Befriending Japanese Tea Cultivars

When you go to drink your Japanese tea, have you thought about the type of tea cultivar(s) that your tea is coming from?  Perhaps, one may associate “cultivars” with the world of tea connoisseurs. Nonetheless, because at Yunomi, we generally specify the type(s) of tea cultivars in our tea descriptions and tea lovers do seek single-cultivar teas, I thought it would not hurt to touch on the topic of Japanese tea cultivars today. 

As Ian Chun’s earlier blogpost on cultivars states, a cultivar is a cultivated variety. That is, cultivars are a group of plants that have been bred by human beings for desirable characteristics. Cultivar improvement (Japanese: 品種改良) of the tea plant, camellia seninsis started during the Meiji Period. Today, when including unregistered cultivars, there are over 100 Japanese tea cultivar types! 

Perhaps, it is important to mention however that cultivars and cultivar improvement expands beyond the world of tea. For instance, you can think of how there are many different varieties or cultivars of apples or tomatoes. They have different flavors, shapes and the plants themselves also can look a little different, grow in different ways, mature at different times. Similarly with tea, there are different cultivars that start growing at different times in the spring and have different sensitivities to environmental factors and result in a different cup of tea.

With a myriad of varieties to choose from one may wonder how tea farmers select the type of tea cultivar that will grow on their tea farm. This depends on a few major factors. We’ll touch on three for now. 

  1. Type of tea
  2. Climate of the region 
  3. Size of one’s tea fields

 

Type of Tea

In general, Japanese tea cultivars are cultivated to make sencha, gyokuro/tencha, or kamairicha (pan-fried tea). Although one can make any kind of tea (e.g., sencha, oolong, black tea) from any type of cultivar, tea farmers will select cultivars that are well-suited for the specific tea they would like to produce. So, when choosing a cultivar to produce sencha, one considers cultivars that have a good taste and aroma when processed into a sencha. These cultivars may differ from a gyokuro and tencha because with these latter types, there is the shading factor to consider. Thus, cultivars that grow well even when they are shaded and produce a refreshing green color are desirable. When selecting a cultivar to make kamairicha one considers cultivars that give off a pleasant aroma when the leaves are pan-fried.  

Climate of the Region

Tea grows across different regions of Japan - from the Southernmost Island of Kagoshima up to the Kanto regions. These regions differ with respect to their climate and different cultivars are well-adapted for certain types of climates. For instance, Kagoshima is a major tea producing region in the South with a warmer climate and without much morning fog (*although this depends also on the topography of the region). In Kagoshima therefore, it is desirable to have a cultivar that buds (starts growing) early in the season (in Japanese, these cultivars are referred to as waseshu; 早生種). In fact, some of the tea producing regions in Kagoshima are well known to have the first flush shincha (i.e., hashiri-shincha) with cultivars such as the Yutaka Midori and Saemidori cultivars. On the other hand, colder regions may desire later budding cultivars to avoid being damaged by late frost and/or cultivars that are more resilient to cold such as the Okumidori cultivar (in Japanese, these cultivars are called banseishu; 晩生種).  

 

Size of Tea Fields

When tea farmers have a lot of land and multiple tea fields, most also have more than one type of tea cultivar. Why? If they relied on one single cultivar, the harvesting time would occur all at the same time, which makes harvest, as well as processing much more difficult. A tea farm will therefore generally have a few types of cultivars with different budding times, that spread out the harvest and processes over a couple weeks (e.g., a combination of early, mid, and late budding cultivars). 

The Kuma Tea Gardens in Yame, Fukuoka prefecture is a great example of a tea farm that produces a variety of single-cultivar teas that slightly differ in the timing of their harvests. To illustrate, across three different cultivars Saemidori, Yabukita, and Okuyutaka, their harvest dates were April 14th, 20th, and 30th, respectively. Because the tea garden is located in the South, they have a relatively early harvest in April. However, one can see that the harvest dates are a couple of dates apart form one another. 

 

saemidori sencha - Kuma Tea Gardens The Saemidori Imperiel Mountain Grown Sencha from Kuma Tea Gardens in Yame, Fukuoka prefecture. This tea received the gold medal (Prix D'OR) in the Japanese Tea Selection Paris 2020.   

 

The Yabukita Cultivar: Why so dominant?

