In America and Europe, organic foods are typically perceived to be of higher quality. Based on the volume of enquiries we receive on the topic of organic matcha tea, it does seem that there is a market need for more organic matcha. Yet, most Japanese matcha companies do not offer any organic matcha tea blends. We ourselves only have two organic matcha tea blends – the Organic Ceremonial Blend and Master’s Collection Organic Kirishima Blend. In this article we examine some reasons why organic Japanese matcha is still relatively unavailable.
Non-organic matcha usually tastes better
During the shaded growth phase, the plant is starved of sunlight. One of the farmer’s key tasks is to ensure that the plant survives this difficult period. While most farmers use organic fertilizers during the grow-out phase, they resort to using non-organic fertilizers during the shaded growth phase when it is especially crucial to ensure the plant’s health..
As we have sharedbefore, the shading process is easily the most critical part of the matcha production process. It greatly affects the taste of the final matcha powder and takes great skills and knowledge to manage. With less sunlight for photosynthesis, the tea plant begins various chemical reactions that increase the production of beneficial amino acids. These amino acids contribute to the sweet, umami flavors in matcha, and is also responsible for some of the desirable compounds in matcha like L-theanine.
If farmers only rely on fertilizers that are certified organic, their jobs become much more difficult. This is because organic fertilizers cannot provide enough nourishment to the plant. Tea plants which barely survive tend to have a weaker amino acid profile that causes a less desirable taste in the harvested leaves. Hence, farmers use non-organic fertilizers during the shading period to allow tea plants to maximize the production of amino acids under the shade
It is challenging to grow organic tea plants
Aside from the possible effect on taste and the lower prices such tea leaves (with weak amino acid profile) would fetch, farmers are often unwilling to take the risk to switch to organic farming because the requirements of organic certification often involves significantly increased costs as well.
In the Uji region, where most tea estates are tiny by international standards, the problem is compounded because it is necessary to create a buffer zone around the plot of land reserved for organic farming. This is to ensure that the organic area is not affected by non-organic fertilizers used in neighbouring plots. Since a tea estate could be as small as a few hectares, any unused land may materially impact the farmer’s yield. This is in addition to the usual costs associated with organic farming, such as increased labour costs for the manual removal of weeds and pests. For smaller estates, the organic certification process does not come cheap. Changing work processes to meet the standards required for certification may itself be a hefty capital investment.
For these reasons, it is no wonder that hardly any farmers in the Uji region grow organic tea. The ones that do are able to charge an incredible premium for their harvests because of the enormous costs involved. Currently, we believe that only the growers in Kagoshima Prefecture have managed to produce good quality organic tea at a reasonable cost.
For now, only a minority of Japanese customers prefer organic matcha and change will take time.
Matcha tea may have exploded in international popularity over the past 5 years, but the bulk of the demand is still within Japan. Because most Japanese people have a high degree of trust in their farmers and institutions, they do not place as much of a premium on foods certified as organic. They trust that foods produced in Japan are of a high standard. They trust that the farmers are skilled in their crafts. They trust that the tea companies and will make quality product that is delicious and safe to consume. Compared to its neighboring countries, Japanese regulations also prevent farmers from using too much fertilizer in their crops. Therefore, there is little perceived need for further organic certification for growers in Japan..
Because the oldest and most esteemed tea companies in Kyoto often produce “blends” of matcha, tea masters would be limited to using only organic certified tencha before a matcha blend can be certified organic. As you may imagine, this would make the range tencha for tea blending much smaller. This, in effect, places a ceiling on the quality of organic matcha tea. This may change as the international market for matcha grows, but it will be some time before the traditional tea companies even consider pursuing organic certification.
Only younger, bolder tea estates operating at significant scale would dare to make the switch. This is probably why we have found the most success developing organic matcha blends in Kagoshima Prefecture. The tea estates in Kagoshima are some of the largest in Japan and was previously seen as the source of vast quantities of cheaper, mass produced tea in the 1980s and 1990s. For a region eager to shed this old image, organic farming emerged as an easy way to improve its market perception. Today, we are very proud to have developed two great tasting matcha blends using tencha produced in Kagoshima that is certified organic by the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS).
But can I trust non-organic matcha?
The Japanese government also limits the type, quantity, and timing of agricultural pesticide use. According to the prevailing regulations, farmers must record each instance of use along with the respective quantities used. As a result, Japan has one of the lowest use of pesticides in the world. Most of them use a combination of fishmeal and natural plant compost to fertilize the tea plants for much of the year. Therefore, you can be assured that even for non-organic matcha and teas, pesticide use is kept to the bare minimum.
Even though the organic farming culture is not as well established in Japan, we believe there is less concern for harmful pesticides in non-organic produce due to the stringent agricultural laws put in place. This may change as matcha gains increased prominence on the international market. As younger tea estates develop with a greater openess towards organic certification, organic Japanese matcha may become more readily available in the near future.
Next in this series
Producing matcha tea is a process which requires skilled labor at each stage. The tea plants must be cared for, properly shaded, and then processed in specific methods. Thereafter, a