Thick tea: koicha
It is thick tea, koicha, [濃茶] that is “tea proper”. Proper thick tea is mid-way between a liquid and a paste. It can only be blended [練(ね)る], using a bamboo whisk cut into tines that are fewer, and consequently thicker and stronger. Even for a single guest’s serving, the volume of powder required is such that, upon contact with that powder, the temperature of heated water immediately drops. The time it takes to truly blend powder and hot water always proves substantial. And therefore the water initially added to the thick tea tea-powder must be as hot as possible. To this end, in the praxis of this School (The Enshū school) the lid of the cauldron is during the cooler months returned to the body [中蓋; nakabuta], once hot water for initially cleansing the whisk and the bowl has been taken.
The climax of a tea occasion
It is serving/receiving thick tea that constitutes the heart of the hospitable and also meditative praxis that is called cha-no-yu [茶之湯]. The service of thick tea is the ultimate point to holding an intimate Tea occasion [茶事; chaji]. For which the contemporary format appears to have become established in the early eighteenth century.
The first half of such an occasion is constituted by adding charcoal to the hearth or brazier. This is followed by the serving of a large Tea-style banquet [会席; kaiseki] or a small ‘something little with which to line the stomach’ [点心; tenshin]. (Basically a light lunch/super – preferably, but not necessarily, vegetarian meal.) And one, if large, accompanied by rice-wine [酒; sake]; of which during the warmer months the order is reversed. So that the guests may enjoy their meal in circumstances as cool as possible. The guests then temporarily leave the Tea-chamber [中立; nakadachi], retiring to the surrounding “dewy tract [路地; roji]”, i.e. Tea-garden (not to be confused with a tea-plantation [茶園; chaen]), and its lavatory [雪隠; setchin], there to relieve themselves and stretch their legs.
During this time, the host re-cleanses the Tea-chamber. He replaces the hanging scroll with an arrangement of wild flowers and leaves, grouped within a seasonally-apt receptacle. He also sets out on display those vital utensils necessary to the service that he is about to offer. This offering is the climax of his hospitality. Everything preceding it has been designed to lead, and from which everything that follows it more lightly winds down. And that climax is, always, a service of one or more brands of koicha thick tea.
The kind of matcha used for koicha
The brand of tea employed for the preparation of a bowlful of thick tea is always of the highest quality. It uses tea powder for which the tealeaves have been shaded during a period of approximately 20 days. This period is calculated from the moment the first new buds have started to sprout. Shading safeguards the sweetness in the leaf, and limits the bitterness it can produce. The tea leaf is then harvested by skilled hand-pickers. They assure that the leaf obtained only consists of the freshest buds and three to four of the softest leaves growing on the same twig. These practices are what preserve the quality of the final product.
Upon harvest, the obtained leaves are evenly steamed. Steaming is a process that obstructs further oxidation of the leaf, and conserves its green color and freshness. It is then dried, and sorted in preparation for the grounding stage. The tea leaf – called tencha – is ground with a massive granite stone mortar [石臼; ishi-usu] to mill the tea into that fine tea powder known as matcha [抹茶]. Regardless of whether the mortar is manually rotated or mechanically automated, the amount of tea powder that can be gathered in one single hour is a merely forty grams.
Best quality tea leaf
This allows us to understand that the powder intended for thick tea is made from the uppermost, and thus more juvenile and smaller, sweeter leaves on a round-clipped tea-bush. Producing it is therefore more labor-intensive, and inevitably this raises its price. Thus, the production, careful selection, and acquisition of thick tea powder, and then the process of successfully combining a fit portion of this with hot water of a proper temperature are, each of them, matters to which a great deal of resources and human endeavour have been devoted. On the contrary, should we prepare the tea with a lesser quality tea powder, its taste will be bitter and unpleasant to its drinker.
A bowl of thick tea
A single bowl of koicha thick tea is always prepared to include a sufficiency of tea for as many guests present. Commonly up to 5 or 7 person’s worth of tea per bowl. When there are more guests, additional bowlfuls have to be prepared, and carried in from the preparation room. The bowl containing the tea is passed on and shared between the guests [連服; renpuku], starting with the chief guest [正客; shōkyaku]; finishing with the tail guest [詰客; tsumekyaku].
Thin tea: usucha
Koicha is, however, rarely refreshing: properly made, it is too thick to be that. And therefore it later became, and has remained, a custom for the host to finally provide the fire beneath his cauldron with a second service of charcoal. Once the water in the cauldron has again reached a proper temperature, he will at last serve his guests that light and refreshing, because diluted, version of thick tea. You can produce thin tea by briskly beating a far smaller portion of more bitter tea powder evenly into a relatively larger quantity of hot water. This diluted version of thick tea is known as thin tea [薄茶; usucha], which is briefly and speedily whipped [点てる; tateru] with a bamboo whisk. The whisk is composed of a double corona of tines both fine enough and numerous enough to be able to cut air into a light suspension of tea-powder within hot water.
A light refreshment
And yet all of this is no more than a coda. Even if one that has great social utility, since lively conversation now becomes acceptable. And the chief guest may well have been invited by her host to choose her companion guests [連客; renkyaku] from among acquaintance hitherto unknown to the host himself. At this time it is acceptable to now introduce them to him. And they can thenceforth interact with their host directly.
All of this notwithstanding, should a magazine – whether or not published in Japan – decide to run a major feature on “the” [misnamed] “Japanese tea-ceremony”, usually it will somewhere feature a large photo of a rustic-style bowl containing a modest portion of liquid covered in an appetising-looking layer of fine, pale-grass-green foam – to wit, thin tea. And yet using such is equivalent to choosing to encapsulate – say – the message of an article concerning the creation of yoghurt, and also its virtues, merely in an image of a glass of lassi.
Shop for koicha and usucha at The Tea Crane: Click here to visit The Tea Crane’s exclusive organic matcha selection.