Bancha Goishicha is a dark or post-fermented tea from Japan. This particular tea originates from Otoyo town, which lies in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku island, and was produced in February 2015.
If the world of tea was represented in medieval map format, then the cartographer would doubtless note that as you approach this tea you were in danger of falling off the edge of the known world, and that quite possibly here be dragons.
Before even thinking about buying this tea you must be aware that you are about to venture off the beaten track, take the road less travelled, ski off-piste.
The second you sniff the dry leaf it will become abundantly clear that you ain’t in Kansas no more, Dorothy. The pungent aroma reminded me of a pan-Asian foodstore I used to visit regularly in Gothenburg.
This was another discovery I made over at the rather excellent What-cha, as part of my on-going quest to sample as many as possible of the dark teas that can be found outside Yunnan’s borders.
Alistair’s enticing description made a sale a mere formality – “A truly unique tea that is rarely found within Japan, let alone outside. It possesses an incredible aroma and an equally unusual and lingering sour taste with elements of lemon, mushroom and soya sauce. The tea has an equally unique method of processing to go match its unique taste; it is double fermented with bancha leaves steamed, stacked, mat flattened, left to ferment on the ground and finally stacked within a barrel to undergo a second fermentation.”
That second fermentation process essentially pickles the tea, resulting in the characteristic sourness.
Initially I tried brewing the tea gong-fu style, using one whole square piece (about 5 grams) to a 150 ml gaiwan, in other words just as you would go about steeping a typical shou Pu-erh.
This was not a good idea.
The sourness was totally overwhelming, as was the soy / mushroom effect. It was like attempting to drink a whole cup full of warm dip sauce, and not terribly pleasant at all. After struggling through 2 cups, I was reminded of Chef Anthony Bourdain’s experience of eating a formal breakfast at a traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan.
Bourdain, a genuine lover of Japanese cuisine, especially old-school Edo-style sushi, found everything on offer unpalatable, which clearly baffled him. Similarly, I considered it somewhat troubling that I found myself in the position of not liking a Japanese tea.
I was clearly doing something very wrong, so Googled around a bit, and read that the general consensus seems to be that this tea needs to be steeped more inline with Western style, and that the resultant brew should be a lightish yellow colour, rather than the darker one my initial attempt produced.
I also made a note of the fact that according to most reviewers the tea really needs to cool down to something just above room temperature before being sipped, with this really helping to subdue the sourness.
So, my second attempt at brewing this tea used half a piece, (a shade over 2 grams) boiling water, and my trusty Ikea 400 ml Upphetta French press. The first infusion was for 3 minutes.
The difference was quite astonishing.
Firstly, the colour of the finished liquor was more or less where it should have been, which was an encouraging sign.
The sourness that had been so overpowering earlier was now a refreshing lemony flavour, with what seemed to be a honey-like sweetness sat quietly behind it. The mushroom and soy flavour was now a wonderful umami palate tickler, and the overall effect made for a deliciously moreish beverage, utterly unlike any other tea I had ever tasted.
The taste reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but during the third or fourth cup I remembered! The tea was pressing memory buttons linked to those far off days of the mid 90s, when I drank the occasional Lambic, the famously sour beer from the area around Brussels.
I coaxed a further 2 infusions out of the leaves giving three overall, the second one at 4 minutes, and the third and final one at 5 minutes duration.
In conclusion, then – this tea’s rarity (and subsequent price) as well as its, well, difference from the tea norm means that this tea is only ever going to appeal to a very small niche market. If, however, you should decide to take the plunge, and should you be lucky enough to get your hands on some (What-cha were out of stock at the time of writing), you’ll be in for one of the tea world’s genuinely memorable experiences…