ChikiTea13_The inside story

Holly and Alex with tea farmers from Oita prefecture

Over the last year and a half, Chiki Tea has become increasingly well-known in local tea-producing circles around Kyushu island–Oita prefecture in particular. Some farmers are keen to get to know us because of our connection to the West.

With a dwindling and aging domestic market for loose-leaf tea, these farmers are optimistic about what we can do for them both online and on the ground here in Japan via the Chiki Tea café in Nakatsu. In some cases, it feels like they are pinning all their hopes on us – a heavy burden to bear!

The market for loose-leaf is tough; demand is low because young people (35 and under) just don’t drink it unless it comes out of a vending machine in a plastic bottle. Mediocre tea is produced in larger volumes now, particularly in Shizuoka, to satisfy the bottled tea market. So if these farmers don’t carve out a niche for themselves by producing very high-end tea, or if they don’t have a strong heritage or established name, they will risk becoming extinct. Some farmers are already designating their fields for other, more profitable crops, by ripping out the tea trees and planting orange trees, for instance, instead.

One of the big lessons we have learned with our first store is that loose-leaf tea in Japan needs to be exceptional in order to warrant a sustainable price point for a business.

Responding to demand

In building our first teashop we wanted to remain as flexible as possible to the sway of the market. Our response has been two-fold:

  • stay committed to sourcing and making available very high-end loose leaf teas (kabusechas and senchas) with only one sencha in our range positioned as a more ordinary beverage (we call it “Daily Cup”); and
  • position Matcha as the key attraction to the Chiki Tea concept…

When we were planning the café pilot, before it was a physical teashop, we thought loose-leaf tea would be the main drink and that Matcha would be a luxury item. After all, Matcha sits atop the Japanese green tea “tree” along with Gyokuro, as a kind of uber tea. The fact that it comes as a powder and has to be stored and prepared in a completely different way to other teas somewhat adds to the intrigue.

But once we got up and running, loose-leaf teas totally took a back seat!

Matcha is what the market here wants, and in many different forms: straight drinks, Matchaccinos (Matcha lattes), smoothies, ice cream, etc.

As we look towards setting up our second store in a larger city in Kyushu, it is apparent that the new café will have to accommodate this demand.

Partially inspired by Howard Shultz’s first trip to Italy when he came across the espresso bar, the next Chiki Tea will showcase a Matcha Bar. This will not just serve as a useful surface for our “Charistas” to whisk up their wonders… it will provide the perfect platform for the theatre to unfold. We also hope to inspire people in a hurry to duck in and grab a quick shot, perhaps consume it while still standing, or perched on a high stool.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a time and a place for sitting down and relaxing with a quality beverage. But there’s also a time and a place for slamming a much-needed, silky-smooth matcha shot on the run!

Looking forward, it is our strong desire to reignite Japan’s waning interest in loose-leaf tea through our concept, leading with Matcha as the “gateway”. Unfortunately, we don’t hold an outright solution for these dedicated and sincere loose-leaf farmers. But we’re doing our best to spread the word both domestically and internationally!