Tree to Tea: The Life of Leaves
Words by Josh Leskar Photographs by Julia Grassi
Japanese green tea farmers put a great deal of art, thought, patience and care into creating and consuming their product—from growing the first leaf to the tea-drinking rituals.
In the life of green tea, a beautiful dichotomy exists. A tea farmer must practice patience, working tirelessly for months to prune, trim and shape each tree, preparing it for its ultimate destiny. After all, when a tea tree is properly maintained, it can gift its bounty for 30 to 50 years, making it indeed worthy of such love and care. Yet this lengthy, tedious process builds to but a single moment in time when suddenly hours, or even precious minutes, can determine the outcome of countless hours of labor.
From seedling infancy, the Camellia sinensis is first required to mature anywhere from three to five years before its leaves have developed thoroughly enough to be deemed worthy of plucking. The plant may grow to be nearly 50 feet when left to its own devices: an unruly toddler scampering across the plantation floor, grasping for every object in its path. The tea farmer grooms the growth to a manageable height, teaching it to branch out along a horizontal plane and forcing it to create a flat “picking table” for the harvest ahead.
Sloping hillsides high atop mountain ranges lend ideal conditions for growing the most coveted tea, offering ample amounts of permeable soil through which water can pass while simultaneously preserving sufficient moisture in which the tree thrives. The mountainous terrain also allows the tree’s roots to grasp firmly into deep, nutrient-dense terroir.
However, these high altitudes also bring with them extremely challenging climatic variations. The sun’s rays grace the leaves by day and yield to breaths of chill evening air, inducing stress and stunting growth. Miraculously, the tree’s resilience takes advantage of this adversity and emerges with stronger, fuller and more flavorful leaves as it fights to retain chlorophyll stores, instinctively battling for survival. Often, farmers will even cover the plants in the weeks leading up to the harvest in order to facilitate a similar reaction, causing them to defend against impending damage. Tea trees must live their lives in constant flux between struggle and safety.
At long last, picking day finally arrives: one single, perfect day, during the earliest whispers of spring, when a clear blue sky peeks out from beneath winter’s gray and when the nutrients rush from the roots to nourish weather-worn leaves, having spent the past season sleeping beneath a blanket of fog and mist, awakening in the nick of time to realize their tender, juicy, ripe potential.
The shincha—the first new tea.
Act too soon and the yield may be sparse and the flavors underdeveloped; too late, and the tea’s quality may already be compromised. Under the grueling sun, workers toil with nimble precision for hours on end, taking only the outermost two leaves for their intense taste, before carting their haul hurriedly back to the tea house.
The farmer must proceed with haste. From the moment the leaves are extracted from their homes, their biological clock begins ticking backward. Air immediately jeopardizes the tea’s very existence as the enzymes thrust into action and oxidation begins to take hold. Quickly, the leaves are steamed over bamboo baskets, halting deterioration in its tracks and locking in the signature green color and grassy, vegetal composition.
In the same manner as a winemaker, the tea producer now becomes an artist. The steaming process can last anywhere from 20 to 120 seconds, every one of which imparts a slightly different flavor profile on the finished product. Once completed, this aracha is typically sold off to producers who complete the drying and shaping process; very few tea farmers today see the entire process from start to finish. They must send their product—their offspring—into the world, knowing it will fulfill its mission in life.
The Japanese have made the consumption of green tea more than just that—it is an art form, a ceremony to be cherished, respected and treasured leisurely. Yet for those few hours, from picking to processing, the peace and tranquility that once characterized the entire lifespan of those leaves vanishes, only to be realized once again inside the steaming hot mugs shared among family and friends.
Production coordinator and translator Takamasa Kikuchi
Tea buyer Yasuhisa Iwasaki, Maruhide Iwasaki Seichaw
Tea farm/field Jiro Katahira, Houkouen
Tea blender/nose master Fumio Maeda, from Maeda Kotaro Shoten
Endnotes: Diana Rosen, The Book of Green Tea (Storey Publishing, 1998).
Kevin Gascoyne, François Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais and Hugo Americi, Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties (Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2011).
Dawn L. Campbell, The Tea Book (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 1995).