Tuesday, May 18, 2010

2010 Japan Crop Report

The majority of Japan's tea is from Shizuoka. Usually, Shizuoka's 1st Flush tea auction starts on April 15 or 16. This year, the 1st Flush auction started on April 19, due to the severe frost damages of Shizuoka's tea gardens. More than 60% of Shizuoka's 1st Flush was totally killed by frost. It was a real disaster for Japan's tea industry. In 2009, 10,700 kg were sold on opening day of the auction, but this year, only dozens of 5 kg lots were for sale, totaling a mere 1,348 kg sold.

Since the volumes of 1st Flush tea during the first week or so of the auction were at about 5% of normal volumes, the prices were unusually high and most of the quality was quite low in comparison to other years. Most tea from the low and mid-elevations that survived showed signs of cold weather defects like thin, watery body, plain flavor, bitterness, low umami and amino acid taste.

Many high elevation gardens in the Shizuoka area did not get frost damage and although a bit delayed, some good teas could be found, but at quite high prices. As the season pushed on, the weather improved and some yields were made but in general, the total volume of tea from Japan is a lot lower than usual and the top quality is either very expensive, scarce and not easily available. We were so lucky to get our Supreme Shizuoka First Flush Kukicha, specially made for us from the sorted lots of Shizuoka's most premium, deep-steamed shincha.

The financial hardships felt by Japan's tea farmers and merchants could not be worse. The Japanese government issued emergency aid for Shizuoka tea farmers due to their hardship. This is proving to be one of the worst years for the Japanese tea industry, with their domestic loose leaf and bottled tea sales in steady decline for the past few years. Japan's tea traders have been looking outward for export markets to compensate for sluggish domestic sales, but this year there is simply not enough good tea at affordable prices to help the situation. Rishi's connections and long-term relationships in Japan have played a huge role in our ability to secure good teas at stable enough prices when most others are faced with significant cost increases and a lack of supply.

Due to the bad weather and severe shortages in Shizuoka, Uji/Kyoto, Fukuoka/Yame and most other tea areas in Japan, many famous tea merchants, and even some tea farmers without tealeaves to sell from their gardens traveled south to the Kagoshima and Miyazaki areas in Kyushu, where weather conditions were much more favorable.

Of all of the tea-growing regions in Japan, the Kagoshima and Miyazaki areas had the best conditions during 1st Flush. On opening day of the Kagoshima 1st Flush auction, around 100,000 kg were sold. Low and mid-elevation areas had some frost damage and delays but not the devastation found in Shizuoka. The high elevation areas in Kagoshima, like Kirishima Mountain, had great conditions and yielded some of Japan's best lots of tea this year. Our teas from the Nishi family in Kirishima Mountain stand out as some of the best lots we've tasted so far this year, including our handpicked April 20th batch of Yabukita from Mr. Nishi-san.

Nishi-san's beautiful organic tea field in Kirishina mountains.

In summary, there is very little tea available for the traditional shincha sales and prices are at very high levels. High elevation growing areas of Shizuoka will provide some pretty nice teas but they have been very much delayed beyond when people expect the shincha release. Most shincha in the market was from Kagoshima. Approximately 65% of Japan's tea crop is harvested during the 1st Flush season, and about 70% of Japan's tea usually comes from Shizuoka, but this year, 60% of Shizuoka's tea fields were killed by frost. As such, the teas from Japan's 2010 harvest will be quite different this year as other growing areas outside of Shizuoka will make up the bulk of what is blended with Shizuoka tea and what is exported from Japan.

Shizuoka tea, some would say, has defined the flavor profile and general character of sencha that many tea consumers in importing countries are familiar with. Due to cold weather and frost damage during the key harvest season, the total volume of Shizuoka and other famous sencha-producing areas for domestic sales and exports are very low compared to previous years, so to keep the flow of tea in the market, tea manufacturers had to make new blends using various origins.

The superb but lesser known teas of Kagoshima and Miyazaki will be more widespread in sencha blends this year and customers will have to keep an open mind when making their tea selections and understand that the tea this year will not taste like last year. This is a major year for change in the tea industry and Japan is but one story in a very radical Asian tea season.

Working within the parameters that nature provides and producing something that is different and unique each year is the beauty of our specialty tea industry. We have vintage years and we have years that provide challenges. This is one reason we feel our industry is rightly dubbed, "Specialty Tea." When the weather and conditions are severe, only the most flexible, specialized, well versed and connected tea merchants can provide relative stability and top quality. This year was a big test and revelation for all of us. We must learn to appreciate that tea is at the whim of "Mother Nature" and that tea is a truly dynamic, natural product that is always changing and can never stay the same.

Many fear or resent change but I say, let's embrace change and work with it. We did this in many origins this year in order to keep stable quality and relatively stable prices when quality and quantity was generally very low and prices were way up.

The cold weather conditions that affected the 1st Flush tea crops in Japan were similar in Korea and Eastern China, where cold weather killed crops, delayed harvests and provided many substandard teas. This year, the tea bushes came out of dormancy a bit early due to an unusual, yet brief warm spell in early March and then the temperature rapidly dropped to winter-like temperatures, shocking the tea bushes and in many cases killing the buds. Even through late April, the temperatures were quite cold throughout East Asia, delaying or killing much of the 1st Flush in Japan, Korea and Eastern China. Fujian and Zhejiang were hit the worst by frost from March through April.

The 2010 Shincha and total Japan 1st Flush season is a real problem for the Japanese tea trade, but with a partner like Mr. Nishi-san and our other friends in Japan, Rishi will still manage to offer great tea this year!

 Mr. Nishi-san is a very serious guy and usually he is not so willing to be on camera much less interviewed by a foreigner. Seeing him smile after our first of many interviews was refreshing.

Yours truly,

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