In Japan, mugicha (barley tea) is a ubiquitous and generally unremarkable drink, available from every corner vending machine and grocery store. But for Janice Ishizaka, CEO and cofounder of The Canadian Barley Tea Company, the drink’s lack of appreciation represents an opportunity to create a new, healthy, made-in-Canada beverage.

In March 2019, Ishizaka partnered with her sister, Cilla Watkins, to launch mo’mugi — a brand of organic mugicha made with 100 percent British Columbia-grown barley.

“Mugicha is like the poorer younger sibling of (green tea) because it’s so common in Japan,” Ishizaka says, addressing the general lack of awareness of mugicha among consumers in Canada. “So I really believe that Japanese companies just never saw it as something interesting to export, or they thought it was already there.”

Ishizaka’s own foray into the world of mugicha began in 1998, when she moved to Japan to teach English. Hours were long, often stretching to 10 hours, and strenuous on the voice. “I noticed right away that all my coworkers were drinking mugicha, basically, in the big plastic bottles,” Ishizaka says.

Made in Canada: The Canadian Barley Tea Company's mo'mugi-brand barley tea uses 100 percent organic barley from British Columbia. | COURTESY OF THE CANADIAN BARLEY TEA COMPANY
Made in Canada: The Canadian Barley Tea Company’s mo’mugi-brand barley tea uses 100 percent organic barley from British Columbia. | COURTESY OF THE CANADIAN BARLEY TEA COMPANY

She picked up the habit of drinking mugicha herself, stuffing her suitcase with tea bags to last her and her family through summer visits back to Canada. One day she decided to check the ingredients, only to discover that the Japanese brand’s barley was actually sourced from Canada and Australia. Inspired to utilize Canada’s barley to produce domestic mugicha, Ishizaka and her sister, who lives in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, near several organic barley producers, embarked on six months of research into different varieties of barley, roasting and taste-testing.

“I really wanted to make it Japanese-influenced,” she says. “(Something) inspired by Japan but made in Canada.”

After an initial fraught experiment roasting in a frying pan — “I burned it” — Ishizaka and her sister eventually developed a roast that highlights the Canadian barley’s smooth, earthy flavor, without tasting burnt. They also sourced compostable, plastic-free tea bags made by a Finnish company in Scotland. Eventually, their efforts landed them two of six monetary prizes at the local Shuswap Launch-a-Preneur 2019 entrepreneur competition, including the Green Award.

Today, mo’mugi is available in over 30 stores across Canada, as well as local farmers markets during summer. The sisters have expanded roasting and packing operations and now share a commercial kitchen with a local coffee roaster. There, they roast on a zero-emission “clean” roaster and use an automatic tea bag packing machine, instead of weighing, grinding and filling everything by hand. Working together despite living on two different continents, Watkins handles local operations while Ishizaka focuses on back-end communications and marketing.

There are certainly signs mo’mugi is taking off back home. In November 2019, mo’mugi was included in the Ocha-themed box for Tea Hive, a subscription tea box company, together with another Canadian company, Hojicha Co., which imports hōjicha (roasted green tea) from Kyoto.

The sisters’ next targets are Vancouver, which has a sizeable Asian population, the U.S. and eventually mugicha’s home country, Japan.

When asked how she would market mo’mugi as something special here, given the drink’s prevalence and downmarket reputation, Ishizaka says she plans to emphasize that “it’s organic Canadian barley that’s a different type of barley than what you’re used to here in Japan,” and believes customers would be willing to pay a premium for the organic label and eco-friendly packaging.

But the ultimate goal is to cement mugicha in the minds of Canadian consumers as an alternative to sugary drinks, soda or energy drinks.

“After living in Japan, (I thought) ‘What could I kind of contribute about Japan to other countries?'” Ishizaka says. “Bringing a little bit of Japan overseas … If I could show mugicha to the world, that’s something I’ve achieved.”

For more information about mo’mugi, visit www.canadianbarleytea.com

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