The first smoked tea in Japan. The surprising aroma is gaining recognition overseas as well. A new category of Japanese tea developed by a pioneer. [Kaneroku Matsumotoen / Hiroki Matsumoto]

More than half of the tea produced in Japan is sencha. However, in recent years, consumption of sencha has declined significantly, and there has been a shift to matcha, wakocha and oolongcha.

Currently the tea industry is shifting from an emphasis on umami to aroma, and is gradually diversifying into oxidized teas such as oolongcha and wakocha. In the midst of this trend, there is a tea farm that is working on smoked tea production. It is Kaneroku Matsumotoen in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Inspired by a Chinese tea called Lapsang Souchong, which is smoked with pine needles, Matsumoto-san started making smoked black tea. When he started, smoked Japanese tea did not exist – it was truly a new category. Matsumoto-san has been developing smoked teas for more than 10 years, using whiskey barrels, cherry, cinnamon, cacao, and other materials, and now sells more than 10 types.

Matsumoto-san’s smoked black tea was selected as a promising overseas export product by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2020, and it also won a silver prize at the International Fine Tea Fair. Smoked black tea is also highly acclaimed in France and other foreign countries.

We spoke to Mr. Matsumoto, who started this new processing method of smocking tea leaves in the tea industry.

Hiroki Masumoto

Hiroki Matsumoto was born in 1982. He makes a living as a tea farmer in the family business in Shimada City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Matsumoto-san started farming after graduating from Shizuoka Prefectural College of Agriculture and Forestry with a degree in tea production. His work is his hobby. Matsumoto-san grows tea plants with his four children. As an artist, he wanted to express his unique style through Japanese tea. Hence, the first domestically produced smoked black tea was born.

Matsumoto-san of Kaneroku Matsumotoen – the creator of the first smoked black tea in Japan.

Q: What are the characteristics of smoked black tea produced at Kaneroku Matsumotoen?

Smoked black tea

Matsumoto: The Chinese Lapsang Souchong, which originally inspired me to start smoking black tea, uses pine as the smoking wood. But I was not interested in making Lapsang Souchong. I wanted to make an original product – the first domestically produced smoked tea. Therefore, I was trying to make smoked tea with various kinds of smoking materials.

Q: Did you try smoking using tea plants as well?

Matsumoto: Yes I did, but the tea was not that interesting. So I am not making it now.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on smoked tea in the first place?

Matsumoto: Actually, it did not necessarily have to be smoking. I grew up watching my grandfather and father cultivate tea fields, so I never thought of growing other crops than tea or working in a different industry. However, if I was going to be a tea farmer for the rest of my life, I wanted to have something different that would be in my own style.

In the sense of wanting to make unique tea, I saw that flavored tea was becoming more popular in Japan, and I thought it was good to have a variety of ways to enjoy tea. However, I think we live in a world where you can make anything you want, using fragrances, blending herbs, etc. Should I go out of my way to do that myself? When I thought about it, I realized that there was no need for me to do it.

As a producer who is committed to making tea without additives and using Japanese tea leaves to create a unique tea not found anywhere in the world, I decided to try my hand at making smoked tea.

Q: How many types of smoked tea are available now?

Matsumoto: Right now, we have about 12 or 13 types. But in the future, we would like to narrow down this list and further improve the quality.

Q: There are so many types because you have tried various smoking materials, right? (laughs)

Matsumoto: As I was trying various things, new ideas would come to my mind that could make it more interesting. After trying it, I would come up with new ideas, and while repeating this process, the number of types became larger and larger.

Q: Is there an ideal aroma of smoked tea?

Matsumoto: It is not always possible to achieve the ideal result. But when I smoke with apple wood, I can make a smoked tea that is really apple-like. I have also used bergamot orange to make a smoked tea that is like Earl Grey without using additional flavoring. This is the ideal! However, the difficulty with smoked tea is that it cannot be made consistently.

Q: Do you have a special smoking room?

Various wood chips for smoking.

Matsumoto: The method of smoking is a trade secret. I will just say that there are several different methods because the smoking process varies depending on the wood.

The inspiration for smoking was Lapsang Souchong, a Chinese smoked tea with a strong character.

Q: How did you end up with the smoking method?

Matsumoto: It all started when I came across a tea called Lapsang Souchong. Lapsang Souchong is a Chinese black tea made around Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province that is smoked with pine needles. I did not know how it would turn out, but I wanted to try the smoking method, so I started making smoked tea.

Q: How did you come across Lapsang Souchong?

Matsumoto: When I went to a long-established tea shop to study Japanese tea, for some reason I got treated to a lot of Chinese tea. There I met Lapsang Souchong. The moment I drank it, I was shocked and thought that we do not have tea like this in Japan.

Q: By the way, what was your impression when you first drank Lapsang Souchong?

Matsumoto: To be honest, it was really like “What the heck is this?”.

Smoking is difficult. That is why it is interesting.

Q: What is the appeal of smoked tea?

Matsumoto: The unique character of smoked fragrance is that it is highly satisfying and addictive.

I think this tea has two dimensions: one as a daily consumable, and the other as a luxury item that can be enjoyed as a hobby.

“I like Darjeeling”.

“I like Chinese tea”.

“I like matcha made with a tea whisk”.

While each person has their own tastes and preferences, smoked tea is a category that Japanese people were not familiar with until now. I think the appeal of smoked tea is that it can be proposed as a new option that suits the palettes of tea lovers.

