Why Drink Japanese Tea?

Put the kettle on & enjoy an enlightening chat with the charming Charlie, a tea shop owner in London with real passion for Japanese culture. I got INSPIRED with so many TEA BREWING TIPS from talking with Charlie, and I think you will too!

A milliner by training, Charlie has established the tea shop Tencha with her husband Chris, a jeweller after they fell in love with the taste & aesthetics of all things tea in Japan on their honeymoon.

The couple study Urasenke Chado (tea ceremony) here in London and they love the link that tea has with all facets of Japanese culture, including seasonality, history, clothing, ceramics and art. Charlie want to celebrate tea & all the hard-working Japanese tea farmers!

In this episode we talk about:

  • How Charlie was weaned on tea from the bottle!
  • Tencha’s friendships with the hardworking tea growers in Japan
  • The caffeine hit in coffee ☕ vs. matcha
  • PROS & CONS of Yorkshire Tea bags!
  • How to prep your water for clear (NOT murky) tea
  • Hojicha (Charlie’s fave) for beginners

Vanessa: So I am absolutely delighted to welcome our guest, the highly knowledgeable tea fanatic Charlie from Tencha Tea Shop, which sells Japanese tea and teaware made by expert Japanese artisans.

She runs Tencha with her partner Chris, and they are proud to be members of the global Japanese Tea Association. And they study Urasenke tea ceremony here in London, so they sell online, and at Japanese markets in London.

Tencha really caught my eye on Instagram with their thoughtful approach and desire to spread their love for tea through transparency and traceability in their products. Tencha makes personal relationships with tea farms in Japan – and is especially keen to support and promote women working within the usually male dominated tea industry.

I am so pleased to be talking all things tea with you. I have made a matcha latte to enjoy while we talk. How about you Charlie? What tea are you drinking today?

Charlie: Hi, thank you for having me. I have a Japanese oolong, which is quite unusual actually. And one of the reasons why I love drinking this type of tea in the morning is because it is something that you can get lots of pots from.

So I can make a pot of it and then just keep topping it up throughout the morning while I’m sitting at my desk. Um, and it’s got long legs, as it were!

Vanessa: That’s interesting. I have been meaning to get into drinking some oolong. Um, what type is it? What’s the flavour like?

Charlie: So this one’s quite deep. It’s been kind of… it’s got a kind of chocolatey, slightly floral, but deep chocolatey kind of notes to it as well. It’s quite unusual to get oolong cha in Japan. This one’s from Kyoto, from Azuma Tea Garden, and they, we actually got about six different cultivars from them to taste and go through them all.

And they’re all really lovely and different, but we’ve chosen two different ones and they’re actually on their way now. I’ve just had a DHL thing saying it’s on its way. So, these, I’m drinking the sample that I’ve got, but it’ll be online very soon, which we’re really excited about. Cause it’s gonna be our first Japanese oolong.

Vanessa: Oolong! Right. Brilliant. Okay. And do you drink it cold ever?

Charlie: I do, yeah. It’s really nice. Cold brewed. All Japanese black tea… all Japanese teas, black, all green – hojicha, they can all be cold brewed. Yeah. Um, and it’s really refreshing to have that in the summer. A big jug of cold tea in the fridge at all times.

Vanessa: Lovely! I’m so impressed with your devotion to all things tea. And you’ve been drinking tea since you were tiny, haven’t you?

Charlie: Yes, people always ask me when I got into tea and I always say, I didn’t… I was just born with it. My parents gave me tea in a bottle, so… I literally have been drinking tea forever, since I was tiny. I was weaned on it, so… Yeah, I mean, I’ve got an Indian / Irish / English family, so all very tea-centric nationalities. So drinking tea and, and very lucky that all the households in my family drank tea and tea pots and loose leaf tea from a young age. So it’s kind of just part of the DNA.

Vanessa: Running through your veins.

Charlie: Yeah. Yeah.

Vanessa: I really love that about the point about the loose leaf tea and the teapot because it really does change it, doesn’t it? It really changes the experience into more of an occasion.

Charlie: Yeah. And I think for growing up it’s just, it’s… tea is really a way of, it’s like when someone comes home, put the kettle on, you know, it’s making a cup of tea for someone is like giving them a hug when they get home.

You know, it’s a way of caring for people in the same way that food is a way of showing your care and affection. It’s the same with making someone a cup of tea.

