Food & Drink | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Upcycle: For bottled Japanese teas, the future begins in the field

Rice and tea are staples of the Japanese diet. What does their future hold? This week, we look at Benefitea’s Teargene project, which has a special extraction technique

Since tea cultivation began around 800 years ago in what’s now Shizuoka Prefecture, it has been renowned as Japan’s largest tea-producing region. But decreasing demand for nihoncha, or Japanese tea, has raised worrying signs for the future.

Delicate: Hakuyōcha, or shaded white-leaf tea, is grown under canopies to shield plants from the sun, thus concentrating the umami essence in the leaves. |
Delicate: Hakuyōcha, or shaded white-leaf tea, is grown under canopies to shield plants from the sun, thus concentrating the umami essence in the leaves.

“Tea sales have dropped sharply and prices remain low — poor prospects discouraging young growers from entering the business. It’s a vicious circle,” says Hiroyasu Nishizawa, president and representative director of Shizuoka-based Benefitea.

From dealing in medical and health products, Nishizawa had the know-how to build extractors and other equipment for health drinks. Could he use his expertise to help boost tea sales by creating better bottled teas?

“There are a few important tips for brewing delicious tea, but they’re not widely known,” he says. “Moreover, the tea generally sold in plastic bottles is made by diluting tea concentrate, diminishing the flavor components — not a good representation of the savory umami taste that tea leaves should deliver when brewed properly. Unless we changed course, there would be no future for tea growers.”

Boun-tea-ful relationship: Grower Katsuya Saito (left) is the 17th-generation head of a family that has produced the renowned Hon’-yamacha tea for centuries in Shizuoka Prefecture. Saito does everything himself from growing the tea to processing the leaves; he even cultures microbes to improve the soil. Next to him stands Toshiya Ikki, owner-chef of the kaiseki (multicourse) Japanese restaurant Ikki in the city of Hamamatsu, where the bottled tea Kin no Fukun is served. |
Boun-tea-ful relationship: Grower Katsuya Saito (left) is the 17th-generation head of a family that has produced the renowned Hon’-yamacha tea for centuries in Shizuoka Prefecture. Saito does everything himself from growing the tea to processing the leaves; he even cultures microbes to improve the soil. Next to him stands Toshiya Ikki, owner-chef of the kaiseki (multicourse) Japanese restaurant Ikki in the city of Hamamatsu, where the bottled tea Kin no Fukun is served.

Nishzawa’s efforts led to development of a cold-extraction method. This technique involves brewing at low temperatures, between 0 and 4 degrees Celsius, for eight to 10 hours just to make one brew, and then filtering it an astonishing 50 to 60 times.

Another practice Nishizawa insists upon for each product is to use a single variety of tea from one producer so he can “know the field and the face of the grower,” and he says that, “with wines, knowing the vintners and how they make their products affects value. The same applies to tea.”

Nishizawa has visited many high-minded growers all over Japan, in some cases collaborating on cultivation to produce ideal leaves. After 10 years of research and development he has created nearly 40 high-grade bottled teas, and recently succeeded in making carbonated sparkling versions.

Practically worth its weight in gold: Grown in certified organic fields, hakuyōcha, or shade-grown white-leaf tea, is a rare variety that has taken six years to develop. By cultivating the bushes in shade, thus reducing photosynthesis, the umami flavor essence is concentrated in the leaves. A proprietary extraction process produces the premium tea Kin no Fukun (Fragrant Gold Wind; 500 milliliters, ¥18,360 including tax).
Practically worth its weight in gold: Grown in certified organic fields, hakuyōcha, or shade-grown white-leaf tea, is a rare variety that has taken six years to develop. By cultivating the bushes in shade, thus reducing photosynthesis, the umami flavor essence is concentrated in the leaves. A proprietary extraction process produces the premium tea Kin no Fukun (Fragrant Gold Wind; 500 milliliters, ¥18,360 including tax).

“None of my teas are cheap, but I would like my customers to know what it costs to grow really high-grade teas and to extract the best brews. I believe that offering the best brews of the best teas will eventually lead to better and wider understanding of the potential powers of Japanese teas.”

For more information, visit teargene.jp/en.

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