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Shinobi-Cha, Ice Brewing From Japan

August 04, 2009

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Shinobi-Cha is quite an unusual method for preparing high-grade Japanese green teas. Instead of using hot water, it uses ice, which has a profound effect on the character extracted from the tea leaves. Technically, the method is quite simple:

  • place dry tea leaves in a pot
  • cover the tea with ice cubes
  • wait

shinobi-chaThe result is a very enjoyable liquor, and probably not a tea that one would want to drink large quantities of because the ice-cold liquor is so intensely flavored. I believe that the method is most often used for Gyokuro, but it works nicely for preparing other high quality Japanese green teas as well. I have prepared Den’s Tea Premium Gyokuro Suimei, Mellow Monk Top Leaf Tamaryokucha and DAVIDsTEA Sencha Ashikubo using the Shinobi-Cha method and they were all very delicious.

There are a couple of important details that should be taken into account when using this technique. The method is easy to execute, but the elements and tools must be right for it. First of all you must use ice cubes made from good quality water. Use filtered water, or, even better, use pure spring water. The other important element is an appropriate brewing vessel. I have used both a tokoname kyusu and a banko-yaki houhin pot with great success. Both of these teapots have high iron content which mellows the tea pleasantly. A cast iron pot would probably work fine also, but the one I own is too large to work for Shinobi-Cha so I haven’t tried it. Brewing Shinobi-Cha in a glass teapot is likely to produce a cold, harsh unpleasant drink and using porcelain would be only slightly better.

shinobi-chaThere are two different ways to drink the tea. The first is more suitable to a solitary experience: pour tiny servings into a cup periodically as the liquid appears, and as the ice melts. This will stretch the tea consumption out for an hour or two. Alternately, one can wait until all of the ice has melted and then pour the tea into one or more cups, being careful to pour a small amount at a time into each cup until the liquor has been equally distributed, so that the quality and taste of the liquor in each person’s cup are the same.

Below is an instructional video on preparing Shinobi-Cha, by Masanari Higashi, manager of Bassaro:

His theory behind this brewing method is interesting:

There is a scientific background why an ice-brewing method keeps Gyokuro taste for such a long time. The signature of Gyokuro taste is coming from umami of L-Theanine. L-Theanine has very delicate taste and it takes long time to be extracted into water from leaf.

In case of hot water brewing, water “cooks” leaf to force L-Theanine out, then the leaf locks remaining L-Theanine in. So when it comes to the second infusion, we are actually using “cooked” leaf, which makes tea taste like Sencha rather than Gyokuro.

– from his article on bassaro.com

I can neither verify nor dispute the science behind this, but I can attest to the qualities that the Shinobi-Cha method brings out in the tea. For further reading, there is additional information on traditional ice brewing of Japanese teas on Hibiki-An.

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