And I think having a proper tea pot and everyone sitting around together, you know, whether it’s good times or bad times, you make a pot of tea, and everyone sits around and drinks it together. It’s really a special thing.

Vanessa: I love that. That’s beautiful. And what brought you back to really getting into tea as an adult?

Charlie: I don’t think I ever really stopped drinking tea. I mean, growing up. Drinking, my family, uh, you know, multicultural. We did dim sum at least once a month in Chinatown growing up, every month, at least once a month.

So Jasmine tea, drinking Jasmine tea has always been, and Chinese tea in general. And I, growing up really loved Chinese tea. And I did drink a lot of Pu’er and a lot of, um, you know, Taiwanese teas as well.

But I think seriously thinking about tea was after Chris and I went to Japan on our honeymoon, and doing my first tea ceremony, being at my first tea ceremony and experiencing that for the first time was really amazing. It was so special.

And that really ignited my passion, being in Kyoto and seeing, you know, this beautiful lady in her kimono and the beautiful ceramics and the delicious sweets that go alongside it. Yeah, that really ignited that passion and made us when we came home, say, okay, tea as part of our business, we have to have tea.

Vanessa: Yes, yes… That’s great. Yeah. So, you’re studying Urasenke now, in London?

Charlie: Yes. I mean it’s, we’re still very new to it and it’s completely overwhelming. It’s wonderful, but it’s completely overwhelming. But one of the things I love about it is that it does link with everything…

I mean, I think tea links with Japanese culture, and so in such a lovely way it’s woven into the tapestry of all things, whether it’s seasonality, food, ceramics, textiles, all of these things, the motifs that change through seasons, the flavours that change, the types of tea that you drink and types of tea that are produced in the spring versus the autumn and… Kyoto – they make a Kyobancha in the winter as well, which is… I think they are the only people who do the winter teas.

So it’s really special how these things link through the whole of the culture and they… and as an artist myself, and as someone who studied textiles, it’s really lovely to see that link between textiles and tea. And the tearoom and all those things, it’s really special.

Vanessa: So, you’ve been, making connections with the producers and like we were saying, that you’ve been focusing on women led organizations and tea farms. Could you tell us about any, any specific case of them?

Charlie: I mean, I think the one I am connected to, I would say the most, because the one I speak to the most, would be Kirukuen, who are a Wazuka, Kyoto based tea garden. And it’s a mother and two daughters who run it. And they make really delicious tea, really lovely. Um, and it’s Aracha, which is the unrefined tea, so it’s not gone through the processing to remove the stems and the stalks and all those kind of things. Which I think is really lovely – because there’s a slight sweetness that’s added to the tea from having the kuki stems and veins and everything in there.

But it’s just really, it’s really nice to be able to connect. I think that Instagram is amazing for that. You can just chat on a daily basis to farmers, whether it’s… I mean whether it’s about tea, or about cats, or about anime, or whatever it is… you can talk to them about it and see what’s going on in their day-to-day lives.

And you know, what’s going on, on the farm, you know, the other day there was a post about… there was this pile of burning stuff and I was like, what is that? What are you doing? That doesn’t look like tea? And they were making their own pesticides – and natural pesticides that they were making from different things that they’d collected. And yeah, it was just… It was amazing. So it was really lovely to be able to connect and see those things happening as they’re happening.

Vanessa: It’s really, that’s so interesting ‘cuz sometimes people don’t know what would be most interesting to somebody who’s not them! You know, like, they’d be like, oh, that’s just the burning pile of homemade pesticide. But that’s actually amazing that they can make it that way.

Charlie: Yeah. And it’s… I think with all the farms, it’s really nice to be able to see the day-to-day running of things because it’s important to let people know how, how hard they work. They really… it’s tireless, it’s constant. And it’s gruelling, you know, especially in the mountainous areas where they’re going up and down these really steep slopes. It’s really hard work and yeah, there’s very few people doing it, you know, for the number of the people per hectares of land, it’s very small number of people really working on a lot of these farms.

And the language is really funny because sometimes in Japan, they’ll add ‘corporation’ on the end of the name or they’ll add these names to their farms that make it seem like to the Western eye you know, it’s a massive business, but there’s actually six people working there!

And I think that that’s really interesting. And that’s the connection that you can make when you are on Instagram or when you, when you talk to them directly, you can see, oh my God, there’s only six people.

