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Millennials Brew a New Future for Japan's Healthy Tradition

Newsweek 11/29/2022 Sponsored Content Team



Matcha, a select, finely powdered green tea, has become a popular flavor in the West in recent years. However, when it comes to beverages, including bottled drinks and hot teas at traditional restaurants, it's sencha in the loose-leaf form that is most common across Japan. Tea consumption is steeped in history, but developments are now set on taking the beverage's appeal to new audiences in and outside Japan.

As Japanese tea finds more devotees, many people might try it to help them relax, find comfort when they feel unwell or simply see if they enjoy the taste. But where and how to start? Oscar Brekell, 38, a Swedish-born tea instructor (akin to a tea sommelier) in Japan, suggests beginning slowly with a high-quality tea, which means ichiban cha, or first harvest tea.

"The Japanese tea plant hibernates over winter," explained Brekell. "So its new shoots and new buds are really rich in nutrition that the tea plant has kept in its roots over winter—and so you get all the nutrition. The leaves are very tender and delicate; whereas, in summer, the leaves are very fibrous and not as complex in taste and flavor. When it comes to Japanese tea, it's the first flush, or first harvest—that's what you want to be looking for."

Choosing soft water over hard is another tip. Things can get a bit more complex regarding steeping time and water temperature—both of which can vary from tea to tea. However, Serika Tsuji, 31, head of AOBEAT, a startup focused on developing tea products and conducting tea estate tours, offers a simple workaround for beginners.

"The easiest way to enjoy Japanese tea is to try cold brew tea," said Tsuji. "Just put the tea leaves in the water and let it sit for one night. The next morning you can drink it. That's the best way to understand the taste of the tea leaves. It's hard to fail." She also suggested trying many different teas until you find the one you like.

To help newcomers, the Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center (JFOODO) makes it possible to buy a tea to match your personality or mood by answering a series of questions on its website. After clicking through everything from flavor preferences to shopping habits, you can choose from a few recommended teas.

Green Tea and Food

Brekell and Tsuji are passionate about their work with green tea. Brekell is one of only a handful of foreign Japanese tea instructors. He estimated that there were eight non-Japanese tea instructors when he qualified in 2014 and about 13 today. Foreign or not, however, the certification is difficult to attain. The Nihoncha [Japanese Tea] Instructor Association says that until 2015, the test had a 35 percent pass rate.

For foreigners, the perception that Japan can be a closed culture along with the very practical matter of the language barrier could also be a deterrent. But Brekell's determination was so strong that even after receiving the study materials and discovering he could not read them—and failing the test once—he decided to move to Japan to dedicate himself fully to tea. Since then, he has interned at the esteemed Shizuoka Prefectural Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute Tea Industry Research Center and has worked with the Japan Tea Export Promotion Council and Japan External Trade Organization promoting tea.

With his knowledge, Brekell offered ideas for an initial foray into Japanese tea, its effects and foods that pair best with the beverage. "I think when it comes to green tea," Brekell said, "obviously, it's easy to combine with Japanese food naturally because it has evolved in the context of washoku or traditional Japanese food. But it actually can go well with other types of food, as well. And I think the easiest thing to combine tea with is sweets, actually."

Brekell added that it's not necessary to limit yourself to Japanese sweets; even cheesecake or any cake might be fine, as Japanese tea is quite flexible. Noting this, Tsuji, a native of Shizuoka prefecture, one of the top tea-producing areas in Japan, referenced a local restaurant whose tea pairing course includes steak and fish.

Tea Changed My Life

Brekell and Tsuji are in the heart of the tea industry now due to turning point experiences. High school history classes about Japan led Brekell into a local shop in Malmo, Sweden, where he lived, to buy Japanese tea. The owners knew nothing about green tea and could give no instructions on how to brew it, including that it's not advisable to use boiling hot water.

"It was just totally bitter," said Brekell. "And there was this grassiness that I wasn't used to. Recently, I described [Japanese tea] as having a forest-like aroma; you feel as if you're drinking nature. The umami, the richness, felt more like soup in a strange way that I wasn't used to," added Brekell. So it's an acquired taste. I think in a sense it's rarely the case that people fall in love with Japanese tea at first sight or first sip."

After Brekell's initial experience, he stuck with green tea until he grew to like it, upon about his third brewing. He has since written several books and conducts seminars on the subject and has even started his own tea brand, Senchaism. Japanese tea, he said, changed his life. Brekell found what he calls an "ally" in green tea and feels drinking it has made him calmer.

Tsuji grew up in central Japan's Shizuoka prefecture, where one tea-producing region is known for the long life expectancy of its residents. She found it difficult to take an active interest in something that was so ubiquitous. There was always a traditional teapot, or kyusu, at home. Gargling with green tea was thought to prevent colds. In school, tea was served with lunch. Later in life, as an employee of one of Japan's most prominent tourism companies, Tsuji was assigned to a division focusing on tea tourism.

"A farmer gave me some tea to drink," said Tsuji, "and I was so surprised at how good it was. I had never tasted tea that was so delicious. Because of that, I became interested in tea for the first time, did some research and found out that the tea farmers were facing issues." Added Tsuji, "I thought how sad it would be if I couldn't drink tea anymore, so I started working with tea. Up until that time, I was a coffee drinker."

The views from Japanese tea estates can be breathtaking. AOBEAT © AOBEAT The views from Japanese tea estates can be breathtaking. AOBEAT

That refreshing tea Tsuji drank on an estate led her and her team to develop the Cha-no-ma tours. People can sit on wooden decks in the middle of tea estates having a meal, drinking tea and simply relaxing while enjoying the view. Her company also runs a tea stand, Aardvark Tea1 located in Shizuoka and two online shops selling various products.

