Growing Tea: Zairai Tea Seeds

Growing Tea: Zairai Tea Seeds

by Miles Cramer

Growing Tea in WNC

For the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with growing Camellia Sinensis from seed. Ever since I visited a tea field for the first time in Thailand during the spring of 2013, I have fallen in love with the plant. This seemingly simple evergreen shrub has placed a spell on people for thousands of years and I now too am entranced.

Baby tea plant

Camellia Sinensis is an under story plant from sub-tropical Southeast Asia. It generally likes warmer climates but as it has been exposed to new environments, it has adapted to be able to thrive in colder climates.

Western North Carolina can be a tough climate for growing Camellia Sinensis. Nine months of the year here are great, but our winters can get a little too cold.

I have been purchasing my seeds from Camellia Forest Nursery outside of Carrboro. This amazing nursery carries multiple varieties of Camellia Sinensis as well as a large collection of exotic plants. I have had great success with their seeds because their plants are cold hardy. The plants I get my seeds from have survived many winters. Now the test is to see if the plants can handle the slightly colder climate of Western North Carolina.

Zairai Tea Trees

Over the weekend I received an exciting package from Japan: 87 tea seeds from a 200+ year old Zairai tea tree in the Obuku Valley of Ujitawara, Japan. This valley is where tea seeds were first planted in the prestigious growing region of Uji.

Tea field in Ujitawara

Zairai trees are from old Japan, before the development of cultivars. They are often feral and increasingly rare. They are unpopular with farmers because their yield is lower and the timing of budding is uneven, making the common practice of machine harvesting more difficult. But as a lover of history, I am intrigued by the idea of growing tea from old Japan.

In the last 100 years, the Japanese have begun developing and using cultivars for their tea farming. This has allowed them to get higher and more uniform yields. Using cultivars is a common practice across the tea growing industry around the world. Research centers are developing new cultivars all the time to produce certain flavors in the tea and help the farmer’s productivity.

Though I am excited to carry on the lineage of these Zairai trees, the experiment will be to see if they can survive the WNC climate.

Kosho-ji Temple in Uji

A Brief History of Tea in Japan

To better understand the significance of the Obuku Valley and where these Zairai trees came from, lets go back to when tea was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century.

In the 8th century, China was in the beginning of a cultural and artistic renaissance. The Japanese looked to the Chinese to inspire their own culture. In addition to adopting Chinese artistic aesthetics, they studied their spirituality. Japanese monks would travel across the East China Sea to study in the Buddhist temples of China. They would return to establish their own Japanese sects of Buddhism based off the teachings they learned in China.

The monks also returned carrying with them tea seeds. These seeds were planted in monasteries around Kyoto and were reserved for imperial and monastic rituals. As the Tang Dynasty began to fall in the mid 9th century, the Japanese lost interest in Chinese culture. Tea drinking, which was relatively unknown to begin with, fell into obscurity.

In the 12th century, ties between China and Japan redeveloped. In 1191, a monk named Myoan Eisai returned from his second trip to China and introduced the Japanese to Zen and powdered green tea. Eisai became a strong figure in promoting tea drinking in Japan. He felt passionately that tea drinking should be an integral part of the Japanese diet and wrote the Kissa Yojo-ki, a book on the health benefits of tea.

Eisai also returned with tea seeds. He plants them first at Senkoji Temple on Hirado Island and various other temples throughout Kyushu Island. He gifted tea seeds to the monk Myoe who planted them at Kozan-ji Temple in Toganoo outside of Kyoto. The popularity of tea takes off and tea from Toganoo is revered as the finest in Japan.

View from the Uji bridge looking at the mountains around Ujitawara

Tea plants from Toganoo are then brought 10km south of Kyoto to the mountains outside of a small town called Uji. These plants are planted in the Obuku Valley, marking the beginning of Uji Tea or Ujicha. Tea from Uji soon takes the place of Toganoo Tea as the finest in Japan and gains the honorary distinction of Honcha or true tea.

