Xenia Blanco, QA & Project Manager on Japanese Tea

I first became interested in Japanese tea about 20 years ago, when I first tried high-grade ceremonial matcha. I was learning Japanese at the time. We used to celebrate cultural exchange parties together with the Japanese students. One of the Japanese students was highly skilled in a Japanese Tea Ceremony from the Urasenke school and did a demonstration for us. That foreign flavour in my mouth was mind blowing – I had never tasted anything like it before. I started drinking tea when I was 12 years old, yet I didn’t know much about Japanese teas by then. From that day on, my interest in Japanese Tea developed and I decided to pay more attention to those teas.

My name is Xenia Blanco and I currently work as a QA & Project Manager for a video games company. I have always been a hardcore gamer and wanted to work for the games industry. I started as a QA LOC tester in Glasgow with a company that provides services to the games industry. There, I had the chance to work on different projects for different companies as a core team member. After four years, I moved to Berlin, Germany.

Outside of my job, I love travelling and learning about Japanese tea. In 2018, I searched online for Japanese Tea courses in English and found Obubu Tea Farms, who provided a Japanese Tea Master Course – it was exactly what I was looking for. I spent about two weeks in the beautiful town of Wazuka, Kyoto for this course.

What I loved about this course was that I got to meet people from around the world who, like me, are interested in tea. We produced three types of Japanese tea by hand: wakocha (Japanese black tea), kamairicha (pan-fried, like Chinese teas) and gyokuro (handpicked, steamed and rolled.) We visited a Japanese chasen maker as well – he was highly skilled and not many people are left to take over the craft. Some of the skills were smuggled to Korea in the past and nowadays no one seems to know the whole process; so now many people are involved in chasen crafting, not just a single person.

We attended two Japanese Tea Ceremonies: the first one was Sado from Urasenke school, one of the most known around the globe, also known as Ochado. The second one was Senchado, highly unknown even in Japan since they are a bit secretive. Both are beautiful to watch – Senchado is more relaxed and less strict than Sado. The head of the school we attended the ceremony for is the current emperor’s brother. Once a year, the teacher is invited to the Imperial Palace to perform the Senchado ceremony for the emperor.

I favour matcha, gyokuro and kabusecha teas the most. I got to know a lot more about matcha with this course, such as how it is produced and how it is converted into powder. It can be milled using a manual mill; it takes a long time and great effort to produce just a little bit of matcha. Any matcha milled this way is expensive but of the highest quality. It can be milled using marble balls inside a huge container – this is used for large scale production. Also, there is a new machine that reduces the milling time so large amounts of matcha powder can be produced in a short period of time. It’s all really fascinating.

I also participated in a trip for Japanese Tea Study. The Japanese Tea Export Council invited us to Japan to take part in this study trip in order to promote Japanese tea abroad. We visited the newly open Tea Museum in Shizuoka, we visited tea fields and facilities from the University of Shizuoka, and we made Japanese black tea using a different method than the one I learned in Wazuka before. We also visited Kagoshima – the Tea Market in Kagoshima is a really interesting spot. We got to know Japanese Tea Traders and visited tea fields close to the airport. It was all a fantastic experience.

At home, I now tend to brew tea using the right utensils. I have a water boiler at work, and I use bottled water low in calcium to prepare my teas since German water is too hard and spoils tea flavour (the quality of water has to be excellent, otherwise tea flavour becomes bland). And I keep learning about Japanese teas since there is not an end on how much can be learned about them.

Similar to Japanese tea brewing, QA is all about times, dates, environments, and precision. My knowledge within the QA field has proven beneficial when learning about how to make and brew Japanese teas. Most people drink average quality tea and don’t seem to care much about water quality or temperature, steeping times, and so on. I understand the importance of all this and I am now able to extract the best flavour out of a particular type of tea.

My advice to anyone interested in doing a similar Japanese tea course is to book in advance since it gets packed and places are limited. Also, if you have the time, always favour a course in Japan taught directly in the tea fields. Hands-on experience cannot be replicated in a place far away from where the tea is being produced. I am not saying that learning theory wouldn’t be helpful, however being able to see the leaves and fields, and getting to know the farmers and producers, makes a great difference.

People who usually work in tech are seen as less creative by those who don’t work in tech, which I don’t agree with. There is always more than tech – we can also pursue great creative passions outside the workplace.

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