THE NIHON CHA AWARD 2014 “TOKYO TEA PARTY” was held over two days, December 6th and 7th, at Shibuya Hikarie. The Nihoncha Instructor Association played a central role in designing this new event, which aimed to discover and disseminate highly individual varieties of Japanese tea from a new perspective.
Several preparatory events were held in the runup to the main event. Over 250 varieties submitted by tea producers were appraised by professionals, leading to the selection of 19 of them (these 19 varieties were the recipients of the Platinum Awards). Pre-event seminars were held to prepare staff for the day of the tasting event. I myself played an active role in the event as a volunteer from the preparatory stages. After all these preparations, on the day itself, members of the public tasted these 19 varieties and the Grand Prix was awarded. Read on to the end for the result…
As I mentioned, this event was planned “from a new perspective”, but what exactly was new about it?
New judging procedures!
Although it is not widely known, the judging procedure for Japanese tea is as follows: “Pour hot water onto three grams of tea leaves, let them stand for three minutes, remove the tea leaves, then check the aroma and taste”. For professionals, this may be a convenient way to detect any flaws; but to ordinary people, the bitterness is overwhelming, making it impossible for them to tell anything else about the tea. However, the candidate teas this time were not judged in this way; rather, they were prepared the way that regular people drink them. For example, for high quality green tea, the water used was cooled to 70 degrees C. Apparently, each tea grower submitted their recommended preparation method along with their tea, and these instructions were followed as closely as possible.
Of course, the Hikarie building itself is new and shiny all over, but that is not what I mean. What was genuinely new for the Japanese tea industry was holding the event in a fashionable downtown location, with elegant decor and facilities, and involving regular people, not just tea fanatics. Although we are starting to see a few trendy tea events held in the city center by young people, the general image of Japanese tea events until now has been of sober gatherings held in community centers for mainly middle aged and older people. This event, however, was the polar opposite. Having said that, many people who were already involved with the world of tea gathered at the venue, and you could see little reunions here and there…
Usually at tea shows, the tea is judged by experts. This time, although the initial selection of the 19 Platinum Award recipients from 250 varieties was carried out by professionals, leaving the final decision to ordinary consumers was surely new. The experts are becoming aware that their tastes may not be quite the same as those of the general public, and so they evidently decided to ask ordinary people for their opinions.
The venue was divided into two parts, a tasting area and an area selling the participating varieties of tea.
Tasting sessions were held six times a day in the tasting area, and were more or less full every time. Each session lasted for around 45 minutes, during which participants had to taste and evaluate 19 varieties of tea. Even though they were only given a mouthful per variety, it seemed hard for everyone to drink all 19 of them.
On the other side was the sales area, in which over 250 varieties of tea were available. It was always overflowing with visitors, each hunting for a particular type of tea. One probable reason is that all the teas on sale were priced at ￥600 (about $6.00)* for 50g, or ￥1,000 yen (about $10.00)* for the Platinum Award recipients, a price so amazingly cheap that one of the people involved apparently could not believe their ears when they heard it. As the price was the same across the board, whether for roasted tea or high grade tea, the highest quality teas sold out first. Moreover, there was a huge gap between varieties of tea that were nicely packaged and those that did not show any attention to packaging (with names written by hand with marker pens on plain bags), but two different mindsets were at work here, with each group searching for tea according to a defined set of concerns. Ordinary customers held the view that “It’s safer to buy proper brands”, while tea fanatics, on the other hand, argued that “I can buy neatly packaged brands in the shops; the shabbier the packaging, the more likely that this is a find which is not usually on sale!”. As for me, I could not help being fascinated by the varieties in Ziploc bags labeled with ballpoint pens…
And now for the moment everyone has been waiting for: the results of the Grand Prix. First place, chosen by 358 tasting session participants, went to…
Chayou Ltd. (Nagasaki Prefecture)’s steamed tamaryokucha (curled leaf tea), with 49 votes!
The Asatsuyu (morning dew) cultivar, one of my favorites, is sweet and rounded, and is indeed a tea that will have you exclaiming how delicious it is.
Incidentally, the “Nihon Cha Special Prizes”, which are effectively the second prizes, went to Kumaya Kougyokuen Ltd. (Fukuoka Prefecture)’s regular green tea Saemidori (41 votes), and to Ryo Miyazaki (Miyazaki Prefecture)’s fermented tea (36 votes)!
I can understand why the Saemidori was chosen. It is also one of my favorite cultivars, having a beautiful green color and mellow flavor with no hint of bitterness.
Ryo Miyazaki’s tea is a highly individual black tea! With its magnificent aroma reminiscent of an orchid, it is blazing a trail of its own. People’s opinions on it were clearly divided. This tea uses a cultivar called Minamisayaka. It struck me that the Yabukita cultivar, which is currently spreading like wildfire, did not make it into any of the top three spots…
And so the first NIHON CHA AWARD 2014 “TOKYO TEA PARTY” drew to a close. There has not yet been an announcement about whether or not the event will be held again next year, but I think that it probably will. There are few chances to taste nearly 20 varieties of tea in one go, so if it does take place next year, please go!
(Report written by Haruna)
*The US dollar price shown here is when calculated with the exchange rate of ￥100 JPY = $1.00