To this day, Ujicha is revered for its high quality teas. The tea growing regions of Shizuoka and Kagoshima are now the largest producing regions in Japan and far surpass the production of Uji. In my opinion though, the heart of Japanese tea is in Uji. I am claiming no fact to the current state of the Japanese tea industry. Simply, I am connecting to the romance of the history and honoring the heritage of Ujicha.

So, with these Zairai seeds I put in seed starters yesterday, I am excited to grow tea plants with a close connection to the seeds that came from Zhejiang Province across the East China Sea, and dream of the Obuku Valley 850 years ago.

Tea picker in a Gyokuro garden in Ujitawara

Thank you for reading! I would love to hear about your experiments with growing tea in WNC. Post your them in the comments below. If you are interested in growing tea, Camellia Sinensis plants are available for purchase. Email asheville@dobratea.com for details.

Dobra Tea Asheville Turns Nine

Dobra Tea Asheville Turns Nine

By: Miles Cramer

On November 21st, Dobra Tea Asheville celebrates its nine year anniversary. We are eternally grateful for our community and all the people that have supported us over the years. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you! On this anniversary, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on what Dobra has meant to me.

Opening day, 11/21/10

Dobra Tea has been a very special place for me. I am honored to have been part of the original staff for Dobra Tea Asheville. Now, I am the General Manager of the downtown location. During my time working in the tearoom over the last nine years, many great things have come into my life. I met my wife in the tearoom and any day now we are expecting our first child.

Dobra Tea first originated in Prague in the Czech Republic in 1993. Since then, it has spread across Eastern Europe and over the last 15 years has opened in select cites in the US. Some look at this as a franchise chain, but I look at it as a global community of tea lovers. I have become friends with owners and employees from Dobra Teas all over the world. We have adventured together on remote tea mountains, sang together at late night karaoke bars in China and shared pots of tea at each other’s tearooms. When I travel to a city that has a Dobra, I know that I will find dear friends at the tearoom, even if we’ve never met before or if we’ve known each other for many years. The binding thread of the Dobra Tea community is a love of tea and our work is to create a warm space with an open door to people of all walks of life.

I also attribute Dobra to major personal growth and self discovery in my life. The tearoom has ignited in me a passion for tea that has pushed me to travel to the tea gardens of Asia. It has grown an interest in me to study the long history of tea culture so I can share this knowledge with people through my new found passion for teaching about tea. In addition to being a catalyst for intellectual growth, I have experienced spiritual growth as well.

Throughout history, tea and spirituality have always been intertwined. I often wonder which influences which. Is this spiritual association because eastern religions have helped write the narrative of tea culture or is there something to tea that evokes a spirituality in people? All I can say is that I have seen in myself and in countless people I have met at Dobra a softening of the heart through the cultivation of a tea practice. By deepening their ritual of preparing tea, they learn to connect more deeply with others and themselves.

So as we approach this nine year anniversary later this month, I want to thank my dear friend and boss, Andrew Snavely. We have been through a lot together. We have been through ups and downs but above it all, he has been a great friend to myself and my family.

I want to thank the main owners back in Prague, Jirka and Ales for building such an amazing company. I lift my cup of tea to all my friends in the Dobra community across the world (that includes you reading this) and look forward to many more years and many more pots of tea.

An Evening of Poetry and Tea – 10/15/19

We are happy to share with you some poems created by participants of our first installment of ‘An Evening of Poetry and Tea’. Thank you to all who participated!

Poem 1

Warm and inviting
The open pour
connecting back to
what the earth
offers
delicate ridges
and steamed
thoughts rise
to meet the
smiles of strangers
together exploring
a fall beginning
of leaf gifts

Poem 2

Walking in the darkness
in time to catch the sun as it rises
brings a warmth and nourishment to my
soul
the way a pure cup of puerh
invigorates my senses

I invite the ways in which
you can awaken my awareness

You connect me back to my roots
the way you come to be
and the way in which I'll return

Poem 3

Brimming 
Bubbling
Boiling over over over

I'm over it
This push and pull
in the direction of full

Is a full life fulfilling
if my cup is overflowing?

