The Japanese Culture Center had the privilege to interview Joshua Kaiser, Founder and CEO of Rishi Tea & Botanicals. Rishi tea has sponsored many of our events at the Japanese Culture Center, so we wanted to get to know the company a bit more by inquiring about their rich history with tea, especially matcha!
What is Rishi?s connection to Japan? How long have you been sourcing matcha from Japan and where?
I have been traveling to Japan to study tea and the tea business since 1997. I am doing business?with the?company founded by my?first green tea teacher who took an interest to teach me and mentor me at the age of 24. He has passed away years ago and I do business with his son, who is one of my closest friends and business?partners. My long-term connections and relationships in Japan provide?Rishi Tea with amazing access and?outstanding quality.
What makes Japanese tea so unique and unlike tea from anywhere else?
I find one of the most interesting?attributes of Japanese?tea is its reflection of the Japanese spirit to value tradition, while?deeply embracing modern research to advance and develop the tradition. Steaming?tea leaves is one of the oldest?techniques of making green tea. The steaming of green tea in China and in other green tea?producing countries fell out of trend in favor of other methods of green tea?production. In Japan,?the practice of steaming remains as the most popular method and highly developed method green tea?production. The?process and technology of steaming green tea has advanced?tremendously due to the research carried?out by the Japanese tea industry and?agriculture officials to?continuously?improve the?tradition.
Furthermore, the range and richness of Japanese green tea bush genetics have also advanced?immensely due to?the Japanese spirit of deep research and?preparation to improve and enhance the core tradition of steamed green tea. Through deep research and the spirit to continuously improve, the Japanese tea?bushes have been selectively bred and tailored for the Japanese steaming process, soil management, farming techniques and most of all the?Japanese taste profile of umami and balance. Japanese tea bushes are bred to suit the taste of the Japanese consumer and they contain more?amino acids and caffeine for healthful central nervous system stimulation with less bitter tannin. Japanese teas are intentionally bred for more umami flavor and less bitterness due to the advanced steaming and?production methods that make them suitable for easy brewing in multiple water types and?conditions. There are many special?characters and charms to be found in Japanese tea that reflect deep research?alongside a?reverence held by the Japanese People for the balance of?humankind and nature and the harmony of the?traditional with the modern.
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.