Can global matcha craze save Japan’s tea industry?

FUJIEDA, Japan (AFP) – From matcha ice cream to cake and chocolate, producers of traditional Japanese green tea are capitalising on growing global interest in its flavour – even as demand for the drink declines at home.

At Shigehiko Suzuki’s tea shop in central Japan, adorned with a traditional “noren” drape, the customers are flooding in but more to scoop up gelato or cake than to sip the bright-green tea.

In 1998, Suzuki’s company Marushichi Seicha started making powdered matcha green tea – traditionally made using a bamboo whisk in a tiny room. The firm now exports 30 tonnes of green tea to the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“The demand for matcha is rapidly growing in the world… There’s demand for ice cream, desserts and coffee,” Suzuki told AFP at his shop in Fujieda, 170 kilometres southwest of Tokyo.

Japan exported more than 5,000 tonnes of green tea – mainly to the US – last year, 10 times more than two decades ago.

A woman brews Japanese tea at a tea salon in Tokyo. PHOTOS: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Farmers harvest matcha tea leaves in Fujieda, Shizuoka prefecture; and a man fills a bag with dried Japanese tea leaves at a tea factory in Fujieda, Shizuoka prefecture. Producers of traditional Japanese green tea are turning to matcha-flavoured ice cream, cake and chocolate as they seek to capitalise on a craze at home and abroad to offset a decline in tea drinking

But in Japan, the consumption of green tea leaves for drinking dropped from 1,174 grammes per household in 2001 to 844 grammes in 2015, according to the latest government data – a trend Suzuki puts down to a more westernised diet.

“The number of Japanese who regularly drink tea is decreasing while there are more Japanese who enjoy various kinds of food, so tea doesn’t sell like before,” said the 55-year-old.

Japanese traditionally drink green tea with rice but are doing so less as the diet becomes less dependent on the grain.

Sensing the shift, Suzuki branched into matcha-flavoured ice cream nine years ago, opening a shop where customers can choose gelato from seven levels of bitterness.

It became so popular, he opened two stores in Tokyo and one in Kyoto, matcha’s traditional home. Tea growers like 67-year-old Yoshio Shoji are also jumping on the bandwagon to grow matcha leaves – as they command a higher price than sencha, needle-shaped leaves used to make the traditional Japanese drink.

The matcha leaves sell for 3,100 yen (USD30) per kilo on average, compared to 1,400 yen for sencha, according to the Japanese Association of Tea Production.

But Shoji said tea fields are shrinking as farmers get too old for the physically demanding work.

“The oldest one is over 80. There are not many successors,” he told AFP as he gazed out over his tea fields on the mountain slopes.

“The tea price is dwindling and the work is tough.”

Tea leaves were first brought from China to Japan in the early ninth century and the tea was treated more as a medicine at that time.

Matcha developed in 16th-century Kyoto when tea master Sen no Rikyu established the traditional tea ceremony known as chanoyu.