I'm learning the direction I'm going
is not a beginning or end

But a forever flowing evolution
of aged and fermented paths

Tea Poetry: Do We Call It Chance

Tea poetry in the Tang Dynasty helped shape the way people drank and viewed tea. The early tea sages would retreat into the country side to prepare tea. With their inspiration elevated by the tea, they would create art and write poetry. We invite you to take some time to brew a pot and get creative.

By: Phil Krell

Do we call it chance?
Do we call it meant to be?
The fine point atop
A wash of facts-
 blooming possibility

An intersection of time and space
Dreams of wafting steam
All distilled within this cup of tea

Materially,  all is regarded plainly
Water - cup - leaf
But its temperature-
A spell of energy
Its story -
A gift from friends I seldom see
And its intention-
Seas of green
Laborious love
A moment of reprieve

The world without blossoming within me
Listless dreams
Scrawled in wafting steam

Jin Jun Mei

By Miles Cramer and Augustus Rushing

Jin Jun Mei is a red tea from Wuyishan in the Fujian Province of China.

Deep in the Wuyi Mountains is a small village called Tongmu. This is the birthplace of Lapsang Souchong, the first red tea (what we call black tea in the west). Now, the people of Tongmu Village make a highly prized red tea called Jin Jun Mei.

As the story goes, the people of Tongmu Village were harvesting their tea when a group of soldiers came into their village. The Tongmu people hid in the mountains while the soldiers camped in their village for several days. Normally on a harvest day, the villagers would stay up all night to finish producing their green tea. The soldiers delayed this by several days. They even used the tea leaves as bedding, leaving their sweat and odors on the drying leaves. When the soldiers left, the villagers found their tea leaves rolled, stinky, oxidized, and seemingly ruined. To save their tea, they dried the leaves over fire of pine. The tea turned out dark and tasty.

This delay in processing marks the birth of oxidized tea or red tea. The people of Tongmu then replicated the rolling, oxidation, and smoking process. This tea is known as Lapsang Souchong and became the main product of Tongmu Village.

With the rise of trade to the west, Lapsang Souchong became very popular in the west. Quality fell through the following centuries from steps to grow volume. With high demand, it became advantageous for the people of Wuyi to buy cheap leaves from neighboring provinces and pine smoke the leaves to create Lapsang Souchong. Producers began lowering their picking standards, using larger more mature leaves.

In recent decades, demand for higher quality tea from China grew. In 2007, the people of Tongmu started producing a red tea without the pine smoke and using only the buds of the tea plant. They called this new tea Jin Jun Mei. In only 12 years, this tea has become the most expensive red tea in China.

With the popularity of Jin Jun Mei, tea masters all throughout Wuyishan have begun producing Jin Jun Mei. The Jin Jun Mei we are offering is grown in the Feng Shui Guang region of Wuyishan at an elevation of 3300 feet. They are using the Fujian Cai Cha cultivar. The picking grade is one bud and one leaf.

The flavor is sweet and with notes of chocolate and a perfume of rose. We recommend brewing Jin Jun Mei in a gaiwan, doing multiple short infusions. This will yield a light golden infusion with spectacular aromatics.

We sourced this tea after a recent trip to the magical mountains of Wuyishan. We (Gus and Miles) were both on separate tea trips in China during the spring of 2019. Our paths crossed for two days in Wuyishan. This area of China is famous for its roasted oolongs known as Yancha or Rock Tea from the towering cliffs that the tea is grown at the base of. In our many tasting sessions with local shops and producers, an interesting red tea kept being presented in the mix of roasted oolongs. Jin Jun Mei stood out as a unique, boutique flavor. We fell in love with Yancha and of course bought lots of oolong to bring home. Gus bought a small bag of Jin Jun Mei and we revisited this tea when we got home. Its remarkable flavor compelled us to source some to sell in the teahouse. Gus had made a great contact with a producer who had a shop in the town at the base of the mountains of Wuyi. He followed up through WeChat and arranged the order of tea we present to you today!

