For 35 years, the Sugita family has been growing tea leaves in Makinohara, Shizuoka, together with Oguri Tea Farm, a wholesale tea merchant. We visited them in Shizuoka to get to know more about their work.
How is the tea that we consume daily made? What are some feelings or thoughts placed behind its production? Last but not least, what makes the communication between the tea farms and suppliers so successful?
It was the first time I spoke to a tea farmer (personally speaking), but the talk gave me an insight into their passion for making tea, as well as the impression that they work in harmony with nature. It was clear that their tea was impeccable for a reason.
Since Taisho Era (1916), Oguri Tea Farm ships teas from the Makinohara Plateau to all corners of the world
Oguri Tea Farm started growing tea leaves in Makinohara, Shizuoka in the 5th year of the Taisho era (1916). Over the years, they have expanded their business, and currently take part in the wholesale of teas grown by other farmers, in Makinohara and Kawane (Also in Shizuoka), as well as the processing of teas.
We heard from the CEO of Oguri Tea Farm, Mr. Oguri, as the company neared their 103rd anniversary.
*Customers can sample and purchase the teas inside the shop
The history of tea cultivation in Makinohara began when the samurai under Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the shogun at the time, lost his job during the Meiji Restoration. He then opened a tea field in the Makinohara plateau, where tea leaves are grown to this day.
Oguri Tea Farm, established in 1913, currently delivers high-quality Makinohara tea all over Japan as well as to various parts of the world.
Giving back to the community through an event for the first flash green tea (Shin-cha)
Oguri Tea Farm also organizes events within the community. Every year, on the third Sunday of March, they hold a sampling session of the first flash tea as a city-wide event. Everyone from the community is invited, including the tea farmers that they handle, as well as the staff of the JA (Japan Agriculture Cooperative) in the area.
A lot of work is put into the success of this event. Mr. Oguri starts preparing early in the new year - He, together with the tea farmers that participate every year, takes part in the process of covering the tea plants with a plastic sheet to keep them warm.
*From left: Mr. Sugita, Mr. Oguri
“Everyone else in the area are farmers [including Mr. Oguri], and therefore are busy, but he personally comes by himself and helps us,” Sugita Motoyuki of Sugita Tea Farm, one of the contracted farmers, laughs.
Harvest time for the first flash tea is usually early May. However, this is the busiest time of year for tea farmers. So, by utilising greenhouses and controlling the temperature of the crops, the event is held mid-March.
At the event, you can experience the entire process of creating tea, from picking the leaves to hand-rolling the teas (a process rarely done these days), all the way through until the point where the tea is in its final, drinkable form. By learning in person what happens to the tea from its harvest to its processing, participants are able to be one of the first people to drink the Shin-cha(the 1st flash green tea).
Oguri Tea Farm also gives lessons at local elementary schools, together with farmers in the area, teaching students about tea farming. This is another way that they communicate with the inhabitants of the area.
Oguri Tea Farm's activities, for the farmers and for the world
At the beginning of tea farming in the Makinohara Plateau, most of the farms made black tea, so most of the teas were sent abroad to England or the US. However, now the farms have switched to green tea, and they are mostly consumed in Japan.
The recent rise in the popularity of Japanese teas in Asia has led to increased exports again. Due to this background, Oguri Tea Farm currently processes not just green tea, but organic black tea as well.
(Note: Different types of teas, such as green, black, oolong etc. are made with the same tea plant, but with a different process)
Oguri Tea Farm also aids individual farmers with the sales process.
The tea sold at Oguri Tea Farm is mainly grown in Makinohara Plateau, along the Ōi river. Together with the farms upstream, in the Kawane area, they grow organic matcha as well.
The reason for building the matcha processing factory there is because they wanted to increase the income and productivity of the farms in this area, Mr. Oguri says.
