The Matcha Journey; Part 8: Drying
The final part of tea’s preliminary processing is just as important as the first two because it’s what gives your morning bowl of matcha that aroma. Read part 1 of this series here or jump right in the process of steaming leaves.
The last stop in the preliminary process of preparing tea leaves is drying. An expert’s touch is required in the tea making process and that still applies during the drying process because it determines the aroma and flavor of the leaves, two of the qualities that determine superior tea from just good ones.
And finally, tencha
Exiting from the cooling chambers, they slide into a conveyor belt that brings them to a 10m long brick oven. Properly spacing out the leaves on the conveyor belt is crucial to the even drying of the leaf. Because temperatures inside the oven are above boiling point of 100°C, moisture remaining on the surface of the leaf can cause it burn as it can shoot up to 150°C.
The oven’s proper name is ‘Tencha-ro’ and was invented in 1924 by Horii Chojiro, then the successor of the Horii Shichimeien brand of tea in Uji prefecture. His invention was revolutionary to that day’s tea industry being the first machine that allowed for even, balanced and thorough drying, it was perfect. Its lower part is made of brick where the burners are. Layers of conveyors run through the oven in varying heights which the temperatures correspond to. Its contribution to tea production is massive and as proven by its use until modern times, significantly contributed to elevating the quality in the tea it has produced. In addition, for the meticulous and hands-on approach employed in the process of transforming tea leaves into commercial tea, it has been the only machine that has replaced hand processing.
The tencha-ro traditionally had four layers of conveyor belts, but modern incarnations of it only have three, and these are identified by the order in which they come in. The bottom-most layer where the tea leaves get scattered after rolling in from cooling is the closest to the source of heat located on the oven’s surface. It’s the hottest out of the layers. At a temperature of about 150°C, the leaves rolls in for 2-3 minutes for an initial rough drying session. The leaves are blown up to the top-most for another drying at 100°C for 8-10 minutes, then they freefall into the middle layer then goes to the other direction the last stretch of drying for 9-10 minutes. A complete drying process can take approximately 20-30 minutes.
At this point, the leaves can now be officially called ‘Aracha’. As mentioned in the steaming section of this series (insert link to matcha-34), the end of the preliminary processing yields the crude tea called aracha. While it can be drank, the flavor is grassy and can still be improved. Aracha is sent to a cutting machine called ‘Toh-mi’ which utilizes wind to separate the stems, stalks and twigs from the lighter blades. Nothing goes to waste, as the separated twigs are collected for ‘Kukicha’, and the blades are rounded up in sacks as ‘Tencha’.
The next time tencha is processed, it finally becomes matcha.
It’s the final stop of our journey. Have you subscribed to Matcha Organics Club yet?