Noriyuki Teshima, 33 years old, is a rarity in the world of Japanese green tea. Rather than head to the city for a more cosmopolitan job and way of life, he has stayed true to his roots: tea. The tea farm Noriyuki inherited from his father, while still in his 20’s, belonged to generations of farmers before him.
But as we stand on the hills above the east coast of Kyushu, looking over his tea fields, he describes how his fellow farmers in this region are tearing out their tea trees in order to grow oranges instead, as a means of making enough money to survive, or just letting them go extinct because husbands have died and wives are too old to work the farms, and their children have left for the big city life. The local tea industry is failing.
Noriyuki is in a difficult location: Oita Prefecture. The terroir in Oita is notoriously difficult for growing high-grade green tea. With a few exceptions, such as one of our own Rockstar producers, Kitagawa san, you simply don’t find noticeably delicious tea from there. So, Oita is a tough place to make a go of the tea market to begin with.
Oita is one thing, but what about Yame?
Yame is one of the most famed regions in Japan for producing fantastic Sencha, Kabusecha, Matcha and Gyokuro. It is the Bordeaux or Burgundy of the green tea universe, similar to these famous wine regions because of the luck of the draw: minerals in the soil, “perfect” weather conditions, and other intangibles that make these geographical sweet-spots so mysterious and attractive.
And yet, we are now seeing signs, even here, of tea tree deforestation.
Japan’s green tea market is almost completely domestic. And with massively slowing demand nationwide, the supply side is suffering.
A cultural shift has been taking place over the last decade, where Americanisation manifests in Starbucks coffee cups and the bottled tea sold in every convenience store around the country. Aspects of Japanese culture – fresh green tea most certainly one of them – are shrinking into oblivion.
As tea enthusiasts in the T Ching community, obsessed with flavours and freshness, we talk a lot about umami. Umami is one of those magical, ethereal accents we instantly associate with quality, uniqueness, care and love.
The bottled teas sold in convenience stores noticeably lack umami, or any trace of something special or heartfelt. They are nothing more than a derivative of real tea: synthetic and soulless. And yet they dominate the market. Thanks to clever marketing and effective distribution combining with lifestyle changes, tea in plastic bottles (along with the proliferation of coffee) is making a devastating impact on real, fresh, healthy, delicious loose-leaf tea.
The way forwards
What we saw during the 80’s and 90’s in the West was a coffee revolution, where 65 cent coffee in Styrofoam cups were gradually replaced by a more “premium” offer. Scoffed at to begin with, this cultural sea change gained traction until it became mainstream.
And it went even further than that. Today, we see what might be termed as “hyper” premium coffee offers emerging, positioning Starbucks and Costa as the drab and ordinary coffee that true connoisseurs avoid. Companies such as Blue Bottle Coffee and Ozone Coffee Roasters are taking the nuances and intricacies of coffee to ever-greater heights, and successfully marketing it.
At Chiki Tea, we are dedicated to a similar revolution in the Japanese green tea world. We want to see these sub standard bottled teas replaced by a much better offering: elevating the customer experience through the café environment, making the health benefits available, and showcasing the multi-faceted and delicious flavours of real, fresh, loose leaf green tea.
We are not alone.
We are privileged to be in a position where meeting like-minded activists is becoming easier. As we gain recognition in the loose leaf tea industry, producers are showing a keen interest in the concept of modernizing and repositioning Japanese green tea.
On top of that, there has always been a “subculture” of tea shops up and down the country who are innovating and repackaging green tea into compelling offers, perhaps with less of the Western twist that we provide. Hopefully, we will see an increase in these types of stores as Japanese youth reacquaint themselves with the treasures from their own land.
Also, top ranking, award-winning artisan tea producers around the country are coming together with the aim of turning the situation on its head. They have started by setting up this organization, aiming to bring awareness to the alternative to fake, bottled tea: real, fresh tea from a teapot. Although the language barrier might be an issue for most of us, the video gets the message across nicely so please check it out!
Please also join the conversation. We would love to hear (and share with tea producers here) what people in the West see as barriers to purchasing fresh loose leaf tea from Japan. Is it the language barrier? Lack of distribution channels? Lack of awareness? Price point? Please let us know if you have something to say on the matter.