Makers Spotlight: Tsuji San
Our friend and fellow Rishi, Ryo Iwamoto, a Urasenke Tea Master and Ambassador of Japanese Tea based in Tokyo and Shizuoka, had the opportunity to sit down with a 5th generation tea master, Tsuji San, including the distinction of producing tea for the Emperor and the Imperial Family of Japan for his unrivaled tencha tea farming practices and matcha productions. His passion for traditional farming and artisan practice is inspiring. Tsuji San is currently working with his son, who will carry on the legacy as the 6th generation tea farmer. Seicha Tsujiki ( his family’s farm name), located in Uji Shirakawa, Kyoto, Japan, formerly produced gyokuro and tencha. The 4th generation (Tsuji San’s father) is the first generation to focus primarily on tencha for the exclusive production of Matcha only. Tsuji San does not sell his matcha to very many partners. Rishi is one of Tsuji San’s main importers of less than a handful of the buyers of his matcha outside of Japan.
The terroir and special soil where Tsuji San cultivates tencha (the shade grown green tea used for making ceremonial matcha) is indicated as imperial tribute tea from history and a very special place for tea culture and matcha itself. The history of these gardens likely dates back 500 years, as Tsuji San knows his ancestors were producing tea in this area. Tsuji san thinks of Uji to have the relative distinctive importance as Bourgogne to wine making and hopes to pass the techniques and skills that have been in the region for 800 years to the next generations. The ancestors obviously knew the land had the potential for good quality tea, and history has proven this to be so.
Ryo Iwamoto and Mr. Kiyoharu Tsuji
Tsuji San truly exemplifies passion through his dedicated artisan methods. Many of his tea bushes are 2 meters (6.5 feet) high and still , all his gardens are traditionally hand picked. Soil management is extremely important, especially when considering growing shaded plants. Tsuji San explains his commitment to maintaining his rich soil:
“The point is I continuously fertilize with organic fertilizers every day and each month. I cover all the tea gardens up with Honzu [Yoshizu and straw] for as long as possible and carefully manage to increase the rate of Umami and decrease the rate of polyphenol. “First Flush”, fresh tea leaves have deep and fruitful nutrients, with the maximum of umami and all other rich amino acids and tea contents accumulated inside. I carefully hand pick the tea one by one. This is an extreme way of producing the highest quality tea. Also, unlike most tea gardens, our picking is only one time per year. These special techniques are all for boosting the umami in tea, and so it is as its premium.”
Tsuji San focuses on specific cultivars for his tencha including: Asahi, Samidori, Gokou, Ujihikari, Saemidori, and Yabukita. Asahi is typically 15-17% higher in amino acid richness score than any other matcha is Japan.
Every Cultivar he produces is high quality, fetches a high price, and is sold at many times the average price for premium ceremonial matcha. Tea schools in Japan also indicate his tea for ceremonial use. He explains each with specific tasting notes, charted here:
- Asahi: Highly aromatic Kaori [aroma]. Richest umami score and smooth, lasting taste. Vibrant green Color. The premium tea of Japan.
- Samidori: Savory and Rich Matcha Taste with high density. Dark Green Color.
- Gokou: Cultivar original aroma and rich creamy and buttery taste. Deep Dark Green Color.
- Ujihikari: Gyokuro cultivar originated. Flavorful Aroma and energetic color and vibrant energy.
- Saemidori: Characteristic Flavor and strong Umami. Fresh and light green color
- Yabukita: Less umami and more bitter and strong.
Tsuji San is not only a remarkable producer but also a tea taster and blender. He takes requests from buyers to blend matcha cultivars, but he will absolutely not blend matcha from other farmers, as he has very specific guidelines for producing his tencha for matcha. Tsuji San also does not typically blend vintage years of tencha to create matcha, which is a common practice. Each year the vintage is released around October.
The Asahi cultivar is a distinguished and highly sought after cultivar in Japan, with its velvety mouthfeel and rich umami. Tsuji San provides this analogy, “If you compare tea with wine, it is Pinot Noir in Bourgogne.”
In Japan, it is important to note quality grading of matcha uses a richness rating, which is in reference to the percentage of amino acids found in the tea plants. Tsuji San notes that his plants never fall less than 10% content of amino acids, though it can vary from year to year.
Additionally, the bushes that score these high levels of amino acids are typically less than 15 years old. When the bushes reach this age, Tsuji San will cut the roots and plant new trees. The peak amino acid scores and umami quality comes from bushes around 10 years old, as Tsuji San comments, “I personally think tea can be the best condition at the age of 10. I recognize how old they are and change the way to manage each tea.”
Thanks for sharing your insights with all of us about traditional Uji Matcha.
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