FEATURE: "Matcha" popularity sees competition brewing among Japanese producers

© Kyodo News

The growing popularity of "matcha"-infused sweets and beverages sold at cafes and pastry shops in Japan is triggering fierce competition amongst green tea producers in their own backyard.

Growers of "tencha," the green tea leaves grown in particular conditions and processed into the finely ground tea powder used to flavor matcha lattes and an assortment of Japanese confectionery, have intensified production to try to keep up with demand.

Prefectures such as Kagoshima and Shizuoka, which traditionally have mass-produced varieties of tea leaves for Japan's most popular green tea called "sencha," have expanded their production, while growers in Kyoto, famous for its matcha "Uji tea" brand, are distributing new matcha varieties more widely.

"Matcha can compete with milk and cream because of its deep and bitter taste and so is in strong demand at pastry and confectionery shops," said Hideki Kuwabara, 71, a wholesaler who was visiting the Japan Agriculture Cooperatives' tea market auction site in Joyo, Kyoto Prefecture, in July to select quality tencha leaves.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and other sources, in recent years, annual production of green tea leaves in Japan has hovered around 70,000 to 80,000 tons, down from more than 100,000 tons in 2004, due to a drop in households using traditional Japanese ceramic teapots for brewing tea leaves.

In contrast, the production of tencha more than doubled from a decade earlier to 3,500 tons at its peak in 2019 because of an increase in the consumption of matcha both at home and abroad. Demand for tencha remains strong as major food and beverage manufacturers release new products such as bottled matcha latte.

Uji, a leading tea producing area in Kyoto, and Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, had long been the predominant tencha production areas until about a decade ago. Kyoto and Aichi accounted for nearly 80 percent of production in 2012 but saw the ratio plunge to around 40 percent in 2020 due to increases in output in other green tea production areas.

For example, Kagoshima and Shizuoka prefectures, the leading producers of the pot-brewed sencha green tea, have been encouraging local growers to shift to tencha production over the past five years.

According to the Kyoto prefectural government, the increase in supply has resulted in the price of tencha reducing by half.

Although the "made-in-Uji" label has been highly valued by makers of matcha-infused sweets and beverages, the "domestic matcha" label is now also acceptable due to the increased availability of inexpensive tea leaves, said Riichi Yoshida, 74, head of the Japanese Association of Tea Production.

Roughly 70 percent of the tencha used across the country comes from mid-grade yabukita cultivar leaves and, as such, is suited for sencha. But changes in the method of cultivation, such as covering the sprouting buds to block sunlight, make them also applicable to matcha. This process strengthens the umami and sweetness of the tea leaves.

The Kyoto prefectural government is trying to encourage local growers to shift to the production of around 10 unique varieties of tencha suitable for matcha, with respective prices more than 1-1/2 times higher than yabukita leaves. It is also providing financial support to growers of the seedlings for such tencha.

But growers from a tea association in Nishio point out that their market has narrowed due to a production strategy that has focused on high-priced tencha.

The association thus asked the agricultural ministry in February last year to deregister "matcha made in Nishio" from the geographical indication label aimed at protecting high-end regional brand farm and food products.

Such products obtained their status as a result of unique production methods and geographic characteristics, such as climate and soil conditions, in their cultivation areas, which often led to higher costs to maintain the distinction.

Nishio's matcha brand, for example, used as the centerpiece in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, is priced as high as 30,000 yen to 40,000 yen per kilogram.

But as the GI system only allows matcha made by the traditional method to carry the Nishio brand, the association filed to remove the label and introduced cutting-edge production technology to reduce costs and enhance competitiveness instead -- the opposite strategy of Uji.

Meanwhile, mass production of matcha has recently begun in China, the output in cases including "inexpensive, inferior-quality" products made merely by pulverizing green tea leaves, said wholesaler Kuwabara, whose long-standing shop operates in Uji.

"It's important that a clear international definition of matcha be decided upon," Kuwabara said.