Matcha Latte Art is a live and entertaining approach to tea culture. Making tea more accessible to everyone [Chushutsu-sha / Kazuhiro Koyama]

Why does the term tea culture feel strangely heavy?

The term tea culture has a different historical weight than coffee culture or alcohol culture. This weight is what gives tea its appeal, and it is probably also one of the reasons why people shy away from it.

The tea culture practiced by Kazuhiro Koyama that we will be introducing this time is not a tea culture restrained by the weight of history, but a tea culture as a live entertainment. This is the Japan Matcha Latte Art Competition, the only matcha latte art competition in Japan.

Koyama-san, who is the representative of Chushutsu-sha, the only company in Japan that runs a matcha latte art competition, has been making steps to bring more people in contact with Japanese tea with the mission of creating options for a richer life. In addition to this competition, he is also involved in a variety of other Japanese tea-related businesses in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo, including the Japanese tea stand Satén japanese tea, the Japanese tea information media Re:leaf Record, and the job site for the Japanese tea industry Re:leaf JOBs.

Why did Koyama-san want to create as many contacts with Japanese tea as possible? Why did he decide to run the Japan Matcha Latte Art Competition that intentionally incorporates Japanese tea? We spoke with Koyama-san about his way of thinking.

Kazuhiro Koyama

Kazuhiro Koyama is the CEO of Chushutsu-san and the owner and brewer of the Japanese tea stand Satén japanese tea. He also runs Japanese tea information media Re:leaf Record. Koyama-san organizes Matcha Latte Art Competition and is a director of Japan Latte Art Association. He runs his business to create options to enrich people’s lives with Japanese tea.

The gap in the Japanese tea industry that I felt was precisely because I looked at it objectively from the perspective of the coffee industry.

Q: What made you decide to open the Japanese tea stand Satén japanese tea?

Satén japanese tea in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo

Koyama: To tell the truth, I have never been a coffee drinker. I could not drink the instant coffee my father drank at home or the deep-brewed coffee served at old-fashioned coffee shops. However, I had the opportunity to drink coffee brewed by a barista in the same year that the Third Wave* was arriving in Japan. The coffee was very good, and I liked the space of the cafe, so I decided that I wanted to open a cafe.

But I had no restaurant experience, including part-time work, so I decided that if I wanted to open a full-fledged cafe, I needed on-the-job training. So I found a job at a restaurant and began preparing to open a cafe.

At the time a Japanese tea cafe was not in my mind yet. So it might be better to think of it as an original idea.

*Third Wave refers to the third wave coffee movement, which began in the U.S. around 2000 and quickly spread to Japan with the arrival of Blue Bottle Coffee in 2015. It is characterized by carefully brewing single-origin coffees by hand drip. This creative brewing method highlights the individuality of the coffee beans, emphasizing their origin and producer.

Q: What made you decide to open a Japanese tea cafe?

Koyama: To open a cafe, I attended seminars to learn about coffee. But the more I studied, the more I felt that it would be difficult for a newcomer to enter the coffee business.

At that time, cafes in old houses – kominka (古民家) were all the rage, and I became interested in the Japanese tea served there. I started visiting Japanese tea cafes, and when I went to a tea house in Tokyo called Chachanoma, I was so impressed by the taste and depth of the Japanese tea that was brewed for me that I began to study tea as well as coffee. In fact, after that, I had a chance to work at Chachanoma.

When I started studying about Japanese tea, I realized that there was a gap between the coffee industry and the Japanese tea industry. There were not many seminars on Japanese tea in the first place, and on the rare occasions that I did find one, there were no people of my generation (in their 20s or 30s). All people older than me.

Thinking back, I realized that I knew nothing about tea, even though I had been drinking it at home since childhood and it was readily available in plastic bottles.

On the other hand, when I look at everyday life, I get the impression that younger people drink more tea, perhaps because of the convenience of drinking tea from plastic bottles. Younger people are drinking tea more than I thought. The world of tea is deep and interesting, and it seems difficult for new entrants to enter the coffee industry, which is why I moved from coffee to Japanese tea. I began to think that since I was born as a Japanese person, I should know more about tea.

Developing a business that allows as many people as possible to have contact with tea.

Q: What is the mission of Chushutsu-sha and what is your personal mission?

Koyama: The mission of the Chushutsu-sha is to create options for a richer life. So actually the business mission and my personal mission are linked.

I continue to think about how to increase the number of people involved with the subject of tea. We are now striving to increase the number of contact points with tea and the number of people who are involved with it.

Koyama-san is in the center.

Q: What is the best way to increase the contact points?

Koyama: I feel it but I cannot put it into words. Working with Japanese tea, I have never met anyone who dislikes tea. People living in Japan have some kind of contact with tea in their daily lives, and are interested in various aspects of tea. I think we just have not focused on the connection with tea until now.

I think it is interesting that when we come into more contact with tea in our daily lives, we start to see its depth, new discoveries, and connections.

Q: You are involved in many things, including the Japanese tea stand Satén japanese tea and the Matcha Latte Art Competition, but why are your activities so diverse?

Koyama: In the coffee industry, the specialist who brews coffee is called a barista. How about Japanese tea? When it comes to Japanese tea, there are very few people in the position of tea brewer.

Nowadays, there is a term called brewer, but until about 10 years ago, that position did not exist in the restaurant industry. There was no one who knew how to brew and serve Japanese tea.

I felt that although tea was a good product, there was no one who could provide it to restaurants. I felt that unless we nurtured brewers who can brew and serve tea, we would not be able to expand the use of tea.

