Shade-grown tea in Japan is getting really popular. During our Japan Tea Tour 2019, shown in the above picture, we visited a tea master, Mr. Sakamoto, at his tea farm in Kagoshima, Japan. Our friend and tea maestro, Bruce Richardson, wrote an article about the visit in the magazine, “Tea Time.” Tea Maestro “fell in love” with Tea Master, and here’s the article with Bruce’s kind permission:
“Tea Made in the Shade”~ from Tea Time Magazine
Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
Japan’s method of growing tea under shade is unique. Since 1835, this cultivation technique has been used exclusively for exceptional (and expensive) green teas, such as gyokuro and matcha. The practice produces teas that yield a soft yellow-green liquor with low astringency and rich notes of umami and asparagus—exactly the highlights contemporary green-tea connoisseurs desire.
I recently visited a small family-owned tea garden in the prefecture of Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu. The long rows of tea bushes were awakening under a warm spring sky. Having been raised on a farm, I know healthy plants when I see them, and I’ve never seen more vibrant tea plants than those at the Sakamoto Organic Garden.
That’s where I met tea master Shuichiro Sakamoto, whose family has grown tea for more than 80 years. He grew up in this tea garden but became passionate about the health of his family and gardens 30 years ago following the deaths of his mother and sister from cancer. Master Sakamoto became convinced that healthy soil leads to healthy plants and better green tea. He set about to re-craft his gardens.
Sakamoto drastically re-engineered his gardens by bringing in excavators to dig up the existing soil. He blended in minerals and organic matter to enrich the earth, making it loamy and filled with the nutrients his tea plants needed. Workers keep weeds to a minimum by spreading dried grasses between the bushes, a popular organic technique found throughout Japan. Herbicides and pesticides are not needed here.
By early April, Sakamoto Garden’s top-grade gyokuro bushes are encased with a black mesh canopy that blocks 95 percent of the sun’s rays and slows the rate of leaf growth to a crawl. Depriving the tea plants of light for three weeks increases chlorophyll content. With diminished photosynthesis, nutrients drawn from the soil are not processed by the plant’s typical systems, thus modifying the leaves’ molecular structure.
For nearly two centuries, Japanese tea farmers have covered portions of their gardens with matting as they shade-grow their best teas, such as matcha and gyokuro. Photograph Courtesy of Benjamin Press Archives.
Of utmost importance, severe shading helps create more umami flavor—a taste unique to Japan—as the plant stores additional L-theanine in the leaf. L-theanine is an amino acid that mostly develops in the roots of the tea plant. As it moves into the tea leaves, it reduces back to the previous components, which, when exposed to sunlight, help form catechins. Shading, therefore, prevents the creation of catechins that can give tea an astringent or bitter taste.
Discovered in 1949 in Japan, L-theanine is rarely seen in nature except in tea. It enhances mood by stimulating alpha brainwaves, which can induce a calmer, yet more alert, state of mind. L-theanine also helps lower the pulse rate and blood pressure while it balances and moderates the effects of caffeine, making shade-grown green tea all the more unique in the world of healthy beverages.
While most Japanese teas are mechanically harvested, Master Sakamoto continues to hand pluck the leaves that go into making his best tea grades. Throughout the short growing season, he is a busy man on a mission to keep ancient traditions alive. Unlike his tea plants, he has little time to rest in the shade.
SEI MEE TEA is an authorized direct distributor of Sakamoto Tea. Purchase the finest Sakamoto shade-grown tea here.