Even if you are not too familiar with cultivars, if you have been drinking Japanese tea for a while, it is likely you have heard of the “Yabukita” cultivar and that you have probably tried and (hopefully) enjoyed it. Developed in 1908 by a single farmer from Shizuoka prefecture by the name of Hikosaboro Sugiyama, the Yabukita cultivar has many favorable characteristics. This cultivar is frost resistant, is well adapted to multiple regions, grows uniformly and it has excellent flavor. It may be important to recognize Sugiyama-san began his novel agricultural practices and development of tea cultivars when there was little interest in cultivar improvement, or even using vegetative propagation rather than starting from seed.

The majority of tea plantations at the time used seeds, and most frequently what is called the Zairai/indigenous variety that we will touch on later. Since tea cross pollinates very easily, meaning one plant pollinates another. So even just two plants cross pollinating can create many, slightly different seeds, meaning that the dominant tea farmer strategy of the time was just to leave the genetics to do their own dance. This would result in fields with a variety of slightly different tea plants, budding at different times, growing at different rates and having slightly different flavors. Many of the Japanese tea experts did not care to invest in breeding efforts as they felt strongly that Japanese tea was characterized by an amalgam of various cultivars (Zairai) and that it was the blend of these diverse flavors that created the renowned Japanese green tea.

 

Yabukita tea fields - Kajihara tea gardensYabukita cultivar tea fields ready for harvesting in 2021; photo by Kajihara Tea Gardens.

 

In fact, it was not until 1931 that the public began to recognize the outstanding quality of the Yabukita cultivar. The cultivar was highly praised by the Shizuoka Prefecture Agricultural Experiment Station in 1934 and was registered as a cultivar by the year 1953 (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry). The reason why the Yabukita cultivar became so wide-spread during this time was because in the 1960’s, the tea industry lacked the technology to prevent frost. With the Yabukita cultivar however, the young sprouts could sprout uniformly outside the dangerous frost period (mid-May). Moreover, it was a vigorous plant, easy to grow and yield a decent harvest making it a likable and stable cultivar for many tea farmers.

 

Japanese tea cultivars 20202020 statistics from The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

 

As one can see from the above pie chart depicting the major different tea plant cultivars in Japan, the Yabukita cultivar was still the dominant cultivar in the year 2020, representing 70.6% of the total percentage of cultivars (report from The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). Yet, when one looks at the breakdown of cultivar variety by prefecture, one will observe that it varies by region because of the climate of the tea producing region as well as other factors. For example, warm Kagoshima, where the cold tolerance gives no advantage, cultivates the least amount of Yabukita compared to other regions and relatively more of the early types (Yutaka Midori and Saemidori). On the other hand in Shizuoka prefecture, where Yabukita was actually developed and where cold tolerance and late budding is a major advantage, plants the highest amount of Yabukita.

 

Japanese cultivar breakdown by prefecture2020 statistics from The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

 

In the year 2016, the percentage of Yabukita cultivated nationally was about 75%, which means that it has decreased in the last 4 years by 5%. With time, it is thought that the percentage of the Yabukita cultivar planted nationally may continue to decline. This is because tea bushes are a perennial plant which takes time and expenses to reach harvestable maturity. Tea farms usually do not replace tea bushes until they are well over 30 years old (and when they do replant, the decision on what cultivar to plant is an important one!). Considering the Yabukita cultivar spread most rapidly in the 1960’s, it is likely the majority of these tea bushes are now over 40 years old.  As farmers are considering when and how to replant their tea fields as their Yabukita bushes get too old, it is expected that tea cultivars may diversify even more.

 

Zairai, the Natural Blend

Before cultivar development became popular in the 1960’s/70’s, Japanese tea farmers were primarily using seed propagation with zairai tea bushes. Zairai (Japanese: 在来) means “native/indigenous”, and refers to old tea bushes that have no identifiable cultivar. Cultivars are usually vegetatively propagated by rooting and planting a branch of another bush, making them essentially clones with matching DNA. In contrast, with Zairai, each tea bush will have very slightly different traits because it was grown from a seed. Given that, the Zairai is not truly a cultivar but rather a blend of different individuals. Plant scientists may actually call it a population. Still, collectively, in general people refer to the tea bushes as Zairai. If you ever have the opportunity to carefully observe a tea field of Zairai cultivars, you will recognise that the characteristics of the leaves and color vary from tea bush to tea bush. Speaking of tea fields, I had a pleasant dream the other day where I visited Zairai plants in the Yunnan Province in China, an area that is said to have some of the most Zairai tea plants in the world (Hopefully, that can happen in real life someday!).   

