Zairai is a Japanese tea term that I heard occasionally when I first got into tea. It took a few years for me to learn what it means. As I’m sure you know all tea comes from the same plant. Simply put,
This allows for a lot more genetic variation so there are differences in leaf color, shape, harvest times, and flavor from plant to plant. These trees are not exactly wild like those you might find in Yunnan province but they are feral, meaning that humans have not interfered with their growth for some time. They are genetically close to the plants imported from China in the 14th century.
A Dying Breed
Modern tea farming practices generally use cloning to cultivate specific varieties in order to ensure that the plants in a particular section will have similar traits. Cultivars are selected for their resistance to frost, pests, and other environmental threats. There are approximately 200 different cultivars registered in Japan. Zairai is unpopular with farmers because of the unpredictability it brings. The budding time will be different even for plants that are right next to each other, making it more difficult to harvest by machine.
The yield is also significantly lower than Yabukita and other cultivated varieties. Yabukita accounts for 75% of all of the tea produced today. Zairai makes up just 2%. For that reason, it can be quite hard to find even within Japan. Although I’ve written about several hundred Japanese teas over the years I have never had the opportunity to try one. That is something I need to change soon!
Japanese Tea Cultivars – My Japanese Green Tea
About the Zairai Tea Cultivar – My Japanese Green Tea
Tea Cultivars – Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms
I asked Osca Brekell specifically about Zairai but, despite his undoubted knowledge of Japanese teas he seemed unable to comprehend the problem.
Zairai is ‘old Japan’ and is a mixture of seed grown tea bushes so is a genetic mixture of sinensis varieties. Indeed, they cannot be called ‘varieties’ because they are just a genetic mixture of the plant. They can best be described as a ‘landrace’ the term Oscar was unable to grasp. A landrace is similar to a European human that is the same white, caucasian, but depending on where the person comes from they are a little different e’g A Swedish blond haired person compared with a Scottish red haired person – A generality and only an example to illustrate the term landrace. Incidentally, orientals look a little different whether from Japan or China and within China there is considerable landrace differences in appearance.
Zairai must therefore be a landrace tea which would be different from each plantation, terroir notwithstanding. In picking Zairai, the mixed bushes display different characteristics within the plantation so the tea manager selects plants for picking by labeling up the bushes. They are chosen for early picking because within the garden some bushes mature earlier, of by a reddish leaves, tall bushes etc. Indeed the bushes are selected on similar criteria so although there is landrace variety across gardens, there is also picking variety within the garden. The selection is almost comparable to plant selection for introducing a new variety if the criteria of selection was taken one step further into plant breeding
This plant breeding is carried out with Dancong teas. The mixed bushes in the area are picked and selected for a particular character, often taste characteristics. The bush that the teamaker likes is cloned and grown in rows so a grower might select a few bushes, say three as an example, that lead to a good tea and the clones are grown in rows. – Not yet a variety but on the way as the genetic make up is more restricted. To keep his tea secret he might even call it a derogatory name such as ‘Duckshit’ in order to keep his new variety secret.
So, Zairai is a mixed plantation grown together and selectively picked whereas Dancong is mixed plantations selectively grown and mass picked.
Both Zairai and Dancong will give a lifetime of tasting comparisons. To become a proficient taster of these teas is well beyond my ability and resource as I will not live long enough to learn all the different teas well enough so I am concentrating on Long Jing, Sencha , first flush Darjeeling and an assortment of Sheng Puerhs.
I am very happy to further discuss my points here.