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Tea Review: Mellow Monk: Top Leaf

June 10, 2009

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top_leaf_tamaryokucha_packageMellow Monk’s Top Leaf is the first flush (Spring picking) of a type of Japanese green tea processed differently from most, as a type of Sencha called Tamaryokucha. It is a lovely tea and one that exhibits signs of having been processed with care and attention. Mellow Monk buys all of its teas from small farms in the Aso region of Japan, and the high quality teas that they sell are not available from other retailers. These teas are not mass-produced, violently machine-picked and processed teas; they’re carefully grown, plucked and steamed using environmentally responsible methods.

Mellow Monk’s description of Top Leaf:

“This is our top-of-the-line honcha, or traditional green tea. Top Leaf™ tea is specially pampered in its own separate corner of the tea orchard. Not only does this tea receive extra fertilizer (organic, of course) during the growing season, but at harvest time, the growers pick only the top layer of young tea leaves. The result is a distinctive, more subtle, gentler flavor. This tea is always first flush.”

More general to Mellow Monk’s teas, all of which are Tamaryokucha:

“Another term for honcha is “sencha.” Our sencha is a type called tamaryokucha (“curly green tea”), the most popular style on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Unlike the straight leaves of big-city sencha, country-style tamaryokucha is curled after steaming and drying during the tea-preparation process. These and other subtle differences in the tea-making process give tamaryokucha its distinctive fresh taste and muted astringency. The rich volcanic soils of the Mt. Aso foothills, where this tea is grown, make for an exquisitely rich flavor and a hearty aroma, but without the bite that comes from other soil types.”

top_leaf_tamaryokucha_dryThe leaf does indeed have a different appearance and shape from other types of Sencha and from Gyokuro. It isn’t as dramatically curled as a Chinese green tea like Bi Lo Chun, but its leaves are much more twisty than the tiny straight pieces typical of other Sencha teas. These pre-brewed curly tea leaves have quite a nice scent, slightly reminiscent of henna or fennel.

The experience of drinking this tea is like handling thin pale green silk. It is light and smooth and soft. While it has the vegetal flavors of most Japanese green teas, it is not at all harsh. It tastes like tea rather than lawn clippings. The first infusion has the strongest flavor, and the flavor of each subsequent infusion drops off gently. After consuming a few cups of this tea, a strong and pleasant creamy taste lingers in the mouth for quite some time.

One thing that has become apparent to me as I’ve familiarized myself with this tea is that it can exhibit very different characteristics depending on brewing methods. It lends itself well to experimentation to find the way that produces the tea liquor that suits the drinker’s particular preferences. Japanese green teas, particularly the higher quality ones like this one, require attentive brewing. It’s easy to produce a tea that is quite unpleasant. It’s also quite easy to produce a very enjoyable tea, but I don’t think most people will be able to attain this without paying enough attention.

top_leaf_tamaryokucha_pouringI rarely pay attention to a company’s recommended brewing techniques. I rely on experimentation and my knowledge and past experience regarding what techniques work for a particular variety of tea. Mellow Monk’s Top Leaf is pretty delicate so I used the same methods I would use for a Gyokuro, brewing at 140 degrees for 30 seconds in spring water. The two vessels I used successfully were a Banko-Yaki Hohin pot and a Tokoname Kyusu. The Hokujo Tokoname pot is the one in the photographs. Both of these teapots, made from iron-rich clays, coaxed a delicious mellow brew from this tea for at least 4-5 infusions. I imagine that there are people who prefer their Japanese green teas on the brassy and grassy side, in which case brewing in glass or porcelain with hotter water would be preferable. I can not recommend brewing this tea in water hotter than 160 degrees, unless you really enjoy that bitter, burned green tea flavor.

Mellow Monk’s website has a very good article on water temperature and Japanese green teas. The article denies the need for using one to measure water temperature, but I really like using a thermometer rather than relying on a nebulous unscientific one-ness with the tea process. That said, each person needs to find his own path to the tea he likes, so if your results are better without a thermometer you don’t need one. The important thing is that you yourself enjoy the tea you brew, not that you follow someone else’s rules about it.

top_leaf_tamaryokucha_teapot

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