2024 - The New Harvest Begins

Posted by Zach Mangan on

Greetings from our 2024 sourcing trip. While it is only the very beginning of the harvest season, with many areas yet to begin harvesting, my team and I have already visited five prefectures—Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, and Kyoto. The 2024 season is playing out in one unique turn after another. First we heard that teas would be late, then that many may actually come a bit early, and then rain arrived and delayed harvests for a second time. The word is, generally speaking, that frost damage has been low and  yields will be high. But, now rain may compromise the quality in higher grade teas countrywide. Things are unfolding in a way that seems to be changing day-by-day. What I can say though is that we are on the hunt eager to connect with more new producers in a single season than ever before. Why, especially? Well, the answer is twofold—demand for top grade teas is higher than ever, and the amount available in the marketplace is far less than ever before. The theme we have heard almost unanimously on this trip has been “We cannot find enough people to produce high grade tea”. Simply put, a lack of available labor is throttling tea makers' ability to execute teas that require more specialized production methods, cultivars, and processing. It seems like a great irony that the demand that has long been desired has arrived and crashed squarely into an aging and uninterested workforce. The crisis in finding tea pickers has led some folks to move into machine harvesting, and others to give up completely and sell their farm. To some, the idea of doing it less than 100% is worse than doing it all. 

While it is a bit of depressing news, the truth is it is not all negative. The problem is understood, which may be the most important point. Knowing where the bottleneck is at least allows you to start to think through how it can be solved. There are quick fixes—foreign labor, which we saw firsthand in Miyazaki, or banding together with other producers to form a cooperative that can share resources, both human and machine. We’ve seen this work in multiple areas in Japan. But long term, there will have to be bigger, more uncomfortable changes in order to move into a world where the demand for tea is larger outside the borders of Japan than that coming from within. Last year alone, Japanese tea exports increased 156%. My takeaway is that challenges are challenges and much of it won’t be easy. But conversation after conversation has inspired us to use our own platform at Kettl to find ways to support an industry that we are literally dependent on. If the future of high quality tea in Japan were compromised, Kettl would be as well. However, having incredible customers to share these products with within the exciting emerging tea marketplace of the West allows steady sales to quickly and immediately direct money into the industry here in Japan. And those resources can help producers begin to navigate some of the challenges that lie ahead. One of the places resources will be needed most is in the development of cultivars that can flourish in Japan’s rapidly changing climate. As I heard it said, “There is really no Spring in Japan anymore. It goes almost from mild winter to summer in a matter of weeks.” The intensifying of high temperatures so early in the Spring means tea plants develop leaves so quickly that flavor and aroma do not develop. While a tea plant may look ready to pick from the outside, the plant chemistry within is often lacking, meaning a weak expression and a lackluster final product. Teas budding so early in the year also expose them to a greater risk of frost damage, something quite common, that can decimate a plant's output in a matter of hours. Truthfully, the bullseye for making outstanding teas has gotten smaller. But with the right amount of research, development, and a shared commitment to both heritage practices and technological advances, the best of Japanese tea may still lie ahead.

So this year, the idea of sourcing and sharing these incredible teas with you all brings a new importance. Our rush to meet and work with more and more people is not just to flex a huge catalog, it’s to connect with and share the best teas with our growing clientele while both growing the domestic market in the USA and ensuring resources find their way back to the deserving producers who work so hard to craft the very best teas in Japan.

In the coming posts, I am excited to introduce some of the amazing new folks we are working with and share the opportunity for you all to learn their story, try their teas, and connect more closely with Japanese tea culture.

As always, a sincere thank you for reading.

NOTE: 2024 Shincha is starting to arrive online.

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