Danielle Geva and Francois Mathieu love tea, so naturally it made up the bulk of a spring visit to the Kansai region this year.
“We visited a bunch of tea fields, factories, actually. I was interested in sourcing the best matcha for myself,” Mathieu tells The Japan Times from Toronto. “I’m a big tea drinker, and just wanted the best.”
The pair found a whole new world of tea while walking around Osaka’s Shinsaibashi neighborhood. They stopped in a store to get some green tea but, rather than the usual drink, they were served hōjicha, a variety of roasted green tea.
“It was so sweet and smoky. We had no idea what it was, so we had to ask,” Geva says.
Months after encountering hōjicha, Geva and Mathieu are trying to spread the tea to North America. Together, they founded Hojicha Co. in May, the first company to specialize in selling premium hōjicha on the continent. While it was possible to purchase hōjicha directly from Japan and have it delivered to Canada, that process often added extra shipping costs to your order and took weeks to arrive. The Toronto-based venture stores all its hōjicha in the city, keeping customer costs down and making delivery quicker.
It was inspired, partially, by the near-absence of the drink in Toronto.
“You really have to search for it,” Mathieu says, with Geva adding, “We started seeing hōjicha in really small Japanese convenience stores here.” They saw an opportunity to help introduce the drink and spread awareness if it.
The pair is betting that hōjicha will soon become the next Japanese drink to take off internationally. This decade, Japanese food and beverages have enjoyed a boom in popularity internationally — according to data collected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, there are almost 120,000 Japanese restaurants operating overseas as of late 2017, a 30 percent increase from 2015.
In overseas beverage markets, green tea is the clear champion among sales of Japanese produce. Move beyond the usual “Cool Japan” marketing materials and there are still plenty of reports from the past couple of years talking up the stuff in Asia and beyond, both as a drink and a flavor for desserts. Yet domestically, the situation is different.
“There has been a hōjicha boom of sorts in the past couple of years in Japan,” Shogo Nakamura, managing director of Nakamura Tokichi Honten Co. Ltd. tea sellers, tells The Japan Times. Hōjicha emerged in the 1920s from Kyoto, with some histories (including the one compiled by the Hojicha Co. folks) saying it came from vendors roasting leftover stems and stalks. Nakamura Tokichi sells hōjicha among its other teas, though Nakamura says the company doesn’t have specific records of when it started selling it.
And the recent Japanese interest in the tea goes beyond its liquid form.
“Hōjicha-flavored sweets seem to have become more popular. The market for matcha sweets has become flooded, and a reason for the increase in hōjicha sweets is that businesses and customers are looking for the ‘next thing,'” Nakamura says. Convenience store sweets now feature hōjicha flavors frequently, while most notably, Starbucks Japan had a hit with a limited-edition Hojicha Creme Frappuccino last year. It’s a trend that has carried over to Singapore and Hong Kong, too.
But Hojicha Co. believes hōjicha’s potential in North America lies in its health benefits.
“I think a lot of people are trying to cut back on coffee, and this is a good alternative for them,” Geva says, having herself cut back on her caffeine consumption over the years by drinking tea instead.
Nakamura also thinks health benefits could be the biggest selling point in North America, though he notes challenges exist in that cheaper tea can be sourced from “China or other Asian countries,” and roasted into something similar to hōjicha.
Such competition is not an immediate issue for Hojicha Co., though.
“We had to taste a lot of hōjicha,” Mathieu says with a laugh. “We were specifically interested in bringing one that was from Kyoto, because we wanted it to be the most authentic.”
The company currently offer two roasts, a dark and a gold, and the early response has been good, coming mainly from the “early adapting” tea community.
“Restaurants are reaching out and asking, ‘Hey, do you have the powder?’ This is one thing we’re exploring, along with bottled beverages,” Mathieu says.
Step one, though, is introducing people to a drink that is still relatively unknown in North America.
“The challenge is going to be telling people that hōjicha is roasted green tea. And when we go mass market, that’s what we have to do,” Geva says. But the pair believe they will soon have assistance from food and beverage heavyweights.
“Eventually, I think some of the big brands are going to bring hōjicha to North America, and elsewhere.” says Mathieu. “By that time, our goal is to establish ourselves with a few more products, and when people try it at Starbucks or at a big chain, and they like the sugary version that’s not so authentic and they want to try the real thing, they’ll have some options available.”
More information about Hojicha Co. can be found online at hojicha.co.