Otsuka Green Tea

My second tea farm visit in Japan was to Otsuka Green Tea, founded in 1869 and located in the Higashiyama district near Kakegawa city. I was met by a very friendly group of people – company president Hiroaki Otsuka, his son in law Tetsuya Yokoji and Haryuki Nagata and the staff of the Otsuka factory. The land was originally given to the Otsuka family over 140 years ago during the Edo period of Japanese history by Kazutoyo Yamanouchi, vassal of the Shogun.

We exchanged business cards and shared a bowl of green tea accompanied by Japanese sweets before Haryuki and Tetsuya drove up me up in to the hills to look at the tea plants and to explain tea farming in great detail. The Otsuka factory processes and exports tea from bushes managed by three guilds of twenty farmers. The plants range in age up to about 30 years, with saplings being first cultivated in green houses for two years. After four years they are planted out in the fields and the first harvest comes after the sixth year.

Tea bushes are clipped using machines in Japan and the rows of plants cover the hills in manicured, linear patterns – each field visually as unique as a finger print. Under the rows of bushes a mixture of organic fish fertiliser, rape seed and straw covers the earth. The organic fertiliser contains nitrogen and amino acids, which are absorbed in to the roots promoting new green growth and enhancing the taste of the tea. Each plant is cropped every four years to keep them low and to allow each plant to absorb enough amino acids.

In Japan tea is characterised by three taste components: sweetness, astringency and bitterness. The word sweetness refers to umami –  a subtle leafy sweetness – not a sugary sweetness. Umami is derived from the amino acid theanine, astringency from catechins and bitterness from caffein. There are four types of Japanese green tea: Matcha, Gyokuro, Sencha and Bancha. Matcha comes in a powered form and has a bold taste with sweet aroma and bittersweet aftertaste. Gyokuro is smooth, full bodied and has a characteristic mellow sweetness. Sencha has an elegant balance of sweetness, bitterness, sharpness and fragrance. Bancha includes three types of tea: Yanagi: a corse leaf sencha that’s sharp, fragrant and pleasantly bitter. Hojicha: a dark roasted yanagi tea with deep-roasted aroma and flavour. Genmaicha: a savory blend of yanagi tea and roasted rice that smells nutty.

Tea is brought from the fields to the factory where it undergoes the aracha process – it is steamed, cooled, rolled and then dried. Then in the shiage process the leaves are cut and sorted, dried again and then blended. These steps vary slightly for each type of tea, for example: matcha tea is stone milled once it has dried to make it into a powder. We tasted each of the different varieties that Otsuka produce. Each sample of the dry leaf was displayed in a dish and each tea brewed in a kyūsu teapot before we sampled them noting the appearence and aroma of the wet leaf and the appearence, taste and aroma of the liqor.

After lunch at the Tea Museum in Makinohara, Tetsuya accompanied me at my first ever Japanese tea ceremony. An amazing end to a fascinating day – thank you Otsuka Green Tea!

President Hiroaki Otsuka

Hannah and President Hiroaki Otsuka

Kinezuka Tea Farm

My first real opportunity to go and visit a tea farm since seriously deciding to start the company came during my trip to Japan. Thanks to Jane (Pettigrew) who offered a couple of initial contacts I set up two meetings. The first with a family based near to Fujieda – just south of Shizuoka city and bang in the middle of Japan’s principle tea producing area.

I spent two days with the Kinezuka family staying in a tatami room in their house. Mr Kinezuka and his daughter Ayumi, with whom I had been in touch, picked me up from the station and drove me back to the family house for a hearty dinner. We spent the evening chatting about the farm, family history, the farming challenges they face and of course the current nuclear crisis in Japan.

Toshiaki Kinezuka, Ayumi’s father, founded an organic tea group with several tea growers in 1976 that became Hito to No, Shizen wo Tsunagu Kai (Connecting People, Agriculture, and Nature). Since then, he has grown tea organically, without pesticides. There are now over 26 member farms in the group who all work together to develop not only advanced cultivation techniques, but also to create a larger macro environment that makes the need for pesticides obsolete. Last year they had to discard their entire harvest due to the radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. However, readings for this years spring harvest so far are promising and it is hoped that the crop will be fit for sale.

Ayumi showed me around the farm, which comprises of several tea fields dotted around the mountains surrounding Fujieda City, and is accessible by 4×4 along some very narrow and windy tracks. Three harvest times take place in May/April, June, and September/October. The very first Midori harvest is handpicked and sold as the highest quality tea. Subsequent harvests are completed using mechanised clippers that straddle the rows of plants.  The leaves are brought back to their factory where they are first laid out for withering – the leaves are dried out to reduce their water content. Then they are rolled in large drums, breaking up the leaf cells and releasing oils – oxidation begins causing the leaves to turn brown. To control the oxidation the leaves are then heated and dried. The point at which this occurs determines whether the tea will be green, oolong or black. The Kinezukas produce both green and black teas.

Kinezuka Tea Farm, Fujieda

Kinezuka Tea Farm, Fujieda

 

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