And that’s something that the global Japanese Tea Association is really good at ‘cuz they do these videos where you can actually meet the farmer and you can see the, the work that goes on behind the scenes. And that’s really, it’s really important that people know why the tea is so expensive because it’s, yes, it’s hard work to make it and there’s not a lot of people doing it and you know, it’s gruelling.

Vanessa: That’s really interesting. So I’ve been thinking about cutting down on coffee. I usually only drink coffee in the morning, a small but very strong black coffee. I usually use my Aero press and, um, but I’m not so sure that it’s great for digestion and I usually have it on an empty stomach. Yeah. And, um, I was I was just wondering if you could if you could convince me? Can you tell me about how coffee and tea compare?

Charlie: I think coffee is great. Quick gratification of caffeine in your system, it’s quick release and you get, I mean, it tastes good. I like coffee, I do drink coffee. You know, it’s delicious, and you get your quick hit, but often you will get a crash if you drink too much of it, you’ll get the jitters, all those kind of things.

So, I just think that with tea, and especially matcha, you get… there’s as much caffeine in it, but what people don’t, sometimes people think, oh, it’s not as good because it doesn’t give me that kick of caffeine straight away. But actually it does give you a lot of caffeine, but it’s slow release. So it’s the same as eating a banana with sugar, you know, it’s like eating a banana and it slowly releases your sugar in your body.

It’s the same with matcha. It’s slowly releasing the caffeine, and actually I used to have people in the shop saying, oh, I can’t drink matcha after this time. And I was like, yeah! Because with the coffee you could drink it ‘cuz you’d get your caffeine and then it would be gone by the time you were going to bed. But matcha – because it’s slowly releasing, you are still getting that caffeine later in the day that you might have, might have been gone if it was coffee.

So yeah, there’s lots of health benefits for green tea and matcha and specifically because it’s shaded, there’s a lot of amino acids in it. L-theanine, which was discovered in Kyoto in the forties, and it’s what gives the matcha it’s umami taste. But it’s really good because it’s actually got a relaxing effect on the body.

So about 40 minutes after you drink a matcha, it releases alpha waves. Your brain releases alpha waves, which are great for the relaxing effect, calming… but it also increases creativity. And it enhances your ability to absorb information. So it’s really good if you’re studying or if you’re working, it helps you to focus and that’s why monks use it actually for meditation because it’s got that calming effect. It helps you focus, it helps you literally zen out basically. Yes.

Vanessa: Yes. You wouldn’t want to have a black coffee and then meditate for an hour. No.

Charlie: And it’s actually like a natural antidepressant alpha waves. Yeah. So it’s really, it’s a really good thing for you as well as having high levels of vitamin C, and Chlorophyl, and all these other things in it as well that are really good for you.

Vanessa: Amazing. I think I might be convinced ‘cuz… you don’t put two and two together when you get used to something you, you know… like my dad was a huge coffee drinker and my mom drinks tea, but she actually… about, I don’t know, 10 or 20 years ago, she was having like palpitations, and they didn’t know why and they, you know, they were monitoring. And then she said that she had a coupon for decaf tea, so she bought some and the palpitations like magically disappeared. And ‘cuz she was drinking eight to 10 cups of Yorkshire tea!

Charlie: Oh yeah. A day! Very strong tea.

Vanessa: Don’t realize tea… She had no idea.

Charlie: Of course. No, people don’t realize that by weight, I think tea has more, caffeine in it than coffee, but it’s just that we don’t drink as much of it. When, you know, you’re making a coffee, you drink, the weight of it is a lot more. In general, you’ve got more caffeine going into it, but actually the plant itself contains… A tea actually contains more caffeine in it. So when you are drinking, especially strong Yorkshire tea, which is very strong.

That’s what my family will drink is the ‘Yorkshire Tea’ bag.

Vanessa: That brings me onto the Asian brewing technique and the way you were saying at the beginning, that you’re going to carry that pot on through the day with several brews. And so I think that’s something that really caught my interest because by nature it’s like a mini tea ritual – and it would get around that risk of having a fresh Yorkshire Tea bag every time you want a cup of tea!

Charlie: Right. So it’s nice because I think it’s not that the English way, or the Western way of making it is wrong, it’s just a very different type of brewing that we do. We, you know, we have a pot and it sits there, and it stews, basically.

But we’re actually… you know, when you think about Japanese tea, everyone thinks it’s expensive – and it is expensive – but you might have that, you know, between three and five grams of tea in your very small pot, but you can infuse that over and over again and you are not letting the water sit in it and stew. It’ll say on the tea: 30 seconds, or a minute, or four minutes, however long it says, but you will brew it for that amount of time and then you pour all the water out.

