Producer Interview #1


Gyokuro Genius

Shinya san’s intense passion and incredible attention to detail are legendary - I have heard other producers use the words “genius”, “legend”, and “once in a generation” among others. It is all true. Shinya san can sometimes strike you as stone faced, almost un-emotive. But spending time with him - as I have been lucky enough to do over the past 6 years - you realize there is a gushing fountain of ideas, emotions, opinions and drive lying just below the surface. Rather than display it in words - Shinya san displays it in his teas. I find myself describing his gyokuro as “genius”, “legend”, and “once in a generation”. All of the yame gyokuro in our collection is currently created by Shinya san.

Shinya san and his family have grown tea in the small town of hoshinomura - nestled in the mountains of central yame. japan’s top rated gyokuro has come from this surrounding area for the last 21 years. Of course the soil, mountain air and fresh streams make it an ideal location, but the community and its commitment to one another is also bedrock to the success of this tiny town.

below is a chat with Shinya san about his Family’s business in particular and Yame in general.


“Since I happened to play music, I started to describe the flavor of the tea with waves. Using waves of high, middle and low sound, I started to be able to remember and catalog”

Zach: First, can you tell us a little bit about the history of your business, your family and yourself?


Shinya San: We are still new, even compared to Uji or Shizuoka (two of Japan’s most famous tea growing regions). It is said that Yame (Fukuoka) tea itself started in 1423. Even Gyokuro in Yame is only about 110 years old. And for Matcha, we started manufacturing it in 1989, so I think we are new overall. 

My Family started as a tea farmers. Everyone was growing tea in their backyard back then, so we started a business from there. My grandfather asked the local tea farmers around Hoshino Village to share their tea and started the business after World War II. We then started finishing tea, creating shiagecha (Shiagecha is finished tea, as opposed to aracha which is crude, unfinished tea). 

Currently we have a factory, warehouse and refrigeration. The building we are currently in was built in 1978 and our new factory was built in 1999 - so we don’t have a long history.





“My Family started as a tea farmers”

Shinya san’s father evaluating tea (left)

Z:So at first, your grandfather purchased tea and started as a manufacturer? 


Y:He was manufacturing. Well, at the time, there were many factories built by the village, with the local support around here. They brought the tea leaves into those factories and manufactured tea. I think, of course, they hand-rolled before that. Since people say they hand-rolled tea that means the tea leaves were picked in their backyard, pan-fried and rolled on straw mats - it seems that they were making their own tea at home. Now, they have all been consolidated in one place - a joint cooperative factory where everyone brings their own tea to have it processed.


Z: Can you talk a little about your direct responsibility with your families business - what you are in charge of day to day? What are your  responsibilities? You are the main Cha-shi (tea blender), correct? Who are the other people you work with?

Y: Well, we are a manufacturer and we do mainly the finishing (processing aracha into Shiagecha). But, honestly, because we own our farm, we do packaging as well as wholesaling and retailing. We make many kinds of products. What I have to do, since now I’ve become a senior managing director, is to decide the direction for the company. But personally I prefer a hands-on approach and it’s more fun to make tea. So, I do cultivar testing and analysis in my own farm. I feel like my duty is to explore tea’s possibilities. I know I have to do more of the business centered parts of my job, but more than that, I strongly feel that I want to explore tea’s possibilities.

By the way, it’s kind of related to that topic, but recently we’ve been testing a new cultivar called Kirari31, which has been awarded in the Fukuoka prefectural tea fair. Such cultivars are made in various places such as tea research facilities. I mainly try to find out if they can adapt to the environment of Yame and and if we can produce proper products in Yame. Especially, when good cultivars are introduced. 

And, if we evaluate them properly, such as how easy or difficult production is, then the farmers won’t be worried when they produce them. After a cultivar has been made in a tea research facility, various kinds of data can be obtained. But, you would never know if it can be suitable for the area unless you actually grow it there. There have been many cultivars that developed a good reputation at the research facility but didn’t turn out well once they were actually produced. We’ve made mistakes. So, to improve the situation, I’ve been testing cultivars that I think that are worth using at our farm. 


ちなみに、これもその中の話ではないですけど、最近でてきた品種できらり31っていう品種があるんですけど、それをうちでも試験をしてて、これは県の品評会のお茶なんですけど、まぁこういった品種の可能性、実際品種がいろんなところで、 試験場とかでできるんですけど、それが八女の地に合って、八女でちゃんとした形で商品ができるかっていうのをだいたいやってます。いい品種がでたときはですね。


Z: So, even if the cultivars were evaluated in the research facility, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they could be easily produced in that area, right?  


Y: Right. The data is just data taken at the facility. And to be honest, since those research facilities receive the budget they are expected to deliver good results. So, the evaluation for the taste of tea is only subjective. That’s why I actually produce them. This is our new Gyokuro [serving tea], We’ve got great one this year. This is what we use for Kiwami, which you carry. 


