Back in the old days, tea used to be picked and processed by hand. Through modernization this practice got replaced by machinery. To preserve the tradition, however, each tea producing region in Japan has Tea Hand-Rolling Preservation Societies. And every spring they compete to determine who can produce the best Japanese tea by hand.
Tea rolling by hand is a long and tough exercise, that takes around 5h of constant handling of tea leaves. Only really experiences tea hand-rollers can produce truly thin and long tea needles.
The processing starts with either steaming fresh tea leaves or, if no fresh tea leaves are available yet, defrosting already steamed tea leaves. At first the tea leaves area handled lightly, to help dry the surface moisture. As the surface of the tea leaves gets drier, more pressure is applied during rolling to push the inner moisture outwards and dry it again. The key during these steps to is to be strong, but gentle – to only break the cell walls in side tea leaves and release inner moisture, without breaking the tea leaves themselves.
When lots of pressure is applied tea leaves tangle together and take the shape of a ball. The tangled tea leaves need to be separated into individual tea leaves before they can be rolled further. The final stage of rolling is shaping the tea leaves into straight tea needles. At last the tea leaves are left on a heated rolling table – hoiro, for about an hour to dry. The finished tea is then evaluated by the judges who decide the winner.
This year in Kyoto Tea Hand-Rolling Competition was held on 7th March. 11 teams took part representing various regions of Kyoto: Uji, Ujitawara, Kyotanabe, Wazuka and Minami Yamashiro Mura. After 5h of rolling, 1h of drying and 1h of evaluation by the judges, a team from Wazuka was announced as the winner of this year.