Kagoshima was historically the source of cheap “filler” teas that big, traditional tea houses in Uji would use to blend and balance out teas. This slowly changed in the late 1980s as the regional government sought to increase the brand recognition and quality of its tea product.
History of Kagoshima tea
Today, Kagoshima is an important centre for tea innovation. The farmers here are open minded and very willing to depart from tradition and test out new techniques and concepts in search of better product. This is something quite rare in the Japanese tea business! However, this was not always the case.
Commercial tea cultivation began in the Edo Period and was encouraged by the local Satsuma samurai clan. Quality never reached the level attained in Kyoto, and this remained the case well into the 20th century. Because of its relatively larger area, Kagoshima became the bulk tea production region in Japan. Its niche was mass production of cheap, lower quality tea that could be used by big tea companies in Kyoto and Tokyo for blending into their tea products. This only changed in the 1980s as the Kagoshima Prefectural Government started a campaign to improve the quality and name recognition of Kagoshima tea by encouraging the Tea Experiment Station and Tea Growers Association. They wanted to improve the standards of Kagoshima tea and then brand Kagoshima tea as a premium tea product.
How the geography of Kagoshima affects the tea
Kagoshima is the second largest tea producing region in Japan after Shizuoka. It is a mountainous region dotted with volcanoes. The soil is high in volcanic ash content which makes it extremely fertile. Being in the south of Japan, Kagoshima has a mild, sub-tropical climate with high rainfall. The land is perfect for agriculture, and Kagoshima is not only a big tea producing region but also a key food producing area for Japan.
The main sub-regions for tea production in Kagoshima is Kirishima and Chiran. Both are nestled along volcanic plains by the mountain slopes. Kirishima today is well known for its sencha and covered tea growing. Chiran has a relatively cooler climate and is seen as having one of the best terroirs for growing tea in Japan. Most of the Kagoshima Prefectural Government’s efforts in promoting Kagoshima tea revolves around Chiran tea (Chirancha).
The broad flat terrain of Kagoshima also means that large fields of tea can be planted and harvested by mechanical harvesting machines. It is less romantic compared to an image of hand plucked tea, but these are highly efficient and helps bring much needed scale to the farmer and keeps the costs of production low. In contrast, the historical tea regions like Uji and Wazuka usually have more more varied plots of land. These could be small and hilly, making it more expensive to tend and harvest.
This environment also allows much greater variety of cultivars than up north in Kyoto and Shizuoka. Weakness to frost is a big problem for tea plants, and the ubiquity of the frost-resistant Yabukita cultivar in Japan is a response to the problem. However, Kagoshima’s milder climate allows to plant non front-resistant cultivars like Saemidori, Okumidori and Yutakamidori. These cultivars produce sweeter teas and provide new and interesting flavors. Tea masters have much more room to innovate on blending because they have many more tea cultivars to work with.
Why the Kagoshima tea industry is more willing to innovate
With the new varieties, the tea industry players in Kagoshima have produced sweeter matcha by combining more tea varieties together. By innovating and experimenting with different cultivars, they have also come up with interesting single-origin matcha – something quite uncommon in Kyoto. Most importantly, the tea industry in Kagoshima is at the forefront of organic tea cultivation in all of Japan. But why is this the case?
In short, they had no choice. The domestic matcha and tea industry in Japan has not changed in years. But Japan’s population is ageing, and many of their young people have largely abandoned tea ceremonies and loose leaf tea in favor of bottled teas and instant beverages. Because the incumbent tea companies are used to selling teas to their usual audience of older people and families in Japan, there is little incentive to change the business proposition. Consumers are used to accepting tea from the famous regions, produced by their favorite brands. This means that Kagoshima tea products, even if objectively of higher quality, simply do not have the same brand appeal as Uji, Yame and even Shizuoka.
Because consumption patterns have remained quite static, the esteemed and traditional tea companies mostly maintain the status quo. They rely on Kagoshima as the source of cheaper teas with which to blend together with their headline tea. Their customers have not changed much so there is little motivation to reinvent the wheel.
Kagoshima tea industry shifts focus to meet global demand
On the other hand, global demand for matcha is increasing at a compounded annual growth rate of 7.6%. However, matcha production in Uji region is nearly maxed out and is focused on meeting domestic demand. The Kagoshima tea industry thus sees international demand as their growth opportunity. Two key points of innovation present in Kagoshima but not the rest of Japan’s tea producing regions – organic cultivation and single origin matcha is a direct result of this.
Because matcha was initially seen as a healthy superfood in the United States, there was an initial fixation on organic certification. This is simply because most health-focused communities in the United States, Europe and Australia seem to prefer organic produce. As Kagoshima’s tea industry sought to serve these needs, they started organic cultivation in earnest to tap on that demand. Today, Kagoshima produces a respectable amount of organic tea and matcha and is in a very advantageous position to grow as the rest of the world learns to also enjoy Japanese tea in addition to matcha. These organic teas and matcha are also of high quality because of the natural fertility of the soil and the favourable geography.
A competitive edge for the Kagoshima tea industry
In the world of coffee, there has been a premium on single-origin beans. Because matcha was first sold in cafes in the United States, there has been some equivalence between the two. There are many new matcha consumers who believe that single-origin is better. In response to this trend, the tea farmers in Kagoshima have tried to create high quality single origin blends. They have largely succeeded because of their ability to grow a larger variety of tea plant cultivars in the milder climate. Single-origin blends are rare in Kyoto because the weather conditions only allow a narrower range of cultivars to thrive. Moreover, the high costs in Uji make it almost impossible to sell single-origin matcha at a reasonable price. Farmers in Kagoshima enjoy better unit economics and can create single-origin matcha from their best produce. It is usually more expensive than regular matcha but the pricing can still be kept within reason.
Our Master’s Collection Kirishima Blend, which is certified organic and entirely made from Asahi cultivar, is one example. Asahi makes great tasting matcha but is challenging for all but the most skilled farmers to grow, which explains its increased cost. However, the same single-origin matcha would likely be much more expensive if it were grown and produced in Kyoto. Even then, many tea companies in Kyoto would not even consider making a single-origin Asahi cultivar matcha because they see it as a waste.
Our blends from Kagoshima Prefecture
Currently, 4 of our matcha blends come from Kagoshima Prefecture.
An organic blend made from the treasured Asahi cultivar from Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture. This blend promises a pleasant sweet and mellow taste, with intense umami notes and a long finish. Our best organic blend yet.
For the above reasons, we have found ourselves working more closely with tea masters and farmers in Kagoshima in recent years. The open mindedness and spirit of innovation is very refreshing, and we are really looking forward to sharing new matcha blends and other types of tea from Kagoshima Prefecture with the rest of the world.