Reviving Tea Industry

Through their work, Brekell and Tsuji are re-energizing an industry that has been declining with falling production and consumption. They are hopeful about the current possibilities for Japanese tea, many of which are in single-estate. In the past, most teas were a blend from different farms. However, there is now growing interest in more delicious teas from a single farm or even sometimes from one part of a farm.

Much like wine and coffee, single-source teas have distinct properties and flavors. AOBEAT © AOBEAT Much like wine and coffee, single-source teas have distinct properties and flavors. AOBEAT

"If you say sencha, it's really a wide genre," explained Brekell. "There's cheap sencha there are blends you have tea bags. And then you have what I do or present during my tea events: single estate, high quality, single cultivar [tea from a single type plant] teas. I think people are more familiar with other beverages like coffee and wine. In the case of wine, if you open a menu, you always see a lot of different types of grapes, and they all have their distinct taste and flavor. Actually, it's the same with Japanese tea. They have more than 100 different types of tea plants."

The market for teas is quite promising for Tsuji, who likens single-estate teas to specialty coffee. "Everybody says there's no profit in tea, but we want to use our business to show that you can make new markets for Japanese tea. When we were starting up, people were like, 'Are you OK? There's no money in tea.' But I think there's a lot of potential in tea."

Tsuji's Aardvark Tea stand is located in a very traditional shopping arcade. However, its minimalist design, large glass window and bright purple aardvark logo announce its modern spin. Tea stands have been popping up across Japan as a new way to reach consumers. Tsuji believes that packaging tea differently is important to change a long-held view that the beverage is freely available.

One of Aardvark's products, branded with its purple logo, is a handy, clear bottle that removes the need for a teapot, cup and complicated brewing procedures. Tea leaves and water are added, and a filter is fitted into the top. People come in and fill up on their way to work, Tsuji said, a practice perhaps more associated with current coffee consumption. In addition to single-estate teas, the company also offers blends infused with herbs and spices and is currently developing tea syrups that can be used in making cocktails.

Taking Tea to Global Audiences

Last year, the global matcha market2 was valued at approximately $3 billion. The Japan Tea Export Promotion Council said that matcha accounted for nearly 70 percent of its $94 million in tea exports between January and August 2022. The Council added that exports have risen gradually, increasing from $45 million in 2014 to $135 million in 2021. At the same time, tea is now sent to more than 60 countries, up from 49 in 2013.

Along with its taste, part of the fine green powder's appeal might be its health benefits.

A 2021 review of research on matcha published in the journal Molecules concluded that, with regular consumption, the beverage might support the body's efforts to maintain health and prevent disease. The article suggested that matcha's potential health-promoting properties are derived from compounds such as polyphenols, catechins, vitamin C, caffeine and the amino acid theanine in the body, these compounds might have effects such as improved memory and cognitive function and reduced stress and inflammation.

In an English-language pamphlet for non-Japanese consumers, the Japan Tea Export and Promotion Council recommended tea for, among other things, staying alert in business meetings, relaxing and countering the effects of oil-rich foods. However, the study cautioned that "to confirm the validity of implementing recommendations for increased consumption of tea beverages made from matcha, it will be necessary to undertake deeper and broader analyses of its effects on the human body."

Looking to the Future

As pandemic controls are relaxed, Brekell and Tsuji plan to grow their businesses even more. As one of a few certified tea instructors who speak languages other than Japanese, Brekell will travel internationally again to give tea seminars and presentations. He also intends to expand his tea brand, Senchaism, an undertaking in pursuit of the best, most unique sencha for tea lovers worldwide.

"I'm actually increasing the amount of tea soon," said Brekell, "so the lineup is going to grow. And fortunately, I actually got a lot of foreign clients or customers recently. So more and more people are discovering [green tea], and I have a few core customers as well who keep ordering. So if you appreciate this type of tea, I want to be there for you."

To do that, Brekell works closely with everyone involved in the tea-making process, visiting farms, particularly in the harvest season, in spring, and taking photos of verdant green fields to post to his Instagram. Conveying the beauty of the surroundings in which tea is grown, Brekell said, is also one of his goals.

"It's a long time since sushi and Japanese food came along," Brekell explained. "We're kind of getting used to umami, soy sauce, seaweed, vinegar and rice—all those Japanese flavors. I think we were ready for green tea. We've had the matcha boom, and hopefully sencha is the next thing."

AOBEAT hopes to increase awareness and host more international visitors. AOBEAT © AOBEAT AOBEAT hopes to increase awareness and host more international visitors. AOBEAT

Inbound tourism is an untapped market for Tsuji's AOBEAT, which was established during the pandemic. Just a few days after Japan reopened its borders to international tourists, in October 2022, the company started receiving overseas inquiries about its Cha-no-ma tours.

"Most of our customers so far have been Japanese. Now, there is a possibility that we will increase the number of cha-no-ma locations from seven, as well. Tea tastes best on a tea estate, and when you come to Cha-no-ma, you can drink the tea of the farm that you visit." Each estate's tea is different and the views, whether it be Mount Fuji or the ocean, or both, are also different.

The company has plans to increase the number of tea stand locations and to expand globally. It hopes to establish a tea lodge and bolster a program it runs teaching high school students about economic principles using the tea industry as a model. Therefore, AOBEAT is also looking to grow its staff with people passionate about working in the tea industry.

"Tea is our local resource," said Tsuji. "I think matcha is quite popular overseas, but sencha is great, too, and we want to show that."

Information Presented by the Government of Japan

1The Aardvark Tea website is written in Japanese. A translation tool may be needed.

2Matcha Tea Market: Global Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast 2022-2027 overview is written in Japanese. A translation tool may be needed.

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