Bancha (literally translated as “ordinary tea”) is the redheaded stepchild of the Japanese green tea family. Whereas the topmost tea leaves are reserved for higher grade sencha, gyokuro and matcha, the older, courser leaves are reserved for lesser brews. They typically lack the flavorful kick of the top-tier leaves or the caffeine level.
Left with no other option, the Japanese do what comes naturally with these late-harvest, leafy underachievers. They f**k around with them. Sometimes, the results are magical – as demonstrated with houjicha, a charcoal-roasted tea. Other times…*sigh*…abominations like genmaicha – tea leaves blended with rice – occur.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Genmaicha has plenty of fans out there, and that’s all well and good. We’re allowed to like terrible things. I’ve been known to chuckle at an Adam Sandler movie or two, for instance.
But I digress.
One of my favorite f**ckarounds the Japanese devised seems like it was lifted from the Chinese/Taiwanese handbook. It was as if there was a meeting that went something like this:
Guy 1: “So…what should we do with all these autumn harvest bancha leaves?”
Guy 2: “I dunno…let’s age ‘em.”
Guy 1: “No, too long of a wait…and the Taiwanese already do that.”
Guy 2: “Uh…we could ferment it?”
Guy 1: “Don’t the Chinese already do that?”
Guy 2: “Yeah, so?”
Guy 1: “Fair point.”
Which brings me to Goishicha.
Goishicha originates from a town called Otoyo in the mountains of Kochi Prefecture. It is so named because of the tea’s compressed appearance – resembling playing pieces for the game, Go. The process involved in making it is rather labor intensive. Bancha leaves are steamed, stacked on the ground, flattened by a mat, left to ferment, then stacked into a barrel, and left to ferment a second time.
For awhile, this was considered the only post-fermented tea coming out of Japan. A tea so rare that at one time there was only one known producer of the stuff. That has changed in recent years due to a rise in Japanese tea experimentation. With the proliferation of other Japanese heicha (“dark tea”) surfacing, it was only a matter of time before the Goishicha practice resurfaced.
I first ran into mentions of Goishicha while researching another fermented bancha for an article – Awabancha. That eventually led me to getting in contact with Yunomi.us about acquiring some for a write-up. Around the same time, I also sampled two other Japanese dark teas through Yunomi – Batabatacha and Mimasaka Bancha, respectively. I covered both on my oft-overlooked Tumblr page. After those taste-tests, I could safely say I had a palate for “dark bancha”. All that remained to be seen was if I took a liking to the granddaddy of them all.
This was one of the most unique dark teas or banchas I’d ever come across. In appearance, the leaves were compressed like a Chinese heicha, but more complete. It was like the makers just took the unbroken leave, without bothering to roll or cut them, and just pressed ‘em – waiting for fermentation. The aroma they gave off was also rather bizarre. I’ve encountered teas with kelp-like characteristics, but this was straight saltine seaweed snacks on smell. It took a whole lot of composure to not bite into the sliver.
Yunomi.us recommended three different forms of brewing, but the basic gist was the same for each method. Boil water, put a piece in per cup size, wait for four-to-five minutes. I went with the scaled down version for a steeper cup’s worth of testing.
The liquor brewed bronze with an aroma that reminded me of a rice-cultured Japanese pu-erh variant from yesterbrews. On taste, just…whoah. Sooooo much going on. The flavor started with a soy-sauce-tart and salty introduction, then shifted to something akin to prunes or raisins, and finished with a lingering, earthy mouthfeel. Basically, like a pu-erh that the Japanese would concoct. It may sound rather primal, but a part of me compared it to a rum barrel-aged beer I had long ago.
If this is what bancha could become after embracing its dark side, then consider me a steeping Sith Lord.