In 1874, Japanese authorities invited two Chinese tea experts to teach black tea processing techniques to Japanese farmers. The produced teas were considered a bit of a failure and it was decided that more detailed knowledge was necessary to produce a black tea that would convince the export market.
So in 1875, the government sends tea enthusiast Motokichi Tada with a few interpreters to China and India to learn about black tea production. For the knowledge-gathering missions, Motokichi Tada was instructed to learn all he could about Chinese and Indian black tea cultivation, processing methods, processing machinery, and also to bring back tea seeds suited for black tea. He returned to Japan in 1877, bringing a vast amount of tea knowledge and tea seeds with him. He was set to work to teach the Indian method of tea production throughout Japan and planting the collected tea seeds.
In the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Japan fought China primarily over control over Korea. During this war the Japanese occupied Taiwan and China was forced to cede control of Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan was occupied by Japan until the end of the Second Word War. Japan heavily invested in the Taiwanese tea industry to produce black tea, both so as to avoid directly competing with Japanese green teas and to answer the demand for black tea in the West. The Japanese offered training courses to Taiwanese farmers and stimulated the mechanisation and industrialisation of processing to increase efficiency and cost of production. Experiment stations and research centres were established to study and optimalise agricultural methods and develop new tea varietals suited to Taiwan. The main markets for Taiwanese black teas were Russia and Turkey.
By 1908 the first Japanese black tea cultivar was created in Shizuoka: the Benihomare cultivar. This tea plant was grown from a seed collected by Motokichi Tada during his mission in India. Benihomare is the ancestor to most other cultivars with the name “beni” (e.g. Benifuki).
Despite the heavy promotion of black tea production by the authorities, it did not lead to farmers adopting the techniques on a large scale. The proposed machinery needed for the production of black tea was an investment not many farmers could afford.
By the 1920s there was a production increase for black tea in Japan, but growing nationalism led to a decline of interest in the domestic market as it was not considered traditionally Japanese. Additionally, it remained a struggle to compete with the lower prices of Indian and Sri Lankan black tea on the export market.
As India struggled for independence and their tea production temporarily decreased, Japanese black tea production increased and reached between 3,000 – 4,000 tons per year between 1935-1940s.
During the Second World War, Pacific trade routes were limited and the Americans, who had been avid green tea drinkers, were cut off from their supply and developed a preference for the British-imported black teas. After World War II, the government expected green tea export would be difficult and again encouraged black tea production for export. Also, the domestic market developed an increasing interest in black tea. To promote Japanese black tea production the government introduced regulations to stimulate growth of the domestic market: any company that wanted to import black tea (often favoured due to lower price and higher quality) was required to buy an equal quantity of Japanese black tea. From 1953 Japan saw another increase in black tea production and in 1955 a peak was reached of more than 8,500 tons black tea.
Interestingly, in 1953 the official registration system for cultivars was opened in Japan, with the very first cultivar on that list being Benihomare: a black tea cultivar. Among the first 15 cultivars that were listed at the initial registration were 5 black tea cultivars. It is a clear sign that shows the effort the authorities were putting into promoting black tea research and production. Authorities kept encouraging the production of black tea until the late 1960s, with the restricting black tea import regulations still in place. In 1969, the production of black tea was 2,000 tons and the government realised that despite their efforts, black tea production just was not turning into a success. In 1971 a free trade agreement involving black tea came into effect and this liberalisation of international trade caused the production of Japanese black tea to plummet. Farmers preferred to produce green teas that they felt they could sell more reliably, and by 1975 the total production of black tea in Japan was a mere 3 tons.
In the 1980s domestic consumption of Japanese green tea starts falling and by the end of the 1990s several farmers start looking for ways to compensate for the decreasing demand for green tea and start considering turning back to black tea production. In 1990 total production of black tea is negligible, yet slow but steady growth of black tea production has led to 250 tons of black tea being produced in 2015.
Over the last twenty years interest in black tea production has become more serious, with several different competitions and events specifically dedicated to black tea production.
The Japanese black tea market is currently, in my opinion, a very interesting market to follow. I have the impression many farmers are still very much in the experimentation phase with black tea production. Tea farmers see it as a way to be able to market and sell a second or third flush that as a green tea might not attract a good enough price worth harvesting. Production is generally fairly small-scale, with a vast spectrum of different flavour profiles being created. During my travels around Japan, I have encountered a good number of farmers who are excited to be experimenting with producing something ‘new’. Many small farmers use whatever machinery they already have for their green tea production and add these into their own unique black tea production process. Where the expectations of the flavour profile of Japanese green teas are in general fairly constricted, Japanese black tea has no defined profile and gives tea farmers a chance to be unrestrained and creative.
There are fantastic batches, that often can’t be reproduced as many are still grappling with controlling black tea production parameters, but I have also encountered outspokenly bitter and strangely unbalanced teas that make it a bit of a gamble to try new teas. Of course there also are quite a few farmers that have now built enough experience over the last decade or so and have refined and crafted their teas and these show shining examples of how complex and pleasing Japanese black tea can be.
I think there is a lot of dynamic energy in the Japanese black tea market right now and am eagerly looking forward to see how the teas and their varying flavour profiles will develop over the next few years.
—> If you missed the firs part, you can read it here.
Written by: Marjolein Raijmakers.
Marjolein is a tea sommelier and Japanese tea expert. She has travelled across several Japanese tea regions for 6 months learning first hand about tea traditions and trends, working on a tea farm, attending sencha-do classes and even trying her hand at making her very own wakoucha!
You can reach Marjolein through her instagram account.
- Anon, All About Japan Tea, Japan Tea Export Promotion Council, 2018
- Gascoyne, K., Marchand, F., Desharnais, J., Americi, H., Tea:History, Terroirs, Varieties, 2nd ed, Firefly Books, 2014
- Pettigrew, J., Richardson, B., A Social History of Tea, Benjamin Press,2016
- http://www.tching.com/2011/01/japanese-black-tea-wakocha/ -Robertson, D., 2011