by Lauren Parker
All of the Japanese Green Tea at The North Branch comes from a series of family farms located in Shizuoka, Japan, called Sugimoto after the family. This spring, at the café, we will be serving Sencha Fukamushi and Asamushi, and for a limited time, Shin Cha (which means “new tea”). The flavor of each Sencha depends upon the season and place where it is produced, but Shin Cha—from the first flush (picking) of the year—is considered the most delicious. This year Shin Cha will be available by the glass in mid-to-late May, and limited tins are available by preorder only.
Tea-picking in Japan begins in the south, gradually moving north with the spring warmth. During the winter, tea plants store nutrients, and the tender new leaves which sprout in the spring contain concentrated nutrients. Shin Cha represents these tender new leaves. Besides the fresh aroma of the young leaves, Shin Cha is characterized by its relatively low content of bitter catechin and caffeine, and relatively high content of amino acid. It is prized for its high vitamin content, sweetness, and grassy flavor with resinous aroma and minimal astringency. Popular in Japan, the tea is only available in limited amounts outside the country.
Our distributor, Sugimoto Seicha, started when the first generation, Zenichi Sugimoto, was peddling his handmade Sencha on the streets of post-war Shizuoka in 1946. His teas were so well-liked by the locals, that he soon needed to build a factory to meet the higher demands. The second generation, and current company president, Hiroyuki Sugimoto, is a master-taster and winner of the Green Tea Connoisseur Award at the Japanese National Blind Tea Tasting Championships. His well-trained palate helps him determine which leaves are of superior quality.
The Sugimoto family is one of the few to practice and support the old temomi (traditional hand-rolling) method of creating Sencha. Every year, the headquarters holds a special event, marking the beginning of the spring harvest, where temomi artisans come together to make the finest tea of the year, Temomi Shin Cha.
They are committed to sustainable practices, both at the farm and factory levels. The teas are nearly all from farms local to the headquarters. The farms are located on verdant mountain slopes–a very important factor in producing high quality tea leaves. The steep terrain prevents the use of large machinery, so all leaves are tended to and harvested by hand tools. This allows the farmers to get right up close and personal with their tea plants.
Their farmlands have been recognized by the United Nations as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). In order to receive this designation, farmers of a given area must partake in traditional, sustainable farming practices that create a symbiosis between human agriculture and the local flora and fauna. The practice of using chagusaba (“tea-grass fields”) benefits both tea farmers and a disappearing, fragile ecosystem.
Now, with the help of their two sons, they are growing the company to export quality Japanese tea to North America and beyond. Our teas all come from their distribution center in Seattle WA (Sugimoto America) and we have visited them at this location.
Lauren Parker is the owner of The North Branch cafe in Montpelier