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Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012

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Taste test: Black tea is sampled during a fermented tea master workshop in Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, on June 12. KYODO PHOTOS

Farmers switching from green tea to black


OSAKA — Japan is famous the world over for its green tea, but farmers are starting to produce black tea as demand dwindles and prices fall amid changing consumption habits, especially for high-grade varieties.

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Teetotaler: Koji Nakakubo, a tea farmer in Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto Prefecture, checks the aroma of his harvest on May 29.

According to a survey on family income and spending conducted by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the average amount of green tea purchased by a household of two or more people came to about 950 grams in 2010, down from roughly 1.2 kg a decade earlier.

"Many families (nowadays) don't even have a teapot at home," said Koji Nakakubo, a tea farmer in the village of Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto Prefecture, that is renowned for its Uji brand of tea.

Consumption of green tea has fallen steadily as the public's diet and tastes have become increasingly more diverse.

Meanwhile, the spread of bottled tea, available in vending machines and stores everywhere, also means that fewer people are brewing tea at home these days.

In an additional blow, sluggish demand for high-quality varieties of tea — once a highly popular gift item — has continued to decline, further reducing the annual income of tea farmers.

"High-grade green tea just isn't selling anymore" on the domestic market, Nakakubo remarked.

According to Shizuoka Prefecture, which produces the largest amount of tea in the nation, the average price of its prized first flush "ichiban cha" traded on the Shizuoka Cha Ichiba market was about 20 percent lower in 2010 compared with 10 years earlier.

In the face of such adversity, farmers like Nakakubo are trying to apply their tea producing skills to turn out black tea with varieties of leaves normally used to make green tea.

Earlier this year, Nakakubo and a group of fellow farmers started a project in Minamiyamashiro to test and promote production of black tea, experimenting with the "yabukita" variety of tea that is normally used to make green tea.

The group used machines to knead tea leaves and then carefully checked the aroma of the finished product to assess its quality.

Unlike green tea, the black variety is made through a process of fermentation in which the leaves left to turn progressively darker.

"We aim to produce 'wa kocha' (Japanese black tea) with a tinge of sweetness that is suitable for drinking" without the customer having to add any sugar, Nakakubo explained.

In 2011, the group turned out about 30 kg of black tea on a trial basis, but this year it plans to ramp up production to around 500 kg.

Other tea producing regions have also begun similar initiates to promote black tea production techniques among local farmers, as well as the finished item to consumers.

The Shizuoka Prefectural Government this year launched a "fermented tea master workshop" at the tea research center of the Shizuoka Prefectural Research Institute of Agriculture and Forestry, as well as at other locations, to show farmers how to make black and other fermented teas.

Farmers in Ureshino, a famous tea-growing district in Saga Prefecture, have also set up a liaison group to promote black tea.

According to the Japan Tea Association, the nation's tea farmers first began to make black tea in the Meiji Era, mainly for export.

In 1955, total domestic tea production of black tea exceeded 8,000 tons, but this figure started to quickly decline in the 1970s, due mainly to the liberalization of tea imports in 1971.

The association estimates that 19,800 tons of black tea were imported from foreign producers last year, but domestic production totaled less than 100 tons.

To enable home-grown black tea to make headway amid the widespread popularity of imported teas, the challenge for farmers will be "how to highlight (their product's) unique flavor," according to a source in the industry.

But Yutaka Koizumi of Shizuoka's tea research center nonetheless appears confident.

"Since tea leaves grown domestically are used in the process, I'm sure the tea will have a mild and refined taste" that appeals to many consumers, Koizumi said.

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