So then, those leaves are good to keep using. And you don’t even have to use them straight away. I sometimes… quite often Chris will have a black tea in the morning, and I like hojicha, and then I’ll finish, I’ll have his black tea leaves in the afternoon. I’ll do a second infusion of that pot later on in the day. So you don’t even need to use them. You know, you don’t have to sit there and ‘get your money’s worth’ right in one sitting. You can leave them and then come back to them later.

I think the other thing that we don’t think about in Western brewing is the quality of the water…we don’t think about the temperature of the water, the volume of water, all of those things.

It’s not really in our psyche to think about those things. But actually 90, over 99% of your cup of tea is your water. So in London particularly, we’ve got horrible water. We’ve got horrible lime scale, chlorinated water. Yorkshire’s actually really good up north – for good water, soft water. It’s great to make tea, but down here we really should be filtering it because when you make a cup of tea with really hard water, it’s gonna be very different tasting to once it’s filtered and you’ve taken out some of that impurity within it.

Vanessa: Why is that? I saw Yorkshire tea actually have a hard water tea option for London. Why is that? Is it the flavour?

Charlie: It’s partly to do with the flavour. Yeah, it’s, I mean it is a lot. Yeah. The flavour is very, it brings out astringency in tea when you’ve got very hard water. And actually if you make a cup of tea side by side, one that’s with soft water versus hard water, with soft water tea, you’ll be able to see through it. It’ll be like tinted water.

With a cup of tea that’s often made with hard water, it’ll be cloudy. And you’ll actually see that just in that visual of the two types. Yeah it’s kind of, it’s crazy to see it just, you know, out in front of you like that.

But yeah, having, making, taking the time to filter your water before you boil it, especially if you’ve got, I mean I don’t do it all the time, at all.

But when I’ve got a nice green tea, especially, I do make sure that I filter it first because it’ll just taste so much better. Once you’ve done that.

Vanessa: That’s great. Yeah. Just thinking about all the things to really enjoy it. I got a kettle that you can choose the temperature it boils to, and that’s been, um, a revelation.

Charlie: Ooo – with those, I would always say, make sure you boil the water and let it cool down to the temperature because you get rid of the, any impurities that are in the water by boiling it. Boiling it. And also it can taste a bit funky if you just, you know, if it’s got a 70 degrees on it and you just take it to 70 degrees, it will quite often taste a bit weird.

Vanessa: Oh, that’s such a good tip.

Charlie: So, yeah. And I mean those are brilliant cause I’ve got one of those and I just open, once it’s boiled, I open the lid and you walk away for five minutes and then you just press the button, it tells you what temperature it is. Yes. So that’s really helpful.

Vanessa: That’s great. My husband always boils a massive kettle of water in the morning because he’s from Peru and you have to boil all water there, so they’re always boiling water. Like whenever you have a chance, boil some water so that you’ve got some on hand and so that’s actually really handy for me. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but that’s great.

Charlie: Yeah. I mean, and yeah, that temperature thing, if you don’t have one of those kettles, something that you can do is, and what they do traditionally is: every time you move the hot water from one vessel to another, you lose about 10 degrees.

So if you pour your boiling water into your pot, before it’s got leaves in, and then you pour that water into your cup. and then you put your leaves in. Not only will that help start opening up your tea leaves in the nice warm pot, but it will have already reduced the temperature, and then it’s gone into the cups, which has reduced it again. And then when you pour it back in…

Vanessa: Warming your cup! Brilliant.

Charlie: Yeah. So you warmed your cup. And you’re also reducing your temperature. So if you, if you want it to be 70 degrees, if you move it the water three times, you will have dropped 30 degrees. So that’s a good way of doing it if you don’t have one of these fancy kettles.

Vanessa: That is such a great tip. I love it! A revelation!

Okay. Um, let me… so we’re coming round to wrapping up, but I’ve got several questions more and I’d like to ask you: what’s one Japanese kitchen item that you couldn’t do without?

Charlie: I feel like I should say something to do with tea, but I’m not gonna say that. I’m gonna say my knives… because I cook all the time. I’m always cooking and my knives are my pride and joy.

Vanessa: Could you tell us anything about them?