Q: Where does the motivation to continue developing a diversified business come from?

Koyama: Basically, I feel that the climate inside the tea industry is not right. New and attractive products are coming out, but there are many things that have yet to take shape, such as the ways to enter the industry and its potential as entertainment, so I think there is only room for growth. I am searching for ways to create that environment. I think that is what makes it fun and motivates me.

Making Japanese tea more casual and entertaining. The world’s only Matcha Latte Art Competition.

Q: What inspired you to start the Matcha Latte Art Competition?

Koyama: Both inside and outside the industry there was a perception that matcha latte is sweet. I felt that there was a lack of proper information about matcha lattes. This is also the reason why we started Satén japanese tea.

As we began offering unsweetened matcha lattes, their existence gradually became more well-known. The fact that matcha latte does not necessarily mean sweet and that it can also be drunk unsweetened, was one of the reasons we started working on strategies to further spread the awareness.

Another thing is that while we were serving our own matcha latte, we also began to think that there must be other ways of brewing and other recipes that we would not have thought of on our own. The Matcha Latte Art Competition was created with the goal of expanding the possibilities of matcha lattes and consolidating the information.

Q: How many times has the Matcha Latte Art Competition been held?

Koyama: 6 times.

Q: How many contestants do you get each year?

Koyama: Every year, on average, we receive about 50-60 applications from Japan and overseas.

Q: Is there anything good that came out of organizing the Matcha Latte Art Competitions?

Koyama: The opportunity to explore Japanese tea was born.

Matcha Latte Art Competition

You can only create latte art if you know everything there is to know about the ingredients in the first place. So even with matcha latte art, you have to ask yourself “What is the right matcha for latte art?”, “Is steam the same as that used for coffee?”. Baristas pursue these questions diligently when competing in the competitions.

The more you pursue and explore, the more possibilities will expand. I am glad that we were able to create that opportunity.

Q: Is the difficulty level different between coffee latte art and matcha latte art?

Koyama: Matcha latte art is actually very difficult because matcha has no oil content, making it difficult to draw images and create gradations. Even the world champions of latte art struggled at first.

Contestants drawing images on matcha lattes.

Baristas can learn the differences between different matchas as they pursue the art of matcha latte, and by holding a competition, the drinkers (customers) can learn that there are differences as well.

Q: Do the organizers provide matcha for the matcha latte art competitions?

Koyama: Yes, matcha is provided by the organizers. We provide matcha from Tsujiki in Uji, Kyoto, to everyone who participates.

Q: Why did you choose matcha from Tsujiki?

Koyama: A major factor was that Tsujiki was the only company in the Uji area that produced and sold matcha directly. Baristas in Japan and abroad are familiar with Uji matcha, and Tsujiki has won awards at competitions, so in a sense, we thought Tsujiki was the right place to learn about the real matcha.

From the perspective of sustainability and direct trade, I think there is value in using matcha sourced directly from producers.

Matcha Latte Art Competition.

However, in future we think it would be interesting to have baristas themselves select the matcha for competitions.

Q: What is the Matcha Latte Art Competition for you?

Koyama: Entertainment. Every day I think about how to get people’s attention and how to involve them through entertainment.

Contact points have been made. Koyama style strategy to increase the number of contact points with Japanese tea and the number of people involved.

Q: What does tea mean to you?

Koyama: In a word, I think it is a method of expression.

In the end, I think brewing tea is one way of expression. I am trying to show the value of using the tea we currently have in various ways.

Q: Where do you currently stand in relation to the future that you envision?

Koyama: Right now, I think I have barely made it to that starting line.

Now that our four businesses (wholesale, food & beverage, events, and media) have finally come together, and we have created a website for tea-related jobs, we are now able to show the tea industry what kind of people are needed and how they can get involved in the industry.

Q: What kind of future do you envision for Chushutsu-sha?

Koyama: In the future, I would like to create an environment that gives people a chance to experience tea and know how they can get involved with tea. Have them experience Japanese tea at Satén japanese tea and get them interested in tea, so they would give it a try at home and would start drinking it on a daily basis. From there they may notice the differences between different kinds and may get interested in tea farmers who made them. Getting the information about the tea and tea farmers from Re:leaf Record their interest may become deeper.

Through the Matcha Latte Art Competition, we will let people inside and outside of the industry know about a form of tea that can be enjoyed as entertainment.

We want people to want to work with tea themselves, and to enter the tea industry through Re:leaf JOBs.

We were able to create this kind of flow, by having these contact points. Now that we have prepared the starting point, the next phase is to think about how to get people to migrate through this environment.

Q: Do you find it difficult to work with Japanese tea while developing various businesses?

Koyama: While tea has appeal, it is so integrated into daily life that it is very difficult to convey its value, and there is a mood of giving up on tea in the industry, which I think is also an issue. I think tea is a microcosm of Japan. It is quite difficult to break down those walls.

Q: What do you think the future of the Japanese tea industry will be like? What do you want it to look like?

Koyama: I think we will see more concentration in the tea industry. Matcha has been attracting attention both at home and abroad, and recently it is being produced overseas as well. In such a situation, I believe that domestic tea suppliers must work together to enhance its value as a Japanese brand.

Koyama-san pouring tea at Satén japanese tea.

However, as far as I am concerned, it is precisely because the industry is becoming tougher and tougher that everyone is trying to survive, so using this as a springboard, I would like to see more teas with individuality to be created.