Sunday, November 25, 2007

Review: Takaokaya's Genmai-cha

The pursuit of a palatable bagged tea continued in a dogged race for something, anything better than Stash's Decaf Green Tea. My search brought me to Pacific Mercantile, a local Japanese market of good repute and standing. They're not so gourmet as to offer loose leaf teas, but they do offer bagged green teas imported from Japan. The Japanese may settle for bagged teas, but my impression is that they refuse to settle for bad tea. If there is an acceptable bagged tea out there, the Japanese will know about it, and by proxy, the Japanese market.

Weaving between aisles of pocky, yogurt milk drinks and miso pastes I finally emerge at a long shelf row refulgent with green cubes and green leaves. It is a hedge of green tea, with boxes instead of shrubs. All the same, it is tea and I am eager to try it. The store's tea offerings span the entire quality spectrum, with high quality matcha in nitro-cans all the way down to chintzy little boxes of tea dust. This is where I decided to start - the three flavors of Takaokaya's bagged teas, costing all of $1.89 each and serving up more than a few portions of tea. No doubt this was the blue collar man's tea - the serf's caffeine fix for the day and the drink of choice for fatigued sarariman. Students too. I heard it's affordable clarion call and skipped out the store with a bagful of tea and a well weighted wallet.

The consequence of purchasing absurdly cheap tea, even though it was imported from across the Pacific, dawned on me only as I drove away. If we abide by the tenuous law of cost to quality, then this tea was bound to be a paper bag full of wretched fear and loathing. In reality, I was surprised to find a perfectly acceptable, though boring, tea. By mere virtue of being drinkable I believe the Takaokaya deserves a hearty round of praise.

The company doesn't spend much time or detail on any one of it's bagged green teas. They list a few awards, including one from the incredibly corrupt Ministry of Agriculture (a dubious honor indeed) but I'm sure it was given in good faith. As such, there are no additional details to dish out on their Genmai-cha save that it was made with all the love that it's consanguinous siblings, the Houji-cha and the Sencha, enjoyed in their own manufacture, and that the Japanese MoA apparently approves of their teas.

The tea, resting precariously on the woodwork.

Here are the stats. 12 oz. of hot water, cooled for 2 minutes post-boil. 2 teabags to accommodate the double serving of water. Bags steeped for 1.5 minutes. Box recommends 1-2 minutes. I took the median.

Liquor & Appearance: Saving one bag for scientific autopsy (very affordable) we find a generous serving of dust and fannings. Imagine a regular loose-leaf genmaicha. Green tea, brown rice, the whole medley. Now blend it really, really well. Use a blender, a mixer, a stick blender, even a mallet will do. Mash, grind and cut until the particles are a much tinier version of their original selves. Thee you have it - the contents of the Genmai-cha tea bag. After enjoying the insouciant look of regular Genmai with the full sized bits of popcorn and popped brown rice, I found these miniature versions sort of funny. It was a bit like getting roughed up in a storm and dropped into a colorful village of midgets and Lollipop Guilds and whatnot, where everything and everyone is shorter and bedizened in tawdy frills in a total and flagrant disregard for modern political correctness. Everything is just suddenly smaller, except instead of looking cute and portable, the Takaokaya Genmai-cha just looks stepped on. Still, I can make out individual bits of brown rice and tea leaf, suggesting these components were there in a whole form at least some time in the process. Good. I acknowledge the necessity of miniaturization for tea bags, which means the suffering the tea underwent was more a martydom then a tragedy.

After a one and a half minute brew the liquor takes on a moderately cloudy, light green and light yellow haze. It is bright and, in a certain light, something of an eyesore. I could have been convinced as a child that this was the stuff they filled glo-sticks with. The good news is ravers can enjoy a round of warehouse techno and Takaokaya genmai-cha, and when they've slaked their thirst they've got a cup full of sloshing incandescence to awe the crowd with.

Aroma: Despite being a vivaciously blinding tea to the eye, the aroma is rich, heavy and even a little sullen. In true genmai-cha fashion, the brown tea takes the aromatic lead. It is strong, but not commanding, similar to the unique smell of Rice Krispies. I mean, they're both popped brown rice. We can delude ourselves and believe that when the Japanese pop their brown rice they do it better with some kind of Zen mastery and a side of Shinto magic. I doubt it, but while the methods may differ between a Japanese tea master and a metal behemoth on the Kellogg's factory floor, I highly doubt anyone has expended extra effort in popping brown rice in a fancy fashion when it's destined for a good boot stomping and a paper bag. In other words, it is a very normal aroma. Also note that the astringent, grassy qualities of green tea are entirely absent. The brown rice has easily conquered the comport fragrance of tea. This is not immediately harmful to the aroma, but it does make it needlessly simple.

True to form?

Flavor: The price is a bit too good to be true. While the tea's appearance is, to use an understatement, dazzling, and the aroma thickly layered, the taste is insufficient to really make this is a solid tea. Especially compared to an orthodox, loose leaf genmai-cha, the Takaokaya offering is almost flavorless, and at the least enervated and weak. It retains the characteristic genmai-touch - that dwarfy ruddiness and earthiness that would fit well in a Hobbit's den, but it is weaker than it needs to be to be fully enjoyed. It lacks strength, pungency and subtlety. I can pardon the subtlety for bagged tea, but I'd at least like the flavor to be bold enough to be engaging.

Despite these criticisms, it is leagues superior to Stash's alternative and at a fraction of the price. If I'm looking for a solid bagged green tea, at this point in time, I'd be more than willing to buy another box of this tea.


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