Welcome to our first report back from an amazing and very successful winters tea sourcing trip to Japan! Without doubt, in our opinion, Japan is home to the best green teas in the world. This is partly down to their unique steaming method and production style, but the landscape and dedication of the hardworking tea farmers also play a large part in the high quality teas that are made here. Many of the tea mountains we visited were truly beautiful places, and we were also lucky enough to catch some of the late Autumn colours!
The best tea producing areas are often set within spectacular surrounding landscapes, where we prefer more small scale cultivation that leaves a lower environmental footprint, and thus are surprisingly abundant with wildlife and nature.
I learned more first hand from this trip than I hoped for, meeting many tea farmers and industry professionals. Of course like anywhere, there is mass production, but Japan is one of the few origins in the world of tea where production features a lot of micro-scale cultivation that is widespread across small farming communities. Unfortunately the vast majority of the tea from Japan that makes it overseas is more likely to be mass-produced or factory blends from many origins, simply due to scale, practicality and economics. To a limited extent this is now starting to change, with small high end tea companies like Tip Top Tea providing access to the real tea of Japan, produced with true care and attention by the type of warm and wonderful tea farmers we were lucky to meet on our trip!
Japans green tea blending is a vast subject in itself, and most of the retail green tea consumed across Japan is blended, even the high quality (expensive) teas widely available. The reality of blended tea meaning cheap and cheerful, as is more commonplace across the rest of the world, is not so true here. This most likely arose due to the widespread reality of national production being from smallholders tending relatively tiny tea gardens. The downside to this is that (until now) it is harder to find and be able to taste and appreciate the individual flavour unique to each area. Also it makes it impossible to explain the provenance and story of each tea, due to the multiple origins of production.
It is very common to see everyday farmers in well known tea regions growing tea simply for their own supply, with small well tended plots. Often they will grow tiny amounts each year, just enough for themselves and their family and friends. If and when they do produce too much, often they are forced to simply sell it to Japans Agriculture Ministry at a low fixed price. This at least provides a subsidised basic income for that crop, and the tea eventually makes its way into mass blended tea described above. This can make it a challenge to find small scale growers who are happy to sell their precious tea. A challenge we were very happy to take on and it was with this in mind that we visited our favourite tea regions on the island of Kyushu, to procure some wonderful single origin teas direct from small scale farmers.
Sadly it was apparent that many of these rural areas are somewhat in decline, as Japans youth has by and large left rural areas to find and hold jobs and opportunities in the urban centres. As such the tea landscape in many areas is changing, both literally and industrially, with smallholder tea gardens often either abandoned or taken over by larger and comparatively more mainstream production. It is not uncommon to see untended tea farms and even houses in rural areas reverting to nature, slowy consumed by green overgrowth and reclaimed by nature.
That said it was not all doom and gloom and we were lucky to meet some wonderful tea farmers, still producing wonderful teas. We met and bought tea from an 80 year old couple who still tended their tea fields in the same valley they had lived in all their life; several family’s involved in their tea business often passed down through the generations, and even a young 29 year old man who had moved back to a rural area in decline, renovating a house listed for demolition and taking over several tea gardens that were abandoned. Further updates on this trip to follow with more details on the tea farmers we met and areas visited!