A Journey Through the World of Tea

Featured Company: Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations

Q- How did Obubu Tea Farms come to be? What’s your History?
A- Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations was established in 2004 by Akihiro Kita (our president/farmer) and Yasuharu Matsumoto (our VP/sales manager), but the story goes back much further. Akihiro, or Akky, was a college student in the early 90s searching for his calling. He took a part-time job working in the fields of a tea farmer in Wazuka one summer, and tasted farm fresh tea for the first time. This was raw tea, or aracha—tea leaves before they have been sorted and blended by middlemen. This was tea that only farmers get the chance to drink with all parts of the leaf including the leaf stems and leaf hairs. Akky fell in love and made tea farming his life’s work.

A decade later, Akky was ready to begin selling his own tea, and decided that tea lovers should also have the opportunity to drink the tea that he fell in love with. At the same time, Japan was beginning to realize that long-term trends in aging, population decline, and urbanization meant that the agriculture industry, which was kept largely in the hands of independent, small farmers by Japanese land laws, was disappearing. Farmers were getting older, and their children were moving to the cities for less physical lifestyles.

In Wazuka where Akky had learned to farm, the town was predicting that the already elderly population would reduce by more than half by 2030. In Wazuka, where tea had been grown for 800 years, a question was on everyone’s minds: Would there be anyone left to farm tea?

Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations was formed in this context to not only begin marketing farm fresh tea to tea lovers in Japan, but to “make farming fun”—our mission statement—raising consumer awareness of farmers, and hopefully inspire a new generation of tea farmers.

At the same time, Yasuharu, or “Matsu”, felt that Japanese tea should not be limited to Japan, but could be a major contributor to global tea culture. He initiated annual tea tasting tours around the world, and in 2009 he met Ian Chun, a freelance marketer who had just moved to the U.S. after a decade in Japan. Akky, Matsu and Ian collaborated to create Obubu’s English website and began efforts to bring more foreigners to the tea fields through private and group tours, and internships.

Q- Where are you located?
A- Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations is located in the town of Wazuka in southernmost part of Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Tea grown in the Kyoto region of Japan is known as Ujicha, for the city of Uji made famous by the Tale of Genji. Wazuka valley itself is famous for producing the highest quality of Uji sencha, but does not produce gyokuro tea very well. The town is about 1.5 hours by train and bus from Kyoto, and about 30 minutes by train and bus from the ancient city of Nara. The difference that hour makes from city to countryside is dramatic!

Q- How does Japanese tea culture differ from other tea cultures? How does your company share Japanese culture with the world?
A- While tea in Japanese culture is a fascinating topic that I would love to go into, I’m going to assume you are asking about the culture of Japanese tea. The most obvious difference from a Western point of view is that you might have dozens of different teas in a shop, or even bottled teas in a supermarket, and they would all be unsweetened, unblended (with fruit and other flavors) green tea. People in Japan appreciate differences in the taste of green teas that are too subtle for most Western tea drinkers. So, when you get into premium quality green teas where even Japanese have a difficult time discerning the subtle differences…

The other interesting thing about Japanese tea is that it also includes a lot of non-tea leaf teas: different kinds of wheat teas, cherry blossom tea, corn tea…yes, corn tea (okay, maybe corn tea is a novelty adopted from Korea).

Our company’s secondary mission is to spread the culture of Japanese tea around the world. We started doing this by traveling to Europe and America to give tea tastings during the winter off-season, and partnered with Matcha Latte Media early this year to launch ObubuTea to finally sell our tea directly to tea lovers. Ian at Matcha Latte Media is furiously translating the content that we have on our website, and often questions us about knowledge that we take for granted here in Japan.

Q- What make Obubu Tea Farms unique?
A- First and foremost, Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations is unique because we sell tea farm fresh—at a state before it gets lost in the leaves of other farms at brokers and blenders. For experienced Japanese green tea drinkers, the difference will be obvious—the tea is stronger when steeped for shorter times. For inexperienced drinkers, rest assured knowing that you are not getting sencha with low quality leaves blended in to increase volume. Because each sencha tea comes from a different field, you will also be able to compare the result of different growing techniques—shaded vs unshaded vs fields of Yabukita plants vs mixed variety fields.

However, what is most important to us is the fact that we are attempting to speak and interact with the tea loving public directly. To this end, we also encourage people to support us by subscribing to our Tea Club. In Japan, club members are encouraged to think of themselves as tea field owners, with their monthly subscription paying for a return of tea sent every two months. As “owners” the club members are also encouraged to come and visit their tea fields, and we hold many events every year to teach and raise awareness of tea farming. Outside of Japan, of course, we try to avoid the legal ramifications of marketing club membership as tea field ownership, but the basic concept is the same.

Q- What difficulties do you face when if comes to selling tea?
A- Businesswise, avoiding large-scale distribution is challenging. There are two reasons for avoiding large-scale distribution: 1) in order to maintain a more direct relationship with customers and 2) the delicacy of the tea leaves means that stock should be refrigerated if not frozen until sale. Premium quality tea has not reached a level yet where large retailers are willing to have a refrigerated area for teas.

Not blending our teas also means we (well, mostly Akky as he is the farmer) need to work hard to ensure consistency and quality in each year’s crops. Brokers and other middlemen blend their teas in Japan in order to both create a unique taste to their senchas but also to maintain consistency. The practice shelters consumers and forces farmers to bear the risk of bad weather, plant disease, insects, etc. It sounds cruel of course, but this is standard practice throughout the world in all industries, and in the end, is good business practice for everyone on the whole. Still, we encourage you to always support local farmers (and their workers) by buying local when possible.

Q- What tea does everybody seem to order?
A- We’ve been pushing our Genmaicha pretty hard lately, and have had great response. We don’t use bancha but rather our Sencha of the Autumn Moon which means our Genmaicha is just a little bit of a luxury. Our most expensive tea, Kabuse Sencha, would be the next best selling—those in the know want the best!

The next thing we’re going to put on the market is matcha tea powder for baking. We have a Premium version of the kitchen grade matcha, but it’s still quite expensive. Our new version will be using a different, more rough, grinding process which will allow us to produce in greater volume while retaining a reasonable level of quality for baking purposes. There aren’t enough matcha roll cakes at bakeries here in the U.S.!

Q- What is the Mission behind your company?
A- 1) To make farming fun by creating connections between consumers and producers
2) To contribute to the spread of tea culture by introducing Japanese tea and providing advice to other farmers around the world

Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations has been kind enough to give our readers a special 10% discount on their products by entering the code: Tyros10 in the coupon field when you check out.

Also be sure to check them out on Facebook and Twitter.

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