Rishi is known as an organic brand. Can you provide us some detail around the history of organic tea in Japan, specifically matcha?
The Japanese people have embraced tea as part of their diet and culture for a long time. The Japanese tea industry was slow to move toward certified organic agriculture because it was always focused on a domestic Japanese consumer that did not seek out and demand organic tea and one that already held tea in a natural and highly healthful regard.
Most Japanese tea industry members were skeptical to move toward organic because the Japanese consumer did not request it and the export markets were not paying the high prices for high quality teas like the Japanese consumers were paying. Additionally, making matters of organic more difficult, Japanese tea farmers, in most cases do not produce or export a final processed tea but must sell their “aracha” (rough tea) to manufacturers that handle the refinement process. The final sales and exports of the finished tea are conducted by exporters and not farmers so there was also a deficit of organic manufacturers and exporters of Japanese tea. The difficulty for farmers to go organic was even more of arduous a task because even if the farmer wanted to move to organic, there were few certified organic manufactures that could handle organic refinement, processing and exports to organic markets.
In the beginning of the Japanese organic tea trade, there were very few growers and producers, and the quality mostly ingredient grade and macro-biotic diet teas of mediocre quality. For most companies, it was not easy to source organic until just recently.
Fast-forward 5-10 years and we find the Japanese loose leaf tea consumption has been decreasing rapidly. Most Japanese people do not brew tea with a teapot and prefer other beverages or ready to drink bottles teas. Many tea farmers and tea businesses in Japan have went out of business or looking toward the export markets for survival since the Japanese market for tea has been shrinking.
Due to the economic and consumption trends in Japan we find many more special varieties of green tea and many more organic teas that were never available until from Japan until the recent few years as the Japanese tea industry began to adapt and focuses on the exports markets where certified organic is a must.
Now the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) for organic production is widely recognized and legally certified for the USA and EU and recognized as clean and safe organic . We see many more organic JAS farms than ever before exporting high quality teas abroad and to the USA, which is now one of the largest markets in the world for organic green tea, especially matcha.
In Japan and in the USA, sencha and other forms of Japanese loose-leaf tea have been steadily declining while matcha has been rapidly increasing. Many sencha farmers and sencha businesses have re-oriented their farms and infrastructure to produce “tencha”, which is the shade grown leaf tea used for making matcha to adapt to the consumer trends and survive.
More and more organic matcha is coming to the market than ever before and some feel the demand for medium and low priced organic matcha outweighs the supply. We see more matcha coming from countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia and we are in a stage of market confusion about what is the real quality of matcha that distinguishes it from any old powdered green tea.
Nishio Prefecture is the largest producer of organic matcha along with the growers in Kyushu Island. Sencha growers in Shizuoka Prefecture and other parts of Japan are rapidly converting to organic matcha production to meet demand but still the demand outstrips supply.
Most of the classic ceremonial matcha is still produced in very limited quantities and according to conventional methods of agriculture and manufacturing. This type does not meet USDA pesticide and food safety laws. Export grades of matcha are in high demand .
Because Rishi Tea has been working in Kyushu Island for sourcing organic tea since 2004 with the top organic farming families in Kagoshima and Kirishima Mountain we have a very good position to secure excellent quality supply of organic and ceremonial grades of export qualified matcha.
We got into the organic industry when it was at an early stage. We were buying organic matcha before the matcha boom so we have established relationships and with organic farmers. The relationships that we honor with organic growers gives Rishi Tea unprecedented access to organic matcha. We watch the organic industry advance year after year with more cultivars and special techniques coming online to us all the time. It is an exciting time for organic Japanese tea.
Matcha is quite the trend in food and beverage of late. How have you seen it evolve since you began importing it from the source?
I most certainly have seen matcha evolve into the boom trend market it is today. We started studying and selling matcha before organic was available and have borne witness to the dynamics of the market. There are many stories but perhaps little time to tell them all.
It is noteworthy that we have seen how the huge demand has influenced the matcha trade. Traditional matcha is made from “tencha”, which is a shade-grown tea that is cultivated and produced in a very specialized manner before it becomes the emerald green tea powder tea we call matcha.
Traditional tencha is often stored and aged for years before it is milled into matcha. Producers would blend vintages of tencha to create their special matcha blends and additionally, a finite range of cultivars were selected for matcha that were not usually cultivated to make sencha or other teas. Due to the huge demand for organic matcha and short supply of authentic organic matcha, it is hard to find past vintages of organic tencha or special vintage blends of tencha because most organic tencha sells out very fast each year.
The aging and curing process of tencha before it is milled into matcha powder is to enhance the smoothness and flavor of matcha. Currently, most matcha producers of organic quality skip this key step to keep up with demand. Only very few of us have set up our organic tencha stocks to keep the tradition and quality for our customers.
We have also seen ingenious sencha farmers adapt tencha shading and cultivation techniques into sencha cultivars and farms that were not before selected to make matcha. This is a development that expands the cultivars and flavor possibilities. Think of tencha like grapes for wine; there are now many more varieties of tencha and growers in different regions for us to create our blends and that is exciting for us.
Another trend of note regarding the matcha boom is that authentic, traditional matcha is still ground into a fine emerald green powder by granite stone mills. Each stone mill produces about 30 grams of powder per hour. It is a very slow and costly process to make real matcha. It is impossible to make all the matcha for the world by traditional stone milling, as it would be too slow and costly, so Japanese tea professionals have worked out new types of ceramic mills that can yield more powder per hour with very similar if not nearly identical performance as a traditional granite mill. Again, the Japanese are found to be honoring their traditions through balance of old and new according to their spirit of deep research and innovations.