Fresh Ancient Tree Puerh Sourced Direct from Nannuoshan

By: Augustus Rushing

Greetings tea enthusiasts, my name is Augustus Rushing — you may know me as the general manager at Dobrá Tea in West Asheville. This last spring I had the privilege of traveling to a few famous tea producing areas in China: Wuyishan in Fujian province, several tea mountains in Xishuangbanna of Yunnan province, and Meng Ding Mountain in Sichuan province.

While in subtropical Xishuangbanna — the “birthplace of tea” to which Camellia sinensis is native — my partner and I met an amazing woman who owns ancient tea tree gardens in Nannuoshan and produces her own puerh tea from it. Because of their deep root systems and resilience, ancient tea trees sometimes hundreds of years of age known as 古树 gǔshù, are acclaimed for producing tea with attributes such as robust chi with more nutrition, flavor, fragrance, and an ability to be brewed many times, extending the tea session. Her name is 达娥 Dá é (pronounce it!) and her ancestors were farmers of these tea trees, her parents used to sell this quality leaf material to the original Menghai Tea Factory, and she herself began producing tea from these ancient trees in 2003 in addition to stewarding them.

Dá é grew up on the southern end of Nannuoshan, but as she showed us around, it was clear she knew just about everyone on the mountain. She owns a carwash and her two sons love basketball. Most of the time she spoke to her folks in their native Dai language. She was a far cry from the typical machismo tea patriarch of China just there to stoically do the deals. With her connections, Dá é served us up a surreal experience by taking us to Lao Banzhang – one of the most acclaimed and remote puerh producing villages – all while adamantly refusing my attempts at paying for our meals in Menghai. My partner bestowed to her an heirloom stone of hers with blessings of good fortune, and in return, over shared tears, Dá é gifted her a traditional Dai satchel that her grandmother embroidered.

This tea was produced in the spring of last year, 2018, and is a raw, or shēng style puerh tea, a traditional style of puerh that highlights the richness and unique tasting attributes of the mountain terroir. This style of puerh is revered as superior by most Yunnanese and precedes the advent of cooked; ripe; shóu puerh style. The leaves are from shítou zhài 石头寨 (lit. “stone village”) ancient tree gardens of southern Nannuo (elevation 5,500 feet; about the height of Mt. Pisgah!) of which Dá é and her brothers and sisters have rights to around 150 acres. Unlike other styles of tea, puerh is often appreciated aged (stored 10+ years). The first year after it is pressed the tea evolves the most – so these cakes have a bit of a headstart – though I actually prefer sheng puerh as is; young; relatively unaged.

The process of producing shēngchá is relatively simple, but not easy. The basics are that one bud and three to four leaves are plucked, set out to wither to reduce moisture, carefully cooked in a wok to only partially stop the process of oxidation (at about half the temperature of a standard green tea shā qīng), pressure rolled to further degrade the cell walls & release liquids for more readily accessible flavor, then thoroughly sun dried. Pressing into cakes is optional, and is traditional when the tea will travel and/or age for later consumption, giving way to its reputation as “the drinkable antique” 可以喝的古董 kěyǐ hē de gǔdǒng

Most visitors to Xishuangbanna don’t make it out of Jinghong city without spending a fat wad on a guide for a preplanned trip. Humbled and confused, I can’t help but feel that this experience was meant to be. So, in equal parts am I floored that we happened upon such fortuitous waves to ride that led us to experience and now source this exceptional gem of a tea as I am honored to participate in reciprocity by presenting my friend’s tea to a new audience: the folks of Asheville and beyond.

