The Race Against Bottled Teas : How can loose leaf tea fight back?

  • Holly Helt

It’s hard to believe that in a country with such spectacular tea, loose leaf tea consumption has been declining over the last 20 years. In fact, it’s shocking to us that some young Japanese people haven’t even tried steeped loose leaf tea!

What’s to blame? Probably a variety of things but we think there are two key reasons: the rise of coffee and the proliferation of bottled green tea available in convenient stores seen on virtually every street corner in Japan (think Seven Eleven).

Japanese young people, it seems, just don’t sit down and steep a good brew anymore. That’s what their grandmothers do. We find this scandalous (!) due to the vast amounts of stunningly good loose leaf green tea produced every year all across the country.

What’s interesting is that the younger market is indeed yearning for the flavours of Matcha, Sencha, and Houjicha. Matcha lattes and Houjicha lattes are just as popular on the Starbucks Japan menu as coffee and Frappuccinos. Here at Chiki Tea, our younger customers are drawn to our Matcha Smoothies and Matchaccinos (though noticeably less so to the straight Matcha shot it has to be said).

Green bottled teas are viewed as an easy “hit”, a quick fix for a throwback to a culture they identify with. But really these bottled teas are no more than flavoured water despite claims of “Super Catechins” and all the good stuff. Certainly they lack the nutritional qualities you get with steeped Senchas or whisked Matchas, much the same as the problem with green tea supplements.

A few weeks back we had a meeting with a local tea farmer who told us his farm brought in kabuse (the shading process) over the last few years specifically to tackle this issue. The shading process can take out the bitter twang you sometimes get with Sencha, yielding an altogether sweeter flavour, particularly on the backend. They hoped this would attract a younger audience (which it hasn’t). It would seem the young market is more concerned with speed and convenience rather than flavour and health benefits.

But obviously this is a gross generalisation! We set up our café in Japan rather than just sell tea online to address this very issue: convenience. We make the drink! No teapots or Matcha whisks required. And what we’ve seen is Japanese people of all ages come in and order green tea beverages. It’s true that our Matcha drinks (shots, smoothies, lattés) are better sellers than the steeