Standing in his Japanese teahouse, Chajin, in Paris' eighth arrondissement, Xavier Négiar grinds matcha tea leaves with a cha'usu, or stone mill. As he transforms the brittle leaves into a fluorescent powder, he offers an in-depth analysis of a recent study that claims green tea reduces stress, lectures on the importance of precise infusion timing and water temperature, and explains how matcha is used in the cha no yu (tea ceremony). Aficionado and importer of fine-grade Japanese green tea for more than 20 years, Négiar talks about his leafy assortment of bancha, sencha, gyokuro, and matcha teas the way some of his countrymen discuss Grand Crus vintages—in great detail, with sophistication and intoxicating exuberance. "My goal is to educate about Japanese green tea," he says, "because it is so different from other varieties out there."
The popularity of green tea has risen dramatically in recent years, mainly due to studies expounding on its supposed health benefits. Right now the green-tea market treads a fine line between comprehensive and overexploited—products range from green-tea bath salts to body lotion, eau de cologne to iced drinks, cooking seasoning to every imaginable tea-bag combination—but top-quality loose leaves remain a coveted commodity. In fact, all tea, including fermented oolong and black teas, comes from the Camellia sinensis shrub. But rare Japanese varieties are particularly sought-after among connoisseurs, who rank them among the world's finest.
Until the opening of Chajin last year, Négiar's exquisite leaves straight from organic Japanese plantations were one of Paris' best-kept secrets. Now they can be sampled by the bowl in the calming teahouse Négiar has created, tucked into a quiet street behind the Madeleine church. In its tatami-matted tasting room, colorful displays of handmade porcelain bowls line the walls alongside an eclectic collection of specialized tea implements. Here, Négiar truly celebrates the art of Japanese tea, which has fascinated him for a very long time.
Originally from France's Burgundy region (where he is an honorary knight of the celebrated wine's order), the 46-year-old Négiar was first introduced to this intricate world as a teenager by the grandson of a tea merchant from Sakai. While studying Japanese in California he met his wife, Carol, and the pair traveled extensively through Japan. There he interviewed the owners of plantations, taking production notes and sampling tea leaves fresh from the fields.
His interest in traditional techniques and high-quality teas helped forge close relationships with Japan's oldest green-tea regions, which rarely sell to foreigners: Shizuoka, at the foot of Mount Fuji, and Uji, to the south of Kyoto. Now an expert in his field (he has lectured on the topic in France, the United States, and even Japan), Négiar is one of a handful of merchants exporting these fine-grade teas worldwide. "The families running these plantations take immense pride in their crop," he says. "They only trust a foreigner with their tea if they are sure that it will arrive in mint condition."
A delicate product, Japanese green tea is commonly thought to have been first introduced to the islands by a Japanese Buddhist monk, Eisai (1141-1215). The tea plant undergoes a unique production process during which leaves are briefly steamed and rolled, thereby left unfermented. This technique preserves the tea's deep-green coloration and gives it a full body that frequently lasts up to six infusions. The finest Japanese teas are grown in just those two principal regions, limiting domestic production as well as international export. Since Japan's yearly crop averages approximately 85,000 tons (as compared to China's more than 600,000), top-quality leaves rarely travel beyond the islands' shores, and high-end varieties often sell out before the harvest has even begun.
Due to the growing demand for healthy Japanese infusions and the lack of an equivalent of the AOC label used in winemaking (which certifies the grape's place of origin), the modest crop also ends up in unfortunate blends containing Vietnamese, Chinese, and Brazilian leaves. The popular belief that green tea is bitter, for example, can be attributed to clumsy leaf combinations—particularly found in supermarket tea bags—and to pesticides and fertilizer, all of which taint the naturally sweet taste of pure teas.
Despite a growing demand, Chajin's high tea standards—no pesticides, only one annual spring harvest, and absolutely no blending—remain nonnegotiable, and the selection is limited to just 15 exceptional teas. Consider the refined gyokuro zuiun. Three weeks before the harvest, the shrubs are gradually covered with rice straw, a process that helps conserve chlorophyll and gives the tea its dark color. The flavor is intense and sweet, with a long-lasting aftertaste.
For sencha, Japan's most popular green tea, Négiar offers a rich fukamushicha with a naturally roasted aroma. Its leaves are steamed three times as long as the more common short-steamed sencha. The thé de la maison, Chajin no Sencha, is a pale infusion whose taste moves from sweet to astringent, depending on how many times it's steeped.
Specialty teas include genmaicha, undoubtedly the prettiest (with grilled rice grains among the slender leaves), and a smoky hojicha, which is roasted on-site in a titanium device commissioned by Négiar and designed and produced by a Japanese craftsman (the roaster is sold at the boutique for true tea aficionados).
Another highlight is the shincha tea, made of leaves picked during the harvest's first three days. In a tradition that evolved from the 16th century, leaves are briefly steamed and rolled, giving the tea a deliciously subtle taste. Last year's shincha, available only in the spring, sold out immediately, even at $20 per 50 grams (about 1.75 ounces).
Often portrayed as a natural wonder potion, green tea—sold in pharmacies when it first arrived in Europe—has been found to reduce stress and anxiety, help prevent flu and infections, lower cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, and even fight bad breath. More research claims that its high levels of the antioxidant catechin makes green tea an effective defense against cancer and heart disease. Though medical research is ongoing, Négiar points out that the tea's natural ingredients are undeniably good for you—a single infusion includes such minerals as calcium, magnesium, and zinc, as well as a healthy dose of vitamins A, E, and C.
The bright-green matcha, arguably the world's finest green tea, is particularly salubrious thanks to its concentration of vitamin C, about four times that of a lemon. Offered both steaming and chilled at Chajin, matcha is handmade with a stone mill modeled on those used in 16th-century Japan. It takes one hour to produce less than an ounce (faster grinding gives the tea a burned taste), and the velvety powder is priced accordingly: Chajin's top-of-the-line matcha koicha goes for $75 for 30 grams (a little over an ounce).
Although most green tea requires no special preparation beyond throwing loose leaves into an enameled porcelain pot and pouring hot water on them, matcha calls for unique preparation to emphasize its profound taste. While whipping the powder in hot water with a bamboo whisk, Négiar discusses the important green-tea principles that were outlined by tea master Sen No Rikyu more than 400 years ago: we (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquillity). "They all merge in the preparations," he says. "Every gesture is focused on how to give the most pleasure through a simple bowl of tea."
For loose teas, prices range from $10 per 50 grams (1.75 ounces) for the bancha tokujo to $65 for the gyokuro zuiun and $75 per 30 grams (1.05 ounces) for matcha koicha. Tea should be stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator. In the tea salon, prices for a cup range from $5 for bancha and $9 for matcha to $17 for gyokuro tenkuu and $26 for gyokuro tokujo. At 24 Rue Pasquier; 33-1-53-30-05-24. Open Monday through Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m.-7 p.m.