The process of acquiring this tea has not been easy! This is Dá é’s first international sale, having only sold to local tea merchants who will then distribute to a Chinese domestic market. I spent many hours on WeChat (China’s main social media platform) talking details and finally walking through the hairy steps of sending a few kilos’ weight of precious cargo out of a remote Chinese post office around the world to Asheville. I’m so stoked it’s here.

It is my sincere hope that you get to try this tea – come in to either of our locations and taste, smell, listen, & feel this tea with your body. It’s a rare treat and it is a premiere example of quality puerh from Nannuoshan as well as Yunnan province tea.

They say the best tea doesn’t make it out of China; that the domestic market gets it all. Not this time.

-Gus

taste Dá é’s tea & other Dobrá puerh offerings while learning about this special ancient style of tea in my in-person class here

Sencha Michiko

By Miles Cramer

We are very happy to share with you an amazing new Japanese Green Tea called Sencha Michiko!

For our offerings of Japanese Teas, Dobra Tea has worked for a long time with a man by the name of Masahiro Takada. Over the years, he has become a dear friend of ours. Takadasan has hosted us many times in Japan, showing us tea fields all over the country and educating us on Japanese Tea culture. We are always pleased by the tea he sends us each year. This year, we have received a special blend that Takadasan has created called Sencha Michiko.

A few years ago, Takadasan decided to develop a blend in honor of his wife Michiko.

Masahiro Takada standing in the Rock Tea Garden in Hamamatsu.

When Michiko first heard that he was developing a blend in her name, she became very anxious and nervous. She feared that if the tea was bad, it would bring shame to her and her family.

When she first tried Sencha Michiko, she was relieved to find that the tea was very good. It brings her pride to know that people all over the world enjoy a tea in her name.

I had the honor to meet Michiko on a tea trip in Japan. Takadasan was our guide on a long week touring the tea regions of Shizuoka and Uji.

On the last night, he invited us to his home for dinner. Michiko was a gracious host and prepared an epic feast of homestyle Japanese cooking. It was a truly amazing meal and so much food! I’ll never forget how perfect her tempura was.

How Sencha Michiko Is Made

            The farmers harvest the tea at the one bud and two leaf picking grade. In Japan, this is now almost always done by a hand-held machine that shaves off the top growth of the tea trees.

Two people machine harvesting tea in Wazuka.

Unlike Gyokuro and Kabusecha, where the tea fields are covered with a tarp for 2-4 weeks before harvest, Sencha is left uncovered entirely.

The freshly picked leaves are brought to the production factory and dumped into long withering bins. The leaves are allowed to wither for a short amount of time before they are steamed. The steaming is the most defining step of Japanese Green Tea. The leaves are steamed from anywhere between 30-90 seconds. This high heat process stops the oxidation in the leaves. For green tea in China, the leaves are pan fried, but in Japan they are steamed. This creates the unique grassy flavors of Japanese green tea.

Tea leaves being steamed.

     After the steaming, the leaves are dried in a high heat chamber. With about 70-80 percent of the moisture removed, the leaves are then shaped in a rolling machine. This creates the distinctive long needle shape. At this point, the tea is called Aracha, or unrefined tea. The Aracha is then sold at auction to wholesalers.

            The wholesalers buy large quantities of Aracha, sometimes from multiple gardens and producers. They then bring the Aracha to their refining factories. The leaves are skillfully sorted and blended. Any stems and unwanted small broken leaves are removed in high-tech electronic sorting machines. The leaves are blended in large mixing tumblers to achieve the desired strength of flavor and quality. This finished product is then ready to be sold to the public.

            For Sencha Michiko, a high quality Aracha is purchased by Takadasan. This year’s batch comes from Kagoshima in the southern island of Kyushu. Takadasan then sorts and blends the leaves to create the perfect tea to honor his wife.   

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