Two Japanese tea farmers boiling Awa Bancha tea leaves

Japan Green Awa Bancha and Bancha Batabatacha

Two fermented Japanese Banchas

Canton Tea Club Week 83 & 84: Japan Green Awa Bancha and Bancha Batabatacha

This week and next week in the Tea Club we have two unusual Japanese Bancha varieties, both fermented but in different ways. This has been very much a voyage of discovery for me, as my experience of Japanese Teas is limited in comparison to other regions. I have never visited, and what knowledge I have comes from tasting teas and reading about them. Over the years I have become familiar with classic green varieties and learnt to appreciate the different qualities, but I have never seen anything like these two Bancha teas.

So this week’s blog will be a bit different. I will be quoting information from the suppliers, and also from other sources. In particular, I will be referencing this Informative Blog About Bancha from Japanese Tea Sommelier.

Here’s a quote from the start of the blog:

“Bancha is most often understood as designating a Japanese tea from a late harvest, and then coarsely processed in the same way as sencha. However, “bancha” is also and above all a myriad of regional teas produced using methods as widely different as they are surprising, though generally very simple. These are endangered teas, very little commercialized, and yet they are valuable documents that record not only the teas that Japanese people used to drink until very recently (the 1960s) but also the role of tea and how it spread in Japan, and more generally in Asia.”

This helped to set the scene for me. I am always interested in how off-piste local tea processes come into being – this curiosity started with some of the famous regional green teas in China – and it is fascinating to read about some of their historical and social dimensions.

so what are these two strange Bancha teas?

The first, arriving with Tea Club members this week, is Awa Bancha.

This much I already knew: Bancha, or ‘coarse tea’, refers to leaves that are not suitable for production of top grade Sencha. This can mean leaves picked after the first flush, collected when trimming the tea bushes in early winter and spring, or simply large leaves that are separated during processing. However, varied forms of Bancha are found in different parts of Japan and the meaning varies from region to region. Awa Bancha is a slightly fermented variety from Tokushima Prefecture that contains lactic acid, also known as milk acid, which gives the tea a slight pungency. After the leaves are picked, they are boiled in a large pot, rubbed in a machine, and then placed in a tub for over a month. During this period a process of lactic acid fermentation takes place. This gives the tea a unique, slightly sour character that increases as the tea cools. I was expecting it to taste like pickled tea, but found the flavour quite mild and palatable – more of a curiosity than anything else. More intriguing for me is the unusual appearance of the leaves and the process of making them. How did it come about? Was it a way of preserving the tea, or more to do with changing the flavour?

Next week’s tea is Bancha Batabatacha, or bata-bata-cha, a fermented tea similar to Puerh, associated with the town of Asahimachi Birudan in Toyama Prefecture. It is usually served whisked into a foam, and the bata-bata-cha name might come from this beating process. Try as I might, I could not get the tea to froth at all. The taste was mild and sweet, but light in the cup with only a hint of the earthy notes I associate with Puerh. It is a different process to Awa Bancha – in this case the tea is dried before fermentation. The leaves are harvested in August, then steamed until the colour becomes yellowish-brown and the enzymes are disabled. After drying for 12 hours, the leaves are placed in a wooden box for fermentation. When this is complete the dark brown leaves are removed and fully dried under the sun. The finished product is quite fragile, and my sample had a distinct and very pleasant aroma of the fresh peel removed from cooking apples. From what I have read, it seems that Batabatacha is traditionally served at family events such as commemoration of ancestors or after wedding ceremonies, but can also be drunk on normal occasions to accompany a meal.

There is much more info on the way whisked Bancha is used with food in Florent’s blog. Here is another excerpt:

“The great question that drives historians, ethnologists and anthropologists is how tea was first used: was it eaten or drunk? No one knows the answer. In China, in particular among the minorities in Yunnan, and in southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, etc.) there are many examples of teas that are consumed, eaten, as is, as part of a meal. There are no examples of this in Japan. Yet, banchas are often the basis for a liquid that is not consumed as a drink but used in cooking.”

It is quite widely known that pressed cakes of tea were originally mixed with spices and other foodstuffs part of the diet, effectively acting as a vegetable and providing some of the same nutritional benefits: Tibetan butter tea is the best-known current example of this, but there are many others from the past. I have not tried butter tea, but have eaten tea as part of a meal, when staying at the Bulang Cultural Centre in Mangjing, Yunnan. We met the head of the village, Mr. Su, who had become a figurehead for the Bulang people. This started when he found a copy of a 1700-year-old book detailing the ancient Bulang culture, translated it, and started to re-introduce the old customs which had been suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. We had dinner in the guesthouse, which was notable for the inclusion of tea leaf omelette and tea leaves served as a vegetable, which were as bitter as you might expect, but it all just seemed very appropriate. I might have eaten tea on other occasions in Yunnan, but if so I didn’t realise it.

More on this from Florent:

“It is the way that they (banchas) are consumed that is interesting. Of course, as is often the case, they are boiled and sometimes other plants are added. Next, this furi-cha is whipped using kinds of very large chasen. The first thing that springs to mind is matcha. Yet, these “whipped” Japanese teas are used differently from matcha. A great deal of importance is placed on producing a lot of foam. Once there is a lot of foam, then a wide variety of foods are added, generally cereals (grains) and beans, most often in the form of flour.
To eat grains and beans, it is much easier to roast them and grind them into rough flour than to boil them long enough to soften them. However, flour is not very easy to swallow. This is where bancha foam comes in: it is used to make such powdered ingredients “edible” by making them go down easily. Thus, such furi-chas are not made to be drunk as such, but to accompany food.”
As I explained above, this world of Japanese Bancha is very new to me, hence the extracts from somebody who knows their stuff. I would be very interested if anyone can expand on this or suggest other references, and especially share any of their own experiences.

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