In the same way that the Sakura blossoms start blooming from the South, the tea grown up the mountains, in higher altitudes and lower temperatures, grow slower than the tea grown in southern areas. If their tea plants grow slower than in other areas, the demands would be covered quickly by other farms, and they would be at a disadvantage in deciding the prices of their products. Therefore, they decided to make organic farms and processing factories, which would make sure that prices are stable and allow them to make use of the features of the area.
Comparing the different ways of brewing “Tsuyuhikari (a variety of Japanese green tea)”
The flavor of teas differ greatly by the way it is brewed. The key to the method lies in the temperature of the water. If the water is too hot when brewing, the tea leaves release a lot of catechin, which makes the tea bitter.
The amino acids, also known as umami, dissolves at around 50℃. As for catechin, the higher the temperature, the more it is released. All this considered, the best brewing temperature is different for each tea.
This time around, we tried “Tsuyuhikari,” made by Oguri Tea Farm, at two different temperatures and compared the flavors. “Tsuyuhikari” is one of the tea varieties that is a specialty of Makinohara, and has a beautiful bright green color, sprouts earlier, and contains more umami flavors than other varieties.
“Tsuyuhikari” is also a specialty of Oguri Tea Farm. Extra care is taken in its production - A week before harvest, the tea leaves are covered with a sheet to shield them from the sunlight. This increases the umami in the leaves. Then, only the young buds are harvested, and the tea with rich umami taste is created. It is a special kind of tea, made with extra care.
*Left: susuri-cha, Right: tea brewed at 80℃
First, we had Tsuyuhikari brewed at 80℃.
Tsuyuhikari has a deep umami and sweetness, with a round scent and flavor. One sip, and the flavor spreads through your system. It tasted different from any other tea that I have had in my life. I personally tried it again, at home, and was overwhelmed by its perfect balance of umami and sweetness.
The luxurious experience of Tsuyuhikari - Susuri-cha
Next, we tried Susuri-cha (= sipping tea, or also called Shizuku-cha = drop-tea), where you drink the tea in a very small portion.
The water we used was soft water, which is the same kind of water as the water near Ōi river.
In a small square dish, as shown in the picture, we put about 1 to 2 grams of tea and covered it with water, warmed up to about body temperature. Then, we waited for about 2 minutes, until the tea leaves opened and the flavors seeped out.
By watching the tea leaves carefully, you can see them slowly open and release its extracts. When they do, the tea drop is to be sipped from a corner of the dish.
“It’s true that for this amount of tea leaf, more can be extracted, but by drinking only the first few drops, you can have the most luxurious experience of tea. Using boiling water at 100℃ will make the tea bitter, so we recommend brewing at a lower temperature to release the umami.” Mr.Oguri says.
Once the water starts gaining the color of tea, it is time to slowly raise it to your lips. In order to experience the full flavor of tea, drink it as you do wine - swirl the tea in your mouth before you swallow.
Susuri-cha is the best way to experience the umami flavors of tea. In fact, there’s so much umami that it almost feels like broth. Tsuyuhikari brewed at 80℃ is, of course, wonderful, but with the susuri-cha method of drinking, one can experience the concentrated umami flavors of the tea.
Susuri-cha is quite a luxury, but it also makes you feel strongly that you “have had tea”.
We used water this time for extraction, but another recommended method is Kori-dashi, or ice brew, wherein you place ice over the tea leaves and wait for the ice to melt and extract the tea. (I tried this at home, and was mesmerized by the sweet, mellow flavor of the tea!)
With susuri-cha, you can also extract tea multiple times and compare the different flavors. And surprisingly, the tea leaves can be eaten afterwards as well.
In the second half of this article, we will be reporting what the tea farms and factories are like on the inside
In the first half of the article, we featured Oguri Tea Farm’s activities and about the different experiences of drinking tea. In the latter half, we will be visiting the tea farms at Sugita Tea Farm and reporting on their passion for their work.
*The second half of the article is now available!
This article is written by...
Writer : Chihiro
Profile : Japanese essayist grown in Asakusa. Also editor of the web magazine ”Kamome to Machi"
Favorite Tea : Tsuyuhikari(She was tempted through this interview)