On May 9th, we had a wonderful opportunity (courtesy of Yunomi.us staff Haruna who is on the board of directors at the Saitama Pref Tea Instructor’s Association) to visit a closed-door tea auction in the Sayama region of Saitama Prefecture. Despite the invitation though, they stopped us at the door and told us it was a closed door event. After a nervous ten minutes while someone spoke with the auction organizer, they let us in!
The bidding at this tea auction is open to official members of Sayama Tea Trade Association. We are not members (we’re still much too small), so we weren’t allowed to participate, but what an experience!! Over 30 farmers put 5-10 kg of their first harvest (an early harvest of the youngest leaves, processed with extra care) out on the auction where wholesalers placed bids. These limited edition shincha first flush teas are meant to provide boasting rights to both the farmers and winning wholesalers.
Purchase Tea from the Sayama Region
Low bids were made at 5000 yen per kg (about US$50) and up to 25000 yen per kg (US$250). A larger company placed a 100,000 yen bid on one tea, and we found out that the wholesaler and the farmer are actually related organizations. This particular bid was more ceremonial than anything. Of course, even the highest bids don’t amount to much for the farmers…a mere 10g x 25,000 yen is less than a month’s salary, but the boasting rights provide both the farmers and the wholesalers with credibility for their less limited teas.
Bids were made silently with each bidder placing their bid on a sheet of paper and into an envelope in front of each tea. We discovered that a bid is place on every bid with trade association officials guaranteeing a minimum bid if someone’s tea is ignored. Japan is famous for its focus on group harmony, and we see an example of that here.
The most interesting part about this tea auction was the way bidders evaluated the teas. Tea leaves were placed on the table as you see in the photos below. Bidders first examine the leaves themselves. They examine the leaves for how refined it is (leaf only vs stems and small leaf particles), for its shininess which indicates higher quality, they grab the leaves and feel its smoothness, its weight in their hands, and they smell the leaves.
Next comes the tasting: each tea is brewed in hot water in the white bowl in front of the leaf. This is not a Western style cupping. Rather, each tea is steeped in equal water temperature much hotter than you would normally drink it at. As a result, you don’t get to taste the tea for how good it can be, but rather taste for how bad it is. The less “bad” the tea is, the better it is.
One bidder told me, after I informed him I was from America, that this is actually a bit of a problem. He said that unlike wine, since they start out at a standard level then deduct from there, the industry doesn’t have a lot of terminology to describe how GOOD the teas are. When they taste the level of bitterness, the smell the steeped leaves, they can detect what is bad about the leaves, and bid higher for teas that have fewer bad points.