types of tea such as oolong and black tea but the quality was generally low. See this post on the history of black tea in Japan posted by Flo:

The Japanese saw the export potential for such tea but because the growing conditions in Japan couldn't produce a satisfactory product, they looked for fertile ground else where. As they conquered much of Asia before WWII they were determined to grow black tea for export on the land they conquered. This included experiments with finding optimal black tea growing areas in Korean and Malaysia among other countries.

These days Korea sees Japan as a potential export market for balhyocha (Korean yellow tea) that has caught on a bit.


It's definitely winter. Couldn't bring oneself to drink this tea in the last few days. Still think its too cold for green tea, aged or not, at least not until ones body adjusts to this sudden shift in weather.

"one may be acquainted with a tea and yet not be aware of what that same tea will reveal the next day.
A good reason to revisit an old friend."

It is especially true of puerh tea... that what's in the cup today... expect some puerh posts soon.


Ben Prentice said...

Wow thanks Matt. Really informative. No wonder I have been craving Japanese tea lately!

Matt said...

Ben Prentice,

One of these autumnal/ winter greens might just hit the spot if you can get your hands on one.