Charlie: Well, I have a few, one of them… one of my favourite ones, I actually got in a kitchen market in Osaka. One of my friends who lives there, she took me to buy knives ‘cuz I wanted a really nice knife, a vegetable knife, and it’s a nice square, chunky one.

But my pride and joy is a Masamune kitchen knife, which is, he’s the 24th generation Masamune Swordsmith: Tsunahiro Yamamura, and he now makes, as well as making Katana, he now makes kitchen knives as well.

Vanessa: Well they’re more handy!

Charlie: He can make a lot more of them! Twenty years to make a sword, so… (laughs). But yeah, I have a kitchen knife from him and that what we’ve got when we were on our honeymoon and that’s my kind of pride and joy in the kitchen.

So that’s definitely something that I… the only problem with it is because it is Tamahagane steel, you have to oil it after every use. So it’s not quite as simple as just whacking out the normal one that you…

Vanessa: You’ve got to show it some respect.

Charlie: Yeah, you do. But it’s really stunning. That’s my pride and joy for the kitchen.

Vanessa: Amazing. Japanese knives are so popular everywhere! I couldn’t believe how many Japanese knife shops there are now we’ve got…So it’s wonderful. Yes.

Charlie: Being able to get them sharpened in London as well is really helpful. Which was before. I mean, Chris is really good at doing it, so I don’t have to um, do that luckily. But, yeah, it’s good that there are places to do it.

Vanessa: Good! We had a Japanese housemate, and I remember we walked into the kitchen and he was like, it’s a bit weird when you walk in the kitchen and your, your housemate is sharpening their knife, isn’t it? But it’s made me laugh. Right. And let me ask you what is your favourite Japanese word phrase or saying?

Charlie: It has to be: ‘kuchisabishii! The lonely mouth – sums me up I think as a person! Always eating, forever hungry, and it’s my coping me mechanism is chewing I think. So it, whether I’m hungry or not, that is the, um, that is me definitely..

Vanessa: So, ‘kuchi’ ‘sabishii’, literally means ‘lonely mouth’.

Charlie: Yeah. I mean it’s funny whenever anyone, any of my friends or family, they see it quite often I’ll get messages being like, have you seen this Japanese word? It’s you!

Vanessa: That is such a great word. And good for a foodie, such as yourself. And then I’d just like, for kind of a ‘quick win’ for people who aren’t sure where to start with Japanese tea, if there was just one tea, an ‘all rounder’ that, that beginners could bring into their daily life, what would you recommend?

Charlie: I think I would go for a hojicha. One of the reasons is that it’s fairly forgiving in terms of your temperatures, that we were talking about earlier. The water temperatures. You can really ruin a green tea if you don’t have it at the right temperature, but hojicha, you can throw it in boiling water.

And also – with the grams and everything, it’s fairly forgiving. You can brew it to the strength that you like… and it’s also just really lovely ‘cuz you just have such a wide variety of them; from really light sweet kuki hojicha with the stems that kind of have a nice hay, grassy flavour, to deep chocolatey tobacco, roasted ones that are really nice for the coffee drinkers who want something, you know, deeper to get them through. That’s a really nice one.

Vanessa: That sounds amazing. I think I want one of each for sure. Yeah.

Charlie: I actually have just, I’m in the process of making a set of hojicha sample set because I think it’s a really, it’s not a tea that we drink here. I mean it’s very, it’s completely normal in Japan. It’s an everyday tea – it’s not special. But here it’s not something that people really drink that much. It’s quite niche. Um, everyone knows green tea, but hojicha’s not really as well known. So I think, I’m starting to do a gift set where you can get a little bit of a range so people can try it, um, and see the different types in there, and get to know those flavours that are, ‘cuz they are so wide and varying.

Vanessa: Oh, wonderful. Wonderful. I’ll look forward to getting one of those. Um, yeah, definitely. Tea is on the Christmas list, for sure. So where can we find out more about Tencha?

Charlie: I think the best way of keeping in contact with us is through Instagram because anything that we are doing, any markets or anything like that will be up on there. So it’s at tencha.ldn. And then also our website, which is tencha.co.uk

Vanessa: TENCHA. Brilliant. Well, thank you so much. That was so, so interesting.

Charlie: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been really lovely.

Vanessa: I feel really inspired to actually make that change instead of just keeping on with the same habits, which are maybe just not helping me enjoy my daily life as much as I could. So thank you so much Charlie!

Charlie: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.

Get to know Charlie & her tea better:

Thank you so much for listening!

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