Japanese Green Tea Cultivation
How Tea is Grown in Japan - the Art of the Farmer
Last time we discussed the tea plant and its varieties that have been developed to produce the selection of Japanese tea we enjoy today.
Whether it is a new tea field where the farmer needs to choose the cultivar, the location of the field, and the type of tea to be produced, or it is an established tea field that has been nurtured and productive for several years. The next step, which is really the most important, is to grow the tea so it can be picked and processed.
Japan is a small country relative to its population. This has encouraged farmers to make the most of the land available to grow food, and the tea farm is no different. Tea farms can be found on flat plains and in mountainous areas; farming methods vary based on the terrain as well as many other factors; we hope to give you an overview of the significant steps in tea cultivation here.
Tea exists in the wild and in the wild can live for hundreds or even thousands of years. Plants in the wild propagate from seeds. This means each new plant is a mixture of the plant that produces the seed and the plant that provides the pollen to the propagators. Because each plant is different, unless the plant has self-propagated by the propagator taking the pollen from the plant itself, the plants in the wild differ in their characteristics from neighbor to neighbor.
In the farming environment, the productive life of a tea plant is up to about 40 years. The plants take approximately five years from planting to the point where they can be used in production. It is beneficial for farmers to have the plants in each area be the same; this ensures their growing times, production levels, and, ultimately, the taste can be anticipated. For this reason, rather than growing tea plants on a farm by planting the tea from seeds, most commercial farms plant tea from cuttings. The cuttings are taken from existing, known plants; thus, the farmer is confident that the plants produced will have specific characteristics.
Cuttings are usually taken in the springtime after the first harvest. The cuttings typically consist of a small stem with a single leaf. The cuttings are planted in the farm’s nursery. The new plants take about two years to develop a root system and become strong enough to be re-planted outside. The young plants are moved to their new permanent position in the field, and it will take a few more years before they become productive plants going forward.
The time spent preparing the plant from cutting to production is long and manifests itself later in the care and maintenance given to the plants for their productive life; the farmer has a significant investment in their success.
The maintenance of the plants is a year-round job. They need to be fertilized, watered and protected from pests (it is not just humans that enjoy the tasty leaves). Their climate kept within the parameters necessary for the plants to survive and thrive.
As you might imagine, we here at Chado Tea House like to drink tea. Japanese tea has a complex taste, and some of the complexity and variation in different Japanese teas are the level of sweetness and Umami that can be present.
Umami is one of the five basic tastes. It is a Japanese word that roughly translates into ‘pleasant savory taste.’ It was identified by the chemist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 20th century. Several foods have umami flavor, tomatoes, mushrooms, and marmite (we will not say anything more about that), but everyday Japanese staples like green tea, soy sauce and seaweed are known for their ability to impart this complex taste.
Many tea farming techniques used in tea production strive to enhance the sweetness and umami flavor of the tea that will eventually be consumed. Two such techniques are fertilization and the shading process utilized in some teas. The tea plants need nutrition typically provided by either synthetic or natural fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Fertilizer is generally added several times throughout the year.
Shading is a technique used in the production of tea plants destined for Matcha or Gyokuro, as well as some other teas. Shading usually happens approximately 21 days before harvesting for Gyokuro, 28 days for Matcha, and 14 days or less for some sencha. The farmer will cover the plants to block out most of the sunlight. If a plant is allowed to develop in full sunlight, the natural amino acid present in the plant will be converted by photosynthesis to an astringent compound called catechins. The shading either stops or lessens this conversion and thus enhances the umami flavor the farmer is looking for.
There are three approaches to tea production in Japan:
Most tea farming in Japan is carried out using what is referred to as conventional farming methods. This farming type applies to large industrial-scale farming operations and to smaller, family-sized farms. In this scenario, synthetic fertilizers and pest control substances are used. The Japanese Government controls which chemicals can be used in food production. Using this method, tea production is less labor-intensive, and a more consistent yield can be achieved.
Organically grown tea in Japan is governed by JAS (Japanese Agricultural Society). Organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers but instead use naturally occurring substances like bone meal, mulch, and manure to aid the tea plant’s growth. Pesticides are heavily regulated in all farming in Japan; in organic agriculture in particular, no synthetic pesticides are allowed, and measures taken against pests include growing diverse crops and protecting with naturally occurring substances – the tea plant itself does contain caffeine which is a natural defense mechanism against pests. Indeed some of the longevity of the plants in the wild is the effect of green tea caffeine content.
Tea has grown wild for thousands of years in many different countries. Tea grows especially well in mountainous areas. All-natural farming thus tends to happen in mountainous areas, and the tea grown is specifically chosen to work well in the climate and local growing conditions of the soil and temperatures. No added fertilizers, synthetic or natural, are used in this type of farming, and no pesticides are used. The farmer's skill, the nature of the land and climate, and the choice of the cultivar are all integral to the crop's success. This farming tends to be very labor-intensive, and the yields are low compared to conventional practices in use today.
Chado Tea House offers teas from producers adhering to each of these growing methods.
The most consistent taste of the finished product is produced as one would expect by utilizing conventional farming.
The products produced by organic and all-natural tend to vary. Still, the producers strive to deliver consistently high-quality tea that can differ somewhat in taste characteristics from year to year but maintains a high grade.
Tea is an essential part of Japanese Agriculture. There are often competitions at the local and national levels to identify the best tea in a given area, year, or type. Most of the competition winners typically come from farms utilizing conventional farming techniques, but in recent years organic tea and all-natural teas have started to make inroads as techniques and body of knowledge increase.