Z: Delicious!


Y: It’s the cross between Saemidori and Sakimidori.


Brewing Kirari31

Brewing Kirari31

Z: Beautiful. So how would he describe the difference between this, and for example, just plain Saemidori? What do you feel that cross-breeding brings out, compared to Saemidori?

Y: It’s as delicious as Saemidori. One of the notable characteristics of this cultivar is that the color of the leaves is a deep bluish green. Of course, if you shade (Gyokuro is purposely shaded prior to harvest) the trees, the leaves get greener, but the greenness is a bit stronger than Saemidori. And, for the farmers, it is easier to produce because it is a tree of strong vigor. The tea tree itself is strong. On the other hand, Saemidori is much weaker and it can get sick easily and is quite vulnerable to insects. That’s why this one is easier to produce. 






Y: Sakimidori has been around for a while. It’s from Miyazaki prefecture. 


Z: I’ve only had it as Fukamushicha, from Shizuoka I think. 

Y: Ah I see. 


Z: When we talk to the farmers in Uji, we’ve noticed that they have a strong policy to keep their tradition and history. On the other hand, it seems that your family has a strong feeling to do something new and make new things. Is that the Kyushu’s characteristic or your family’s company policy?


S:  I’m not sure. But, I think it’s both. When I came back to my hometown after studying tea in Shizuoka and Kyoto, I started to see good things about my home town such as the soil quality, the altitude and of course the people living here. But, we still haven’t been able to make the best use of them - to really realize Yame’s full potential. This potential is what motivated me to challenge many things at that time. 

 If you think about it, Uji tea sells no matter what since it has its established tradition (Uji has major name brand recognition similar to how Burgundy or Bordeaux do in french wine). But since we don’t have such history, I think we have to compete on quality or new ideas to stand on the same stage. It’s no match for tradition, so then I think we must compete on the taste. Since I feel that way for Gyokuro as well, I think that is the reason we’ve been able to continue to receive the Daijin Awards (National level awards for quality).



Shinya san evaluating Tea - He is one of only 5 “10th Rank” level tea professionals in Japan

Shinya san evaluating Tea - He is one of only 5 “10th Rank” level tea professionals in Japan

Z: It is well known that you have on of the highest abilities when it comes to judging tea even when compared nationally. Can you tell us the process you take when you judge the quality of tea leaves?


S: I might’ve mentioned already, but while the taste of wine is described in fancy expressions, tea is evaluated by finding flaws. The key is to see what is bad about it. So, the expressions when describing it are naturally not so great or difficult. For example, it is hard to understand how to describe differences of the scents among the cultivars or how to remember them. During the evaluation, evaluating the differences among the cultivars and the production regions is also difficult. If the expressions used when you drink it were vague, people would never remember this information. That’s why I remember them by using metaphors. But it can be difficult as well, so since I happened to play music, I started to describe the flavor of the tea with waves. Using waves of high, middle and low sound, I started to be able to remember and catalog sharper or “lower cultivars gyokuro, and as a result, it became clear for me. Also, I like cars as well, especially racing cars. For cars, torque (power) occurs when you put it into the first gear and hit the gas. And, the power can differ depending on the characteristics of the car, the engine or the turbine, which is how the turbo works. That’s a wave as well. Because of those, both cars and music, I started to be able to find the waves and understand them. 


Z: I remember one of the first times when I came here. I have a picture of it. He drew that on a paper. I remember we talked about it. I have a really nice photo of him writing it.

S: That’s right.


Shinya san uses waves to describe and catalog a cultivars nuanced flavor profiles

Shinya san uses waves to describe and catalog a cultivars nuanced flavor profiles

Z: When you talk about terroir or the place, for example, Hoshino-mura, Joyo, or Kurogi, those areas have different soil. How important do you think soil is to the flavor of the tea? If your soil is maybe not the best, can you still create great tea by doing all those other things by choosing the right cultivar, by choosing the right fertilizer, or by choosing the right way to manufacture? How important are all those elements, and is one more important than the other?


S: Well, for tea trees, the soil quality is more important than the growers techniques. When you look at all areas of Japan, even if the weather is similar, the same average temperatures or the same amount of rain, the production regions for special-grade or high-grade teas are very limited, aren’t they? Some places are good and some places are bad even in a large place like Shizuoka. When you think about it, I think the most important thing is the soil. Even in Hoshino-mura, the good places and the bad places are clearly different. 


Z: So, you are saying that what’s most important is not the process in the middle, but simply the soil?


S: Yes.


Y: We do extensive testing since we have our own farm. Some cultivars, for example, Okumidori, Tsuyuhikari and Saemidori too can be grown steadily regardless of the soil quality. So there is always a way to make delicious tea even if the soil is bad. But you have to do your research to know that. 


