<Read this post in your best Anthony Bourdain voice and I promise you it will sound better>
Tonight I made my first fired tea. In several batches. It was harder than I thought it would be, and it didn’t come out exactly right each time. In fact, it came out exactly right only once, curiously enough the first time I tried. My shop smelled like a 1970′s Pink Floyd concert. But it worked. And thus begins another life-long obsession, I suspect.
What is fired tea, you ask? It’s green tea, roasted. The one that got me started on this is hojicha, a tea I first tried while Japan. Hojicha, the traditionally charcoal-fired version of bancha, or second blush of sencha, sounds like a romantic, artisan creation. And it is. But in that uniquely Japanese way, it is also eminently practical.
You see, bancha is an inferior tea. The first of seasonal green tea is called sencha, and it is universally prized around the world. After the branches are bare, the second push arrives, and is harvested. This ugly duckling of a tea, coarse and twiggy, is called bancha. If bancha were coffee, it would be Vietnamese robusta. Yuck. So in true Japanese fashion, they take something undesirable, and turn it into something prized. With fire. Hojicha.
It’s understandable why the Japanese were driven to do this. Any of you who have been to Japan know that real estate is at a premium. They can’t just farm more land and harvest more sencha to make enough to earn a living. No, they need to utilize the land to its fullest. And hojicha is one way of doing that. Hoji magically transforms the rough and relatively flavorless bancha into a beautiful, less astringent tea, with lovely grain and cereal flavors. It’s just short of miraculous, really.
So once again, I had the distinct advantage of knowing just enough to be dangerous, and not nearly enough to be useful. If there’s one thing I can do, I figured, it’s roast. And roast I did. How hot? How long? How much air? How much agitation? All complete mysteries to me. And they pretty much still are. But I got it right once, and that was all it took. I am hooked.
It turns out that hojicha is usually pan fired over charcoal. In retrospect, I can clearly see the wisdom of this technique. As you might have guessed, that’s not exactly what I did. What I did… is to remain a secret. Why? Well, the obvious reason is proprietary competitive advantage. And that’s true, to a certain extent. But the real reason is embarrassment. I know I looked like Rube Goldberg, but with enough BTUs to torch a house. What I did tonight was dangerous and silly. And fun. And unexpectedly productive. And my secret.
I would offer you some of my hoji to try, but the batch I got right yielded just enough for a few servings. I sent what was left after my sampling to a friend in Atlanta with his coffee order. I look forward, as always, to his sometimes harsh, but always honest feedback. I suspect he will encourage me to continue.
And as I research the field, I realize that hojicha is but one type of fired tea. People have been doing this to all kinds of beverages for a very long time. Looks like I have some catching up to do.
WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): Hoji! I drank all of the batch that worked, now I’m working on some of the less perfect batches, and they’re still good.