Q. What do you enjoy about making smoked tea?

Matsumoto: The difficulty of making smoked tea may actually be the fun of it (laughs). Even when it comes to quality, it is difficult to maintain consistency, which is why I think it is so interesting and fun. 

It is the ease of understanding that can only be expressed with smoked black tea.

Q: What was the reaction of your customers when you introduced smoked tea to the world?

Matsumoto-san handing out smoked tea to taste at an event.

Matsumoto: It was on both ends of the spectrum. Some people said “I cannot drink this kind of tea”,  while others said “Finally, a black tea like this is available in Japan!”.

Smoked black tea has a very strong individuality, so I did not aim to appeal to everyone, and I would just say I am sorry if it does not suit your tastes.

Q: What kind of reaction do you get from customers when they drink your smoked tea?

Matsumoto: The moment they bring the tea cup close to their mouths, their eyes widen. A look of surprise. When you see that face, you know that the customer has not yet had this kind of tea. These people will say it is delicious when they drink it. However, smoked black tea has a very strong individuality, so there is a clear distinction between likes and dislikes. For me, I think this easy-to-understand character is the charm of smoked black tea.

I believe that to increase the number of people who casually enjoy Japanese tea, one of the most important things is to make it easy to understand. I think it is important to make people aware of the subtle differences between Sencha and Matcha cultivars. On the other hand, even people who are not tea experts can drink smoked black tea and realize that it is a unique tea. I think this is necessary for the introduction of tea as a luxury item.

I do not really like Japanese tea competitions, where points are subtracted based on subtle differences.

Q: Please tell us why you do not like it.

Matsumoto: The tea leaves submitted to the tea competitions are basically of excellent quality. They are compared according to really subtle differences among them. That evaluation may have value for professionals, but I have always wondered whether it has value for the general public.

Including not only green tea but also Japanese black tea, there are many tea competitions held in Japan every year, and each competition has a grand prize winner… So there are several best tea producers in Japan in a given year. However, next year there is a different number one. And again the year after. It is this kind of repetition.

Against this background, I think there is a part of me that has come to think that I would rather make the only one than the number one tea.

I also think that, when considering the promotion of Japanese tea, it is important to have more easy-to-understand metrics. For example, a Japanese tea of this rank or higher is a delicious tea, and so on. As a result of the focus on clarity, I was struck by the strong individuality of Lapsang Souchong, and in order to expand the possibilities of Japanese tea, I took on the challenge of smoking tea for the first time in Japan.

Q: Is there anything you would like to try in the future?

Matsumoto: I am not planning to just stick with smoked tea. I always want to try something new. I would like to try smoking white tea and oolong, and I may even try to make herbal blends and flavored teas.

I wonder if I will always be able to be in a player’s position. As a tea farmer, of course, I am a player. I would like to stay involved in the fields.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

 At an event abroad.

Matsumoto: Although it is an agricultural product, I think it has a great role as a communication tool. Even if you cannot speak English, you can enjoy Japanese tea. But it is not necessarily something you cannot live without. That is what makes it so appealing. But for someone who makes Japanese tea, it also makes it difficult to express its value.

Do not think too hard, but be persistent. I want to continue making unique products.

Q: What is the current scale of Kaneroku Matsumotoen?

Members of Kaneroku Matsumotoen. Matsumoto-san is holding his child.

Matsumoto: We are a small family-owned tea farm.

Q: Do you have any plans to expand the scale of your business in the future?

Matsumoto:I think there are many ways to talk about scale, but in terms of farmland area, the farm has gradually expanded since I started farming, and I am starting to feel like we are reaching the limits of our capacity to manage it as a family business.

Aside from agricultural farmland, I would like to expand the scale in other areas. New product development would be a good idea. And it would also be great to have an experiential farm.

Q: How large is your tea farm area now?

The scenery of Kaneroku Matsumotoen tea fields.

Matsumoto: Of the total 7 ha, 6 ha are conventionally grown and 1 ha is organic.

Q: Do you plan to expand your tea fields in the future?

Matsumoto: No, in fact, in the future, it would be better to have less than 7ha, in order to maintain and improve the quality of our products, and to take on new challenges. Nowadays, from spring to summer I normally work 100 consecutive days without a break (laughs). 

However, there are many troubling aspects of the local situation, such as the aging of the older farmers. I hope that I can create a management system that will allow my son, who is in elementary school, to say that he would like to become a tea farmer in the future.

Q: Do you find it difficult to work with Japanese tea?

Matsumoto: I feel like we are making it difficult! It should be so easy.

How many grams of tea leaves to use, how much water, how long  to steep to make a delicious brew? There are certainly some things that you should be careful about, but from the perspective of enjoying the tea, I do not think you need to worry about it that much.

Rather than creating hurdles for Japanese tea, I would like to get people excited and just start by pouring hot water on it.

If we pursue ease, though, we might end up using plastic bottles, but I also feel that we should not make things too rigid.

Q: What do you want the future of the tea industry to look like?

Matsumoto: Today’s tea industry is dominated by mass production in large-scale factories, and there are very few family-run tea farms like us that handle everything from cultivation to processing. However, because we are small-scale, we want to make tea that is unique and interesting.

Shizuoka’s chagusaba farming method is registered as a World Agricultural Heritage.

I think the world will become more and more unattractive if we just industrialize. So I think as producers we need to create more fans for both Japanese tea as an everyday item and Japanese tea as a luxury item.

Recently, I feel that the number of Japanese tea fans is increasing among university students and the younger generation. I hope that there will also be new farmers who want to try making tea.

*All photos by Kaneroku Matsumotoen.