The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) has released a new line of "generation" teas to correspond with the five generations of Japanese Americans -- Issei (first generation), Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei (fifth generation). They could have been yet another run-of-the-mill product repackaged by an institution with their own label. (Ever wonder why so many wineries "make" their own barbecue sauce?). But these are the real deal. Family raised, if you will.
Museum retail director Maria Kwong says she has always wanted to offer a series of teas to correspond with the Japanese idea of the changing characters of emigrants from one generation to the next. But the museum wasn't able to consider developing their own blends until Chado opened a tea room onsite.
"The problem had been finding someone willing to go to the expense of making specialty teas for us in small quantities," she says. The result is six blends (Chado added its own museum house blend to serve in the tea room). Each comes with a bonus: fun cocktail-hour backstories that explain how Kwong chose their flavor profiles (particularly that bitter Sansei blend).
The website simply says the Sansei tea is a "classic Japanese sencha green tea mixed with dried cherries [that] creates an unexpected and bright new blend of flavors." Kwong describes it somewhat differently. "The Sansei are third generation Japanese-Americans, which is my generation, so we chose a sencha tea because it's a very classic tea, but also very bitter," she says. "I thought yeah, that works for my generation - bitter [laughs]. Chado added the dried cherries to sweeten it up a bit... that tea really needed it."
Kwong says she started with a Japanese tea base that she felt "worked" for a particular generation. "Then we added unexpected elements to blend the tea and reflect the new influences of being an American," she says. She chose the base teas for each generation and Chado created a blend from there. "We worked together on it, I wanted the generation side in there, but we both wanted them to taste good so we did a lot of tastings."
For the Issei blend, Kwong chose hojicha tea (roasted green tea) as a base to correspond with the first generation of Japanese-Americans. "It's honestly kind of a low-grade tea, but it's roasted until it's very brown, so it gets its flavor from that," says Kwong. "It reminded me that all of these people came over here and had to work the fields, how hard-working they are."
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The second generation tea (Nisei) is a light green tea with roasted brown rice. "The Nisei would use their tea bags twice, it was a way of stretching their tea," Kwong says. "They didn't like strong tea, so the rice blend seemed to work." She suggested something citrusy for that blend to reference that this generation was the first one born in California. Chado added both citrus and vanilla.
After her own "bitter" generation, Kwong went with a Chai-spiced green tea "because Yonsei, the fourth generation like my daughter's, is all so mixed." The fifth generation Gosei tea is a rooibos herbal blend with vanilla, caramel and chocolate. "It's like a kid's drink with that caramel and chocolate, you can add milk," says Kwong, adding that the Gosei tea is the only tea that doesn't have a Japanese tea base.
"To be honest, I really just needed a decaf tea, so I went with the rooibos and added chocolate to make [the story] work." A fitting flexibility that any multi-generational tea-drinking family with traditional matcha at one end of the tea table and a Starbuck's green tea iced latte at the other end can relate to.