 Zairai Tea Fields - Kajihara Tea Gardens Zairai tea fields at Kajihara Tea Garden; it may be difficult to tell but if you look closely, one can observe that the fields are not as uniform; photo by Kajihara Tea Gardens.

 

Today, this type of tea farming is not very popular among tea farmers, mainly due to the fact that it is not as productive (i.e., about 50% less productive in comparison to the Yabukita cultivar) and it is rather difficult to process. The tea bushes are diverse, which means the flavor and harvest time will vary between tea bushes planted next to one another, making harvesting a hassle. Nonetheless, the diversity leads to more resiliency in the tea bushes and because of that diversity and the fact that seed grown tea bushes have stronger and deeper roots, that look like a burdock root, they can absorb more deeply available minerals and tend to be more resistant to drought, pests and disease.  Additionally,  there are some farmers and people who simply prefer the traditional ways and stick to the historical Japanese tea taste. In fact, Zairai teas have their own strength providing a refreshing taste. If you would like a taste of old Japan, make sure to try a Zairai tea, especially as they are becoming quite rare!

Zairai Teas for you to try: 

 

Benifuuki Cultivar

A cultivar that is recently getting increasing attention in Japan, Benifuuki is specifically known to be a cultivar for Japanese black tea (it was made by combining Indian Assamica and Japanese tea). Because of its high level of catechin, it can convert smoothly into flavorful tanning when used to create black teas. The Benifuuki cultivar is highly resistant to disease. It also makes flowers and leaves that are larger than that of the widespread Yabukita cultivar and provides a 30% higher yield. While black tea comprises a small 1% of Japanese tea production, tea farmers have started to experiment with making teas outside of black tea with Benifuuki.  

A few Benifuuki cultivar black teas on Yunomi: 

 

Kyoto Prefecture Cultivars

As you may be aware, Kyoto is famous for teas that require shading such as gyokuro and matcha. The three cultivars gokou, samidori and uji hikari were all developed in Kyoto prefecture. Although they are not officially registered, they are common cultivars in this area. If you like matcha or the rich umami of gyokuro, these cultivars are definitely worth a try!

Kiroku Tea Garden Gokou Cultivar MatchaGokou matcha from Kiroku Tea Garden.

 

Gokou: a cultivar that was specifically made to suit the soil and climate of Kyoto prefecture, gokou is a cultivar that does well with shading and is thus often made into gyokuro and matcha. With a distinct and unique aroma that reminds one of earth, this cultivar is often noted for its' rich umami. 

 

  • Samidori: A cultivar coming from a plant in Uji, it was bred by Koyama Masajirou in 1939. A tencha specific cultivar and a traditional and common Kyoto matcha variety. The samidori is a normal budding cultivar which buds around the same time as the Yabukita cultivar. As matcha, it tastes smooth, soft, and velvety.  *Please note that there is a similar cultivar called “saemidori”. 

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  • Uji Hikari: A cultivar for shaded tea selected in Uji in 1954 from indigenous “zarai” tea plant seeds. Like the two former Kyoto cultivars we touched on, the Uji Hikari is also often made into a match or gyokuro. This cultivar is refreshing yet rich with a mellow aroma and the finest umami.

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    Cultivar exploration

    If you have tried a couple of single-cultivar teas, is there a specific Japanese tea cultivar that you especially like or find intriguing? And if cultivars are something that have not crossed your mind before, I hope you were able to gain a bit of insight from this blogpost. In my personal opinion, it is quite intriguing to try a diversity of taste and flavor of Japanese tea, just like one would when tasting wine. So if you do feel a bit more inspired to go outside perhaps the comforting Yabukita taste, we also have a few cultivar comparisons on Yunomi for you to try out - and yes, comparing different cultivars from the same producer from the same year is a wonderful way to do this. Happy tea tasting!

    Azuma Tea Gardens 10 Matcha SamplerCultivar Comparison (10g x 10 types): Azuma Tea Garden Stone Milled Matcha Sampler. 

     

    Featured image: Kaneroku Tea Garden's hand-picked Yama-no-Ibuki cultivar's fresh buds.  

     

    CultivarJapanese teaMoe kishidaTea cultivarsTea tastingYabukitaZairai

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