Producer Interview : Shinya Yamaguchi

Posted by Zach Mangan on

“Soil quality is more important than the farmer’s technique”

Shinya San’s intense passion and incredible attention to detail are legendary. Other producers refer to him as “genius”, “legend” and “once in a generation”. Shinya San and his family have been growing tea in the small town of Hoshinomura - central Yame - since World War II. 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 that produces Japan’s top rated gyokuro.

In this interview, Shinya San shares with us his business origins, his perspective on tea produced in Yame and and his passion for tea.

Zach: You belong to a generation of tea farmers. Can you share with us a little bit of the history of your business?

Shinya San: My family started as a tea farmers after World War II. Back then, everyone was growing tea in their backyard. My Grandfather convinced the local tea farmers around Hoshinomura village to share their tea. That was the origin of our business. He then started finishing tea and creating shiagecha (Shiagecha is the Japanese term for finished tea, as opposed to aracha which is crude, unfinished).

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.

Z:Was your Grandfather manufacturing the tea at home?  

S:Well, at the time, there were many factories built in Yame. Farmers would bring their tea into those factories and would manufacture their teas. But before the use of factories, people hand-rolled their own tea, which means that the tea leaves were picked in their backyard, pan-fried and rolled on straw mats. Overtime, things have changed quite a bit. Nowadays, there is a Joint cooperative factory where everyone brings their own tea to have it processed.

Z: How has your business evolved overtime?

S: We are now a tea manufacturer so we mainly focused on the finishing, or processing aracha into shiagecha. But since we also own our farm, we are able to produce many types of products. We also do packaging, wholesaling and retailing.

Z: What are your responsibilities within your business?

S: I am the Senior Managing Director, so I decide the strategy of the company. But personally I still prefer a hands-on approach and making tea. So, while I play a big role in setting the direction for the business, I also do cultivar testing and analysis in my own farm. I like to explore the tea’s possibilities. It is my passion.

Z: Any new possibilities that you may have identified?

S: We have recently been testing a new cultivar called Kirari31, which has been awarded in the Fukuoka Prefectural Tea Fair. We use our research facility to find out if new cultivars can adapt to the environment of Yame. We try to evaluate new cultivars carefully to find out how easy or difficult production may be, so farmers don’t have to worry about their crop struggling during the growing season.

Z: Are testings always accurate?

S: Well, there is some interesting information you can obtain by testing cultivars. But you can’t be 100% certain that a cultivar will be suitable for an area unless you grow it there. There have been many cultivars with great potential in the research facility, but with not very good results once they are actually produced in real farms. So to decrease the amount of mistakes, I’ve been using our own farm to test different cultivars that I think are worth using.

Z: So, even if cultivars are evaluated in a research facility, it doesn’t mean that they can be successfully produced?

S: Exactly. The data produced in the research facility is just an indication. That is why I like to test them in my own farm. This Is Our New Gyokuro [Serving Tea], We’ve got a great one this Year. And this is the same cultivar we use for Dentou Hon Gyokuro, which is available at Kettl.

Z: Delicious!

S: It is a cross bred between Saemidori and Sakimidor cultivars.

Z: How would you describe the difference between this and a tea made from just a single cultivar (e.g Saemodori)?

S: It’s as delicious as a tea made with saemidori cultivar only. One of the notable characteristics of this cross bred cultivar used in our Dentou Hon Gyokuro, is that the color of the leaves is a deep bluish green. Of Course, when you shade the tea trees (Gyokuro is purposely shaded prior to harvest) , the leaves get greener, but the greenness is a bit stronger than saemidori cultivar. And for the farmers, it is easier to produce because is the tree is stronger and less vulnerable to insects.

Z: When we talk to farmers in Uji, we have noticed that they like keeping tradition and history. However, in your case, it seems you are very open to try something new. Is this a characteristic of Kyushu (the Japanese island where Shinya San’s village is located) or is it specific to your family?

S: I’m not sure, but I think is both. After finishing my tea studies in Shizuoka and Kyoto, I started to notice the good things about my home town, such as the soil quality, the altitude and of course the people. But, I don’t think we have yet realized Yame’s full potential. And that is exactly what motivates me to challenge many things.

If you think about it, Uji tea sells no matter what since they have a long tradition (Uji has a major brand recognition similar to how Burgundy or Bordeaux in French wine). But since we don’t have such history, we need to compete on quality or new ideas that can help us to stand out. And that drive to produce high quality tea is the reason why we have been able to continue receiving The Daijin Awards (National Level Awards For Quality).

Visiting with Shinya San at his factory, 2014

Z: You have one of the highest abilities when it comes to judging tea even when compared nationally. How is a tea evaluated?

S: Well, while the taste of wine is often described with fancy expressions, tea is evaluated by finding flaws. The key is to see what is bad about it. If the expressions used to describe tea were vague, people would never remember them. Since I happened to play music, I started to describe the flavor of the tea using the sound waves as a metaphor which helped remember the taste of the tea. I started to remember and catalog the flavors, both good and bad, of tea.

Z: How important do you think soil is to the flavor of the tea?

S: I think that soil quality is more important than the farmer’s techniques. When you look at all areas that produce tea in Japan, even if the weather is similar, they have the same temperature and the same amount of rain, the production regions of so-called special-grade or high grade teas are very limited. And that is because different soil quality.

Z: So is the soil what determines the quality of the tea?

S: Generally speaking yes. However, there are some cultivars, such us Okumidori, Tsuyuhikari And Saemidori can be grown steadily regardless of the soil quality. There is always a way to make delicious tea even if the soil is not great.

Z: How do you balance taste and safety of your teas? In the West many people are very concerned about the use of pesticides and the impact on health. What would you tell them?

S: We rigorously third party test our tea every year and we have been doing so for the last 10 years. We have always meet the domestic and international standards for safety. We have never exceeded the pesticide levels set by the international community. On the other hand, tea professionals are evaluating and drinking tea maybe 10 times more than regular people. We wouldn’t drink tea if we didn’t think it was safe.

Z: One last question, If you had to bring tea to a desert island, which one would you take?

S: That is a difficult question, but I think I would bring matcha.

We thank Shinya san for taking the time to talk with us and for creating such peerless products. All the yame gyokuro in our collection is currently created by Shinya san.

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