Organic Ilam Sencha Green Tea – Nepali Tea Traders
Dry: Fresh cut hay drying in the field, faint chestnut-toasted note, and an overall intensity like perfume.
Wet: Grassy, sweet pea, soy cream
Leaf: Long grassy shards, hues ranging from dark olive to mat, pale green, and variously textured on the surface with fine lines resembling Monkey King (where drying baskets imprint on the leaves in cross patterns that are distinct). Resembling preserved cut grasses and with some leaves nearly 2-3” in length. It does share a very ‘sencha’ hued and shaped leaf and the aroma is distinctly like a mid-grade Japanese sencha.
Cup: Bright lemony-white grapefruit hued liquor, with a delicate nose. Initial impression is one of weight and texture with a slightly granule-mineral imprint that then splashes with an electric, bright astringency, grassy overtones and sharp-clean citrus-lime zest hints. A small amount of particulate rests in the bottom of the cup and resembles yellow pollen, but the nature of the leaf would suggest otherwise. As one sips from the cup the mineral notes increase as does the impression of grassy-citrus, but the most notable characteristic is the building, cleansing texture on the tongue and the mouth rolling body. In many ways similar to the Chinese produced senchas that have been steadily supplanting traditional Japanese sencha, but with a much more dynamic mouth feel and a cleaner flavor that lacks the flat, grassy nature that is common to sencha replacements. I would lean towards shorter extraction times or the texture becomes too associated with astringency and then a bitter response builds.
Directions: Used 4.5g of leaves in glass vessel, covered with 1oz cold filtered water and then added 4oz of 180 degree water and steeped 2-3 minutes, judging extraction by color and aerating into second glass beaker to decant. Did a second hot steeping using 160 degree water for 2 minutes and then a cold steeping to finish.
Notes: The first thing that grabs me is the name. There are many origins and processes that are possible when a tea is rendered into a ‘green’ leaf and without going into a longer debate about fermentation, steaming, withering and the general process to arrive a this ‘type’ of tea it is important to also note the distinction of tradition, language and ‘grading’ that distinguishes Sencha from ‘green tea’. A quick online search will point out that Sencha is a common Japanese term for green tea grown in Japan and there is some debate as to whether it has a meaning other than one that language and cultural define. Case being that ‘sencha’ then is simply ‘green tea’ and so while the term may be borrowed and applied it is no more contextually relevant than the other words for ‘tea’ like cha, te, tea, ect… It seems the borrowing of the term sencha is then to draw in people in the US who have little to no exposure to a tea education and who buy tea based on what little they know (I.E. black, green, white…) and in the case of the word sencha, to draw in those people who have a particular interest in ‘Japanese-styled’ green teas. What is perhaps debatable is the connection to one level of obscurity that is becoming more and more of concern and muddies a transparency issue: the selling of teas under cultural names (like Sencha) that are actually produced in other countries in a style similar.
A great example would be the making of ‘sencha-styled’ teas in China that are marketing under the Japanese term/name and are then able to sell for the perceived value of Japanese teas ($$$) over the generally cheaper Chinese green teas ($). I recently explored a wholesale offering of gyokuro (a Japanese term) on a website that upon speaking with a representative about its geographic origin (to ensure that it wasn’t in the wake of regions affected by the Tsunami), learned that it was actually a tea from China. At a cost that was nearly what I have bought at retail Japanese Shinriku green tea!
The trend is very rampant in flavored green tea blends as well, where Japanese tea is too pricy to use and instead ‘sencha-styled’ green teas are used as a base. Often in descriptive write-ups, the vague term green tea or sometimes sencha is used without distinction of origin and this can lead a customer to think they know where the ‘base’ tea’s origins are.
The truth is perhaps we can simply call ‘green tea’ by any cultural name we like, allowing blenders and distributors to follow market trends, but we should be cautionary as they are utilizing and manipulating the level of customer education that is out there. We don’t need tea enthusiasts who know nothing about what they drink, as it is probable that then they simply will chase ‘titles’ and price; potentially leading to tea drinkers who care little for the teas origin, scarcity, or cultural uniqueness. Kenya is an example of this kind of market control, where many believe that only CTC or coarse grades of tea can come from the region and that they are only good for iced tea, blending, and full oxidation. Recent moves by a few passionate tea farms have begun to show that tea craft and quality can be just as great in Kenya as in other more recognized regions of ‘quality’ full leaf tea. The move to illustrate this as well as provide interest to the tea public and allow traditionally niche regions to break out of ‘expected’ molds and ask for premium prices, leading to a better living for the farmers and a more comprehensive picture of what tea can be.
I would think that a rare and special tea like this one would benefit from a transparency of origin that would use a name indigenous to the region of Nepal and then this could be a discussion and education point, a way of distinguishing the tea and setting it apart in a meaningful and educational way; one that creates a cultural bridge and draws attention to the humanitarian effort and the development of needed markets for progress and growth.
It is much like the term ‘pu erh’ and its regional specificity to Yunnan, China. Yunnan is pu erh’s tea homeland and its people gain recognition and gather a devoted interest from this distinction. I know much more about the mountains of Yunnan and the ethnic minorities who live there from my love of pu erhs, I can distinguish mountain/regional terroir and notice blends, and even identify various years of harvest, making the distinction important and defendable. It has led me to develop an appreciation for the cultures and the craft that goes into pu erhs and stimulates interest. I think this is in part due to the teas regional transparency.
To know Nepal from its teas, from its people, its land and its uniqueness, would in itself be a gift. Nepal has a long culture of tea tradition, with its history drawn along the teahorse road; a route hundreds of years old and involving many ethic groups and cultural traditions. Nepal is a home to legendary mountains and a rich cultural tradition of storytelling and myth, tea sharing and hospitality.
If the Nepali Tea Company really wants to share their mission of advocacy and cultural improvement, then it follows that they should celebrate that with the names of their teas and should create a conversation with them, rather than borrow names that call to other cultural contexts to appeal to a less involved market.
To capture a premium tea price, look only to pure Japanese gyokuro or a vintage Yunnan pu erh: the fans are there and the devotion is forever. Yet new traditions and interest can be born from connecting to a place through the flavor in a tea, with that depth only deepening with the questions that arise from its name and its origin.
If a tea is ‘green’ let it be so in its leaf, and let its name ring distinctly and elude to its native origins, development, culture, or mythology; don’t let it uniqueness hide it behind another region’s cultural term. The comparison is not worthy of either land or tea and merely pits mountain dragon against the rising sun.
As an afterward…I held a cupping of the Nepali Tea Trader’s teas at a local shop to great applaud and while I was packing up happened across a couple who were looking for a green tea and offered to share this rare tea with them (never calling it sencha) but identified it as a green tea from Nepal and they were spell bound. I cupped it out to them and they proclaimed it to be the best green tea they had ever had and they gravitate towards the story of the Nepali Tea Traders and their mission. It was a great moment.