Mary Lou visited Japan via an invitation by the Japanese government to visit tea farms in Kagoshima and Shizuoka Prefectures in the late fall of 2012. She was overjoyed to met these incredible tea farmers who individually and collectively produce astonishingly good and meticulously-manufactured organic sencha and grokuro tea. Known as the Shizuoka Organic Tea Farmers Union of Japan (SOTFU), these tea farmers are located in neighboring regions of Shizuoka Prefecture in southern Japan. The Four Musketeers, as we like to think of them ( all for one and one for all…regarding their organic tea ) are, from left to right:
- Katsumi Saito ( Honyama, Shizuoka-shi, Shizuoka)
- Tadatsugu Tsukamoto ( Yainaba, Fujieda-shi, Shizuoka)
- Shinobu Iwasaki ( Ryougouchi, Shizuoka-shi, Shizuoka)
- Minoru IIzuka ( Sukemune, Fujieda-shi, Shuzuoka)
This year these tea farmers have a new treat in store for lovers of Japanese sencha tea – additional natural sweetness in the taste of the tea.
These gentlemen are very excited about their new spring teas. They told us that for last year’s tea production they made a change in the nitrogen component of their fertilizer which they use for their tea bushes, and that this resulted in a boost to the level of sweetness in their green teas. Adjustments in the field such as this is part of their soil management. Making the right decision in the choice of fertilizer is a good example of how farmers can work with natural aspects of terroir to tweek the taste of a product.The result, in this case, adds additional sweetness in the cup because the balance of amino acids present in the fresh tea leaf materials are changed. They are continuing this technique on an on-going basis.
Astringency in Japanese green teas is often the result of the water being too hot for the tea or steeping the tea a bit too long. So this litle additional boost of natural sweetness from the tea leaf itself will be great news to most Japanese tea fanciers.
Each tea farmer brings at least 20 years experience growing organic tea to the group, and several of their young adult sons are now learning the skills necessary to continue the family businesses. These men produce many different Japanese green teas as well as black tea. They explained to Mary Lou that they are proud of the fact that their teas are Jien-cha, a term that means that their teas have been grown, processed and packed by the tea farmers themselves.
This is an uncommon situation in Japan regarding tea. Most Japanese tea is manufactured in a factory by companies both large and small that do not own their own tea gardens. Instead, the factory’s tea blenders purchase aracha ( stable, semi-processed tea ) from various tea farmers, either privately or at the wholesale tea auctions. The experts at each tea factory blend these different lots of aracha together to arrive at the flavor that their company is known for. These teas are sold under the label of the tea company and the origin of the tea is usually unknown to the consumer.
While it is very unusual for a tea farmer to process his own tea, this is an accomplishment that each of these tea farmers are proud of. This garden-to-market supervision gives them complete control over the finished tea, and allows them to put all their years of knowledge about tea cultivation and manufacture into crafting truly delicious, artisan tea.
For the past 20 years the Four Musketeers have been exchanging ideas and pursuing the best course for cultivating organic tea. All are in agreement that this begins with good soil management, which results in healthy soil and the development of strong, healthy tea bush roots. Mr. Tsukamoto conducts yearly soil tests for all members of the union for biology, chemical, and overall composition.
He shared his philosophy with Mary Lou: ‘ good roots make good tea’ and that good roots absorb as much nutrient as is available from the soil. Replenishing this nutrient is the job of the tea farmer. He made her especially understand that just reducing fertilizer does notmake good roots. It is the job of the organic farmer to condition the soil and maintain natural soil health. These farmers believe that it is important to use fermented fertilizers, so Mr. Tsukamoto has devised an apothecary of many plant, seaweed, and tofu water extracts.
Below are some photographs of one of these tea gardens and rows of un-clipped tea bushes. These beautiful tea gardens are lush and healthy, proving that it certainly does pay to respect the natural ecosystem and the surrounding environment of the tea gardens.
A look at the shade covering in place in Mr. Saito’s tea garden. He will turn the tea from the tea bushes under this covering into stunning Gyokuro.
We are so pleased that you will be able to taste it!
Our interest in premium tea and in tea farmers who possess this level of dedication to their craft meshes perfectly with their philosophy and ethics about tea.