Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Interview & Videos with Mr. Nishi-san in Kagoshima, Japan

Kagoshima First Flush officially started on April 6; the very first shincha lots were produced during the last few days of March, but those were quite plain and we did not accept them. We came to visit Mr. Nishi-san on April 13, during his first harvesting of shincha from one of his Sae Midori fields. This was his first field to flush this year. Mr. Nishi-san has many small fields in Kirishima Mountain and he cultivates 14 different varietals, which all flush at different times, so each day or so after his first Sae Midori flushed, other shincha lots came out.

April 13th, we unwrapped the Sae Midori field selected by Mr. Nishi-san for the first harvest of the year.

This year, we chose a superb lot of Yabukita Shincha, which was handpicked on April. We'll be offering many other First Flush micro-lots later in the season from Mr. Nishi-san, after the First Flush is totally completed and we can choose.

Mr. Nishi-san's gardens are located in Kirishima Mountain, which is at a much higher elevation than the rest of Kagoshima's tea fields, so his teas always flush later than other areas of Kagoshima. This year, we are very lucky because none of Mr. Nishi-san's farms were affected by frost or cold damage that harmed and even killed so many others earlier this year. During our visit, we could see that his tea fields appeared strong and healthy.

Below is an interview conducted over many days of hanging out with my friend, Mr. Nishi-san.

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. Mr. Nishi-san, Rishi’s long time friend Mr. Kotaro Tanimoto-san who is the President of the Japan Tea Exporter’s Association and Joshua along one of the trails in the organic tea fields.

INTERVIEW:
Josh: Hello, I'm here in Kirishima Mountain in Southern Japan with one of the true artisan masters of sencha green tea, Mr. Nishi-san! Thanks for welcoming Rishi to visit you again! How long have you personally been working with tea?

Nishi-san: I started working with tea from a young age with my father, so you could say at least 40 years.

Josh: How long has your family been cultivating tea?

Nishi-san: I am the 2nd generation in my family working with tea.

Josh: How many family members do you have working with you and what kind of work do they do?

Nishi-san: Our major focus is tea and we produce all kinds of local organic produce like Satsuma Imo (local sweet potato), mushrooms, fruits, herbs and honey. We also grow the majority of our own food. My wife, my two sons and my daughter and other family members all work together with my staff to cultivate and process tea.

Josh: Of all the teas you produce, which tea is your personal favorite?

Nishi-san: Handpicked, First Flush Sencha, but I have no specific favorite varietal. Each year the weather presents different conditions and my favorite this year may be different next year.

Josh: I knew you were going to say that and I am glad you did, because so many tea drinkers in the US are fixed to one flavor, and year after year, they always have to get it, and many complain when the tea is a bit different. But it is my opinion that we must embrace change, and the beauty of our teas is that they reflect the changes of nature. That's what makes specialty tea a specialty and not a standard!

Josh: What percentage of your teas is handpicked, vs. machine harvested?


Nishi-san: About 2% of our teas are handpicked. The cost is about five times the cost of machine harvested, but we can only sell the handpicked tea for two times the price of our machine-harvested tea, so we only make it available in our local retail shop, give it away as gifts, or sell it to special customers like Rishi Tea.

First day of Mr. Nishi-san's First Flush harvest in Kirishima Mountain on morning of April 13th, 2010.

Josh: What makes your tea farm so unique, and why are there so few organic tea farms in Japan?

Nishi-san: We embrace the balance and harmony offered by nature, making use of what's in our environment. Not just Japan, but most of the world relies on chemically invasive, unbalanced agriculture to maximize yields and prevent or kill pests and that's where we are different. Our method is all about natural balance and we only use what we can find in our natural environment. We separate our farms in the mountain with natural buffer zones of thick forestry and bamboo stands to keep the balance of the local environment.

