To Brew or Not to Brew?

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Japanese tea cafes are the new rage in casual consumption -- but they're not all the same.

by Ayai Tomisawa

HEALTHY, ANTIOXIDANT AND CANCER-preventive, Japanese green tea is also suddenly very hip. But while green tea shops and cafes are popping up one after another in Tokyo, Green Bird is unique. Unlike the chain-operated cafes, Green Bird was established by a traditional tea manufacturer whose main business is selling "return" tea gifts -- a package of green tea leaves given to attendants at traditional Buddhist funerals.

The idea of opening a Japanese tea cafe was a daunting challenge for the tea maker, but they took it one step further: They opened their first shop next to coffee giant Starbucks in Yotsuya.

"We don't plan to compete with coffee shops," says Yuki Terao, a Green Bird staff member. "Our opening was an experiment to study people's reactions to a cafe specializing in Japanese tea, especially in a busy district with both office buildings and residential areas combined."

Located in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, Green Bird is a non-smoking tea shop and cafe accommodating 24 seats and serving 18 hot and chilled tea drinks and 18 kinds of desserts and food dishes. The shop serves teas brewed from leaves picked in Shizuoka prefecture, the largest tea producing region in Japan, as well as tea leaves from other tea growing regions such as Kyoto and Kagoshima prefectures.

Coffee shops are everywhere,
but the idea of a shop serving only
green tea is unique"

Surugaen, the cafe's founder who is based in Tokyo's Ginza district, is one of the top five tea makers in Japan selling tea gifts for funeral services. Surugaen has been in the business for over half a century and has contracts with three tea plantations in Shizuoka. About 85 percent of its fiscal 2002 sales (totaling approximately JPY5.84 billion) came from funeral gifts.

While tea-modeled beverage drink production is increasing, the consumption of real tea leaves is declining, according to a report compiled by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. More Japanese people are buying their tea drinks at supermarkets than are bothering to brew.

According to the report, 4.581 million tons of tea beverages, or 2.29 billion 2-liter PET bottles, were produced in 2002, up more than 27 percent from five years ago.

Hoping to promote the practice of brewing green tea from leaves, Surugaen in 2000 established Surugajyaya, an affiliate aimed at launching Japan's first self-service Japanese tea cafe, which also offers takeout menus.

"Green Bird distinguishes itself from other Japanese tea cafes with its high-quality tea leaves, because it's run by a tea producer," says Terao, who is on staff at Surugajyaya, the direct operator of Green Bird. "Our staff is trained to provide customers with a real education about teas. We value direct communication with customers very highly."

What makes the shop special is its friendly approach to customers and its employees' passion for tea. A member of the shop's staff, for example, gives personal instruction to customers on how best to enjoy the flavor of tea. Both hot and iced teas are served in a transparent pot with a sandglass to adjust brewing time according to the kinds of tea ordered. When the tea is ready, the customer pours it into a pre-warmed cup or a pre-chilled glass with ice.

"The temperature of the hot water and the brewing time are the two most essential factors in bringing out the best flavor of any tea," explains Terao. "If the temperature is too high, the tea will be too bitter."

Prices of Green Bird tea drinks range between JPY250 and JPY380. Every item can be taken out except ochazuke (tea over rice) dishes.

Green Bird, which achieved 10 percent sales growth during fiscal 2002, is scheduled to open its second store in Tokyo by the end of the year.

"We would like to get a clear picture of customers' needs from the Yotsuya store, and apply our findings to the development of our second store," Terao says.

Nihoncha, or Japanese teas, are classified into 10 categories such as sencha, which dominates over 80 percent of Japanese tea produced at home. Others include fukamushisencha, gyokuro, bancha, maccha and tamaryokucha. The main authority is the Nihoncha Instructor Association, an accredited nonprofit organization that trains instructors in the art of Japanese tea and educates sommeliers on the countless kinds of leaves from Japan's tea producing regions.

About 800 people take the sommelier exam every year, and 1,066 people have passed since the association established its testing system in 1999, according to Mitsutoshi Sugimoto, director of the association.

The exam includes a written test and blind testing, which is contingent upon the aspirant's accurate knowledge of tea variety and region.

In order to popularize the concept of enjoying genuine tea flavors among the present generation, Japanese tea shops are scrambling to tempt customers with unique concepts.

"Our shop provides customers with not only the flavor of tea, but also a cozy atmosphere," says Naoko Muroi, a tea shop director in Hiroo, at the heart of Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.

With eight seats at its main counter and four seats at a table, So-an is a green tea shop whose concept is "a Japanese-style cafe based on Soho in New York City," according to Muroi. "So-an provides purely Japanese-style tea in a Western atmosphere." When it opened, the owner had an image of a cafe in New York's trendy neighborhood, with books and art objects in the store so that customers enjoyed an extended stay. There is an iron kettle perched over charcoal in the middle of the kitchen on the other side of the counter. Customers can sit and watch the staff preparing tea for them.

"At first, I was very nervous making tea in front of customers," Muroi admits.

So-an has about 20 kinds of tea with prices ranging from JPY450 to JPY1,000. It serves five kinds of sweets, such as "New York An-mitsu," a sundae made from yogurt, Japanese red bean paste and fruit -- a perfect combination with traditional green tea.

Most customers are women in their 20s and 30s, Muroi says. "But recently we've been receiving repeat customers from older generations, and we are very happy about that."

"I think green tea is healthier than coffee. While coffee shops are everywhere, the idea of a shop serving only green tea is unique," says Tomoko Kase, a 25-year-old office worker who often goes to Koots Green Tea, a Japanese tea cafe near her office in Minato Ward.

Operated by the same holding company that runs Tully's Coffee Japan Co., Koots Green Tea Co., Ltd. was established in December 2002 to provide opportunities for customers to enjoy Japanese tea casually, just as coffee drinkers do.

"The image of brewing tea involves formalities. Since more people are buying green tea drinks these days, we wanted to provide people with green tea served in a comfortable, informal atmosphere," says an official of Foodx Globe Co., the holding company of Koots Green Tea. Koots Green Tea's main customers are women in their 20s and 30s who work in offices around the area, the official adds.

Green tea contains healthy ingredients such as catechin, an astringent component which reduces the risk of cancer, lowers blood cholesterol, prevents high blood pressure, kills bacteria and provides other medicinal benefits.

With a view to promoting Japanese green tea, the World Green Tea Association holds seminars and workshops and publishes a quarterly magazine, conveying green tea's medicinal effects as well as its history, production, marketing and cultural characteristics. The Shizuoka prefecture-based association was established in September 2001 by the Shizuoka prefectural government to broadly disseminate green tea-related information at home and abroad.

"Promoting green tea overseas is one of our major missions. We also have an English-translation version of the Web site, which is for non-Japanese visitors," says Takahiro Hayakawa, an association staff member. "Now, most seminars and workshops are held in Shizuoka prefecture, but we plan to hold them nationwide in the near future." @

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