Irrespective of the farming method, the tea needs to be cared for throughout the year to ensure healthy plants. The plants are trimmed throughout the year, especially after harvests; this trimming involves cutting back some growth to allow for easy access to the plants by controlling their height and width. There can be 3-4 harvests per year. Every so often, each third year, typically, the plants are more heavily trimmed after the first harvest and the plants are left to recuperate. Trimming, in general, and the periodic deeper trimming allow the plant to grow new branches and invigorate the plant with new energy, ultimately leading to higher tea yields.
Whenever we look at a picture of a tea farm or are lucky enough to visit one in person, the thing that jumps out is that the tea is grown in rows of near-uniform width and height. The typical width of the row is 3 feet, and the height will vary during the growing season but is also around 3 feet.
The tea plant is planted in rows, and as mentioned, the plants are regularly trimmed to ensure that the gaps between the plants provide easy access to the farm workers and allow for sun and ventilation. Many tea farms will prune the plant, so the rows have a curved top; this is done to allow as uniform as possible access to sunlight for all the tea in the rows – it also has the side effect of adding even more to the aesthetic of the farm.
At harvest time, the workers will walk between the plants and pick the leaves from the plant, either by hand or using mechanical pickers. The trimming not only makes for easy access, it also helps the plant develop new growths, which in turn helps the tea yield. Whenever a stem is cut, it will typically result in two new stems; those new stems grow leaves that are the primary part of the plant used in tea production.
Like everything in farming or life, things are not always this way. A variation on the typical cutting back method is a technique called bud-weighting., This bud-weighting method of production utilizes much less trimming of the plants; in this way, the stems that remain get thicker, and the leaves and buds on those leaves are bigger – this results in a variation in finished product taste and appearance.
Japan though relatively small is still a large area and the climate and agricultural characteristics change as you traverse the country. The tea-growing regions stretch from the Akita and Yamagata Prefectures in the north, throughout the main island of Honshu right to the Okinawa Islands Prefecture in the south. Most of the most well-known and prolific tea-growing areas are in the country's south.
Generally speaking, most of the ‘action’ with tea production happens between April and October.
(please see our glossary for othe tea terms)
To discuss what happens and when It may be easier to start at the end and work through the year.
Prior to the winter, the plants will be trimmed and cut back; quite often, the tea trim will be used as a mulch-like substance on the ground; as the trimming decay, they provide warmth and nutrients as the plants become dormant during winter months. Many tea farms utilize fans mounted high in the fields (several meters) to circulate the air so cold and frost do not adversely affect the plants.
When winter begins, the harvest of the tea stops and the plants are prepared for the colder months. This involves protecting the plants against cold weather; the base of the plants is typically covered, sometimes with rice straw and other naturally occurring coverings to maintain the soil.
As the winter progresses, the plants store their energy and nutrients, ready to burst back into productive life when the warmer weather arrives in the spring.
Spring in Japan is an exciting time in the Tea Industry. The New Teas, or Shincha as they are known, become available.
The Shincha harvest consists mainly of tea that will become Sencha. Tea from the first harvest is picked, and these leaves are the most prized. Over the years, Japan has invested in research and technology to maintain the freshness of tea throughout the year, so tea picked in this first harvest is available year around.
After the first harvest, the plants are trimmed to stimulate new growth.
About 28 days before the next anticipated harvest, some of the tea plants will begin to be shaded primarily for Matcha and Gyokuro.
About six weeks after the first harvest is completed, the second harvest begins. Once again, picking occurs, and after the harvest, the plants are cut back to stimulate growth and to maintain their shape.
There can be up to 4 harvests spread out over the May-November period. Some farms only harvest once or twice per year. Each harvest, or flush as it is known, produces tea leaves and buds that are less highly prized than the production earlier in the year. This doesn’t mean that the tea they produce cannot be wonderful to taste – it is the farmer’s skill and the tea finishers’ skill that combine in the production process to transform this more mature product into satisfying teas to drink.
This is a delicate operation as the picking of the plants starts the oxidation process; the more the leaves get handled or bruised, the quicker the oxidation process progresses. As we shall see in a later section, this oxidation must be stopped for the tea to remain green. The picking techniques used are primarily dictated by the amount of labor required and the land the tea grows on. A hundred years ago and many years before, all the tea leaves and buds were picked by hand. As time progressed, the methods of picking became more automated. Firstly hand-held shears with cotton bags attached were used to catch the leaves as they fell. Nowadays, a lot of the picking is done by either two-person teams working held mechanical cutting devices that the pickers use as they walk on either side of the tea plants or by vehicle-mounted devices specially designed to perform the task both efficiently and with the utmost regard for the health of the plants. In mountainous areas, the two-person device tends to be used while on the flat plains; the vehicle method is now often deployed.
Once the tea is picked, it moves on to tea production, which usually starts with steaming. In days gone by, the farmer would be solely responsible for the planning, planting, picking and processing of the tea from the beginning all the way to the finished tea available for sale. Nowadays, the farmer is usually tasked with planting, growing, picking, and the production of the ‘aracha’ – the semi-processed tea. Specialist tea distributors typically handle the final production of the tea, packaging, and distribution.
We hope this has given you a taste of what goes into making that taste of the tea that you enjoy. Chado Tea House has built good relationships with the farmers and processors from which we source our tea over many years. We have visited the facilities of our long-term partners and hope to see the newer ones as the country opens to visitors. We appreciate their efforts and skills and hope that they continue to evolve to bring old favorites and new teas as time goes on.
Tea that has been picked and is now ready for processing