Awa bancha is a pickled tea from areas of southern Japan where the local climate favors the development of lactic acid bacteria. It is associated in particular with the towns of Kamikatsu and Naka in Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku (the smallest of Japan’s four main islands), where its production largely remains a family tradition. The history of awa bancha is unclear, but it may have originated with the Buddhist monk Kukai (774-835), one of the very first people to introduce tea to Japan from China.
Awa bancha is named for the old province of Awa, which corresponds to modern-day Tokushima Prefecture. Bancha means “late tea,” and refers to tea harvested in the summer or autumn. By this time the leaves are larger and tougher, so bancha has a coarser texture than spring tea, which is considered to be of higher quality. Awa bancha is typically harvested in July. The leaves are boiled to prevent oxidation, and then rolled, kneaded, or mashed, either with a machine or with traditional implements—some producers still use a giant wooden mortar and pestle, and others use a rectangular wooden trough in which the boiled leaves are mashed under a flat board that has a set of handles on either end so that two people can operate it together. Next, the leaves are packed tightly into barrels or large plastic tubs for pickling. Some producers seal the vessels with banana leaves weighed down with a large stone. Anaerobic fermentation takes place over a period of 10 days to 3 weeks, and is driven primarily by lactic acid bacteria (awa bancha has been shown to contain up to 30 different kinds of lactobacilli). Finally, the tea is dried in the sun for a day.
Fermented teas are generally appreciated for their mild taste and reduced bitterness and astringency, as well as their antioxidant activity and other health benefits. While all awa bancha has an underlying acidity, the specific makeup of microorganisms involved in the fermentation differs from place to place and producer to producer, leading to distinct variations in the final product—flavors range from sour to sweet, and smoky to mushroomy.
Although awa bancha is popular and well known in its area of origin, it is produced only in limited quantities and in just a few places, and therefore is not widely available. As one of Japan’s few fermented teas, and given its health benefits and diverse flavors, as well as the traditional techniques associated with its production, awa bancha deserves recognition and protection.