2024 Sourcing - Miyazaki, Takanabe

Posted by Zach Mangan on

You could do a lot worse than ending up in Miyazaki. It holds little acclaim to foreigner visitors aside from perhaps its famous beef - Miyazaki Wagyu - or its purple mangos (and their mind boggling price tag). But for those possessed by the search for unspoiled nature, Miyazaki is a celebrated destination. Dividing the island of Kyushu down the middle, Miyazaki has just over 250 miles of coastline and spending time there watching the local surfers, it can feel more like California than Japan. But head inland and you’re soon greeted with mountains, rivers, and forests so thick the sun can do little to penetrate them. We snaked our way up the coast from Kirishima in Kagoshima, staying near Takanabe. We came here to visit a producer making a very specific style of tea - Tamaryokucha. Tamaryokucha developed as Japan moved away from pan-firing tea (kamairicha) and began steaming it (Mushesei-Tamaryokucha). While much of Miyazaki still produces pan fired Kamairicha (the region of Gokasho in particular), the area of Takanabe is celebrated for Tamaryokucha - a tea very similar to Sencha that sees a slight variation in processing, primarily no final rolling step, that leaves it with a slightly curled shape reminiscent of a comma. If you ask why they never went all the way into producing Sencha - all they need is a machine called a Seijuki, they will explain that well, Tamaryokucha reflects their history by maintaining a stronger connection to Kamairicha. It’s a topic that I’ve asked about several times, and the answer never seems to be a straight one. It is just the way things are in Takanabe.

While Tamaryokucha is produced throughout Japan - Ureshino in Saga and Izu in Shizuoka are especially well known areas - Takanabe in particular excels at making exemplary examples of high grade, classic Tamaryokucha. Being situated in Kyushu means many of the cultivars famous in this region are on the menu: Saemidori, Yutaka Midori, Okumidori and the like. And of course, the famed Yabukita cultivar can be found dominating many farmers fields. I have found the tea here a perfect counterbalance to the sweet, umami rich teas of Yame and Kagoshima. Takanabe tea to me provides an opportunity to try something a bit more restrained. I find it like drinking a lean and fragrant Sancerre in comparison to a rich, round Chablis or Chardonnay. Takanabe Tamaryokucha, to me, develops a lighter chestnutty quality in the nose and offers a punchy, super fresh sweetness in the cup. The color will never compete with Kagoshima in the marketplace - people just love deep green brews too much - but for if you are looking for a subtler tea that invokes the scent of the natural world, this might be for you. And by the natural world - I do mean the Natural world.

Miyazaki produces the vast majority of its tea adhering to organic guidelines - many farmers are not certified but you’d be hard pressed to find an agro-chemical on their property. The reason is likely many fold, but it seems to me it has spread farmer to farmer and slowly became something the area is known for. And for a tea producing area with little cache, having a reputation for something is important. So maybe thats why Miyazaki is now a mecca for low intervention teas. While Miyazaki certainly does have larger producers, there are many family farmers here producing tea from the field to the finished packaged product - and in many cases, selling them themselves as well. This small scale production is attractive, but as you know, it can mean some wild swings in quality and across the board a lower volume of each tea is available. Our Kiwami Collection members may remember the Competition Tamaryokucha included in their first set - this was the very tea we had come in search of.

Competition teas are generally harvested first each season. The youngest, most tender leaves are used. The tea maker is in the best shape as well early in the season possessing the most energy and attention at the beginning of the harvest. The brutal 24 hour-a-day schedule can grind even the best tea maker down - dulling their senses and making mistakes and missteps easier later in the harvest. While we arrived the day before harvest, we did have a chance to see the fields and taste some Saemidori cultivar tea that was harvested and processed that day. With the field just feet away from the factory, I always relish the contrast of the soft, quiet sounds of the tea farm and the thumping, electric hum of the machines in the factory. Stepping in and out of both worlds in the early morning of a harvest day is both meditative and electrifying - showcasing the complexity of the harvest at hand.

As mentioned in previous posts, the 2024 harvest had some unique challenges for growers: temperature, precipitation, and the aging workforce. In Takanabe the feeling was that things were progressing rather smoothly. Rain had been in the forecast but only materialized as an intermittent drizzle. Even so the harvest date was pushed back one day - a decision that held little consequence according to the grower. It was cool and growth was slow - so picking the following day would have no real impact on the tea. While generally speaking competition teas are handpicked, here in Takanabe machine harvesting is the norm. While its true that rounding up enough folks to hand pick would be incredibly difficult in such a rural place, it also seems that its just no longer the culture here. The machines have arrived. During this trip in particular my idea that hand harvesting is the only way to ensure top class tea was challenged many times over. In short, when done correctly, machine harvesting can sometimes appear indistinguishable from hand picked. Now I make no claims that they are identical, just that many many factors make up the recipe for great tea and we all create and repeat narratives for why one thing is better than another. I find if you want to find the “best” - you have to keep an open mind and constantly challenge yourself and what you “think you know”. The folks here have their methods, and you can’t argue with the outcomes - incredible tea, period.

We spent a good portion of our meeting getting to know one another. Meeting producers for the first time, especially during the busy harvest season poses challenges. Number one, your asking someone to stop doing their most important work to “host you”. Now, we make it abudantly clear that we don’t want to intrude during harvest, but I personally feel it’s also important for us to visit when we can see the process of tea making. This helps us understand their methods first hand, learn about whats important to them, and convey their story through picture and text. These posts are also for me - to write down and remember all the little details we learn along the way. During harvest, we meet so many people and digest so much new information, it can be overwhelming if we do not document each location with photos and notes. Usually, a farmer we are meeting for the first time may seem a bit quiet or distant - a sign of being both busy and shy - but after a half hour or so - most folks sense we came to learn and are in search of great tea - and they open up. If you want to connect with a producer, convey your respect, talk less and listen more. This simple recipe has served me well.

While the teas from Takanabe are not yet available on the menu, we are thrilled to be able to say we have sourced a lot that represents all the points I spoke about above. For me, the desire to seek out the best examples of Japanese tea in the many prefectures producing it, is never ending. Learning about Tamaryokucha informs my understanding of so many other points of tea: history, regional preferences, and why the same tea plants can express such a different profile by skipping just one step in the factory. And noticing the things that are the same throughout Japan no matter where you visit is rewarding as well: The community that comes out to help with the harvest, the pride that each grower has in what they do, and the incredible work ethic required to produce tea of any quality, let alone best in class (It is so much more work than you think - period).

As we wrapped up our visit we left the farmer to get back to his work and took a rambling walk into the tea fields. The landscape, air, and what seemed like endless rows of tea was a quiet respite from the clamoring factory. Tea naturally evokes a feeling of calm. But seeing the planning, work and coordination required for us to be able to sip it in silence and reflect, is inspiring. The energy of every tea is unique and the best ones reflect both the place from where they come and the hand of the producer who made it. I can’t wait to share this beautiful Takanabe, Tamaryokucha with you all. I think of this trip and the people we met every time I take a sip.

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