Z: At the same time, I feel like sometimes when people use too much fertilizer, you sometimes lose the taste of the soil or the place. I can just taste an almost artificial amoiunt of Umami. Do you agree with that?

S: I think so.


Shinya san visiting a local tea grower

Shinya san visiting a local tea grower

Z: Regarding how you set the price of blended tea: Do you decide the price first - for example this tea will be 500 yen for 100g - and then blend it or do you blend it first and set the price? 




Z: Also, is there only one person who is involved in that process? I’m not sure how it’s done but does only one person do it?


S: It’s pretty clear. I already think about what kind of tea I will make based on the price range when I buy and price the raw tea at auction. That’s same for Sencha and Gyokuro. But, it’s different for Matcha. Since we grown and manufacture all of our own tencha (raw material for matcha) we won’t know until after we make it. So we price it later. So, for regular Sencha and Gyokuro, we go to bid for it and we buy 70-80% of the raw tea by bidding, but I’m bidding thinking about how much this tea will be from the taste and look. 



I already think about what kind of tea I will make based on the price range when I buy and price the raw tea at auction.

Z: So you decide what kind of tea you want to make before buying the raw tea at the market?


S: Yes, roughly. But sometimes it can fluctuate after I actually bought it and evaluated it once again. The price usually goes down though.


Z: Right.


S: In such case, I realize the pricing was wrong. That happens a lot. 


Z: I see. In that case, do you change the retail price or the cost?


S: No, the cost is same, so the lower retail price means less benefit margin for us.


Z: Ah I see.


Z: Simply from your view point, how do you describe Yame tea?


Y: Well… It’s simply good overall. When you look at the kinds, taste and the soil quality you’ve mentioned, I think it is very good in total - very balanced. We make not only matcha and gyokuro, but also oolong tea, but as long as you do it right, it turns out to be good. So I think it’s comprehensively good. 


Z: Can you explain about how balance the safety of the teas you produce - I think there are some misnomers about Organic vs conventional. How do you balance taste and safety?

S: Well… I think that’s a very difficult problem and it’s not only in America. Now, there are organic sections in Japan as well. One thing that I think helps us personal is that we’ve been making tea every year for the EU and Hong Kong markets which have very strict import laws.. Some of them are made only for those countries and the others are made in more conventional way. We rigorously third party test our tea every year. It’s been more than 10 years. We’ve been successfully managing to meet the domestic and international standards for safety. We’ve never exceeded the pesticide levels set by the international community. It would be a big problem if we did. So, one thing is that we are managing is the safety based on our experience. 


S: We always joke about it, but we tea professionals are evaluating and drinking tea maybe 10 times more than regular people. Also, I think tea-ceremony teachers are also drinking tea a lot, but those people are all relatively healthy and living long, so that means… Well, I think that means it’s not bad. If it seems bad when we are making it, I don’t think we would drink it. We are making it because we think it’s good for you, so I think that we personally can be a proof of safety.

We are working with 3 organic farmers now but the production amount with organic farming is 2/3 of what we get with conventional farming. Since the benefit will be 2/3 if the quality and price are same, we are struggling to meet the quality that our customers want, with the organic tea. So, we are proceeding to use the conventional way for Yame tea because the taste is better after all. 




Z: As a possibility, do you have a plan to work on organic tea more for overseas or domestic market from now on?


S: We have been working to do more. The fields have been increasing little by little even now and there are actual demands, so I would like to continue developing it.  


Z: Can you talk about what you think is important for the future of tea and how the west can support that? 


S: Well. Recently, many young people are opening café serving tea in Tokyo as well as in Fukuoka. Also, coffee shops like Starbucks are serving tea lattes. I think it’s a very good trend. But, as you know, you don’t really see decent kinds of Matcha and the quality can be far from the actual Matcha not only in Japan but also overseas. From now on, I believe customers will start to have more knowledge little by little, so we need to focus more on quality instead of quantity, and the manufacturers, the sellers and the customers, all of us will find that out eventually. We are not changing our direction drastically, but we want to sell and make great quality products. And, even for the cultivars, there may be much more possibilities. I would like to keep going with that in mind. 


Z: How about for foreign markets?


S: Yes. I actually really have a good feeling about it. I think if you focus on continuing to provide good products, naturally you will get more new and lasting customers.


Z: Right. I think so too. 


S: If it is a $50 product, we provide quality that is worth $50. And since we make sure to do market research twice a year to see products made in different places and check them against the quality of our products, you don’t have to worry about the quality when you sell them. 


Z: Yes. 


Z: This is the last question. If you bring tea to the desert island, which one would you take?


S: If I bring tea to the desert island… If I think about different scenarios… Maybe it’s changed. If I think about my health, I now think I would bring Matcha. 


We thank Shinya san for taking the time to talk with us and for creating such peerless products. Some of his teas are available below.

zach mangan1 Comment