The qualities of the tea we cultivate are also very different. Unlike other gardens that focus on a single varietal or only Yabukita, we are cultivating many tea varietals—14 to be exact—and they all flush at different time periods and have different flavors and attributes, so as the weather and conditions change each year, we can have many options to make our teas stand out, and our customers can choose various varietals to make specific blends that can be adjusted from year to year in response to the weather situation. We have varietals with deep color and rich umami and others with specific aromas and various degrees of sharpness. We can adjust our tea blends with the season according to our method and the choices at hand and that is also quite unique from other farms I've seen. Our farms are in Kirishima Mountain, which is at a higher elevation than most other Kagoshima areas, and our teas tend to flush a bit later than the usual Kagoshima First Flush, so we don't get too much frost damage.

Nishi'san's organic philosophy of organic tea cultivation is all about balance and harmony 

Josh: I saw the unique style of composting you use and Mr. Nishi, I must say that your soil appears alive and so rich. Most organic tea farms have significant nitrogen deficiencies and look unhealthy, but your gardens look so strong. Must it be the composting methods? 

Nishi-san: You could say we assist nature to make our own organic fertilizer. We dry, bundle and age straw in covered piles, which attract bacteria, and then we mix the straw with soil from our Kirishima Mountain, crushed bamboo, and decomposing wood from our shiitake mushroom farms, and let it weather in piles for three years. During this composting time, the bacteria act to microbiologically ferment inside the compost pile and we add this special compost to our tea farm soil and it gives our gardens all the nitrogen and nutrition the tea plants need from the soil. We also don't weed and allow nitrogen-fixing herbs to grow between the rows of tea bushes, which aerates the soil, enhances the nitrogen absorption and provides the proper medium for earthworms to thrive, which are nature’s organic fertilizer producers. You saw how many worms are in my soil? Japanese tea varietals are bred for high amino acid content and low caffeine and catechin so they must obtain a great deal of nitrogen to produce amino acids. We rely only on these natural methods to enrich the soil and boost the nitrogen that our tea plants require.

Nishi Organic Compost Pile

Josh: What are they key organic methods you use for pest control?

Nishi-san: Water, wind machines called "mini-hurricanes," killer bees and spiders, but the key is the water and wind. We have so many spiders in the gardens and they love to eat the pests of the tea bushes.

Josh: They like to eat me too. I got a small bite yesterday in the Yabukita garden!

Josh: Are there any recent technological advancements in the harvesting machines or organic cultivation practices you can share with us?

Nishi-san: I think you saw all of our special harvesting machines, the kabuse applicator, the different kabuse wrapping colors we use for different conditions and our processing lines. The most recent innovation we use is the powerful wind blowers to remove pests, called small hurricanes. We are also using mist sprinklers and fans to prevent frost damages to our tea farms.

Some of Nishi-san’s tea fields are wrapped a few days before harvest to enhance the green color of the leaf and to enhance the umami flavor. The shading blocks sunlight and slows the conversion of amino acid to catechin making a sweet and smooth tea without sharpness. 

Josh: Most teas in Japan are made with Yabukita but Mr. Nishi-san is famous for growing many unique varietals in addition to Yabukita. Japanese tea varietals are so unique from other types of green tea bushes; how do you describe the general difference between Japanese varietals and other tea bush varietals?

Nishi-san: Japanese tea bush varietals are bred for making sencha green tea and they have low caffeine and catechin but much higher amino acids and theanine contents when compared to other nation's tea varietals; therefore you could say our breeds are designed to be less bitter and astringent but much more umami, sweet and smooth with vivid or fresh green color. Japanese tea bush varietals have the potential for a much more true green or rich green color that is well suited to the sencha steaming process and this comes from a balance of breeding, cultivation techniques and our unique Japanese withering and leaf steaming procedures. 

Josh: According to your own philosophy and experience, what are the virtues of steamed green teas, vs. other styles of green teas?

Nishi-san: Compared to other methods of green fixation, steaming quickly and efficiently kills enzymes in the tealeaf to prevent oxidation, and preserves the fresh green color of the leaf. The fresh green color and contents of steamed tea are quickly extracted when brewing within two brief infusions in various water temperatures. Pan-fired, roasted and other types of green teas need hotter water, longer infusion times and multiple steepings to release their contents and benefits into an infusion.

Josh: The harvest season, the tea bush varietal and the harvest region define the character of sencha, but basically, sencha is categorized by its degree of steaming. There is light steamed sencha called "asamushi," mid-steamed sencha called "chumushi," and deep-steamed called "fukamushi.” Many books and seminars on sencha claim that there is some set time for steaming, like asamushi for 30 seconds, chumushi for 60 seconds and fukamushi for 90 seconds, but is that true?

Perfect shot of Mr. Nishi’s organic planning and healthy tea bushes shows the rich soil, blooming beneficial bacteria of soil health and thriving nitrogen fixing herbs set against the back round of thick stands of evergreen trees that serve as natural buffer zones that surround and protect the organic tea farms from wind shift contamination of industrial and urban toxins. Buffer zones like these trees are so important for organic cultivation. 
Nishi-san: That sounds like a general range for First Flush Yabukita and very general. The degree, timing and pressure of the steaming depends on how course or tender the leaf material is and that depends a lot on the seasonal condition of harvest and the varietal of tea bush. We cannot say that there is a set time for asamushi, chumushi or fukamushi. It depends on the tea maker and the leaf status. It also depends on the customer's needs. Like for your tea, we make chumushi, or mid steamed, but each year we have to adjust the time based on the leaf character.

Josh: We know the varietal and season of harvest is the major influence of amino acids, catechins and caffeine contents in a tea, but does the degree of steaming also affect the level of caffeine, catechin and theanine in the tea?

Nishi-san: No, it does not. The varietal and season of harvest are the major factors that define the amino acids, catechin and caffeine in the tea. Some varietals have very high amino acids wile others maybe lower. The various tea breeds, harvest season and soil types influence such factors.

Josh: Over many years, I have studied Japanese green tea and through my travels to many tea-producing countries, I can compare processing of green tea and I have the opinion that Japanese green tea is the greenest tea. I see this is true from varietal breeding, cultivation and steaming, but most impressive to me is the controlled withering. So many countries wither their green teas in ambient conditions but you control your leaves from the time they are loaded onto the truck to the time they enter your factory's withering chamber and through the whole process, the leaves never rise above a certain temperature before and after steaming, to keep the fresh green character. Could you tell us why withering control is so important?


Nishi-san: Withering preserves vitamin C and other contents in the tea leaf. When we make our green tea, we must control the leaf temperature and moisture content. The leaves should not get too hot or reduce their moisture too fast or they will become yellow and lose their good contents, resulting in poor color, flavor and mouthfeel. Proper withering increases amino acids and theanine in the leaf and converts carbohydrates in the leaf to complex sugars. Proper withering is very influential for the flavor, mouthfeel and amino acid taste (umami) of green tea, and that is why we developed a withering condition that controls the leaf temperature and humidity. Even our trucks that transport leaf to our factory have fans that circulate fresh air so the leaves don't get too hot and begin oxidizing.

Josh: At our last company meeting, we had everyone state their favorite tea. Your First Flush Sencha was the most mentioned tea and our customers also love your tea. Thank you for always making the great sencha for us!

Josh: You are like a rock star in the organic tea trade, especially in the US, where so many appreciate your unique quality of sencha. Do you have some message for all of our friends that love your tea?

Nishi-san: Thank you for enjoying our organic teas from Kirishima Mountain. Please try our multiple varietals each year.

Hiroki Nishi, Mr. Nishi-san's son: Thank you for choosing our family's tea! We know it is important for our planet and for our customers to make teas that are ecologically and environmentally balanced and safe, using only organic methods. We will continue growing our organic teas and sharing with you. Thank you very much!

Josh: Thanks for your time and welcoming me into your home, Mr. Nishi-san, and for sharing so much great information and superb food with me! Good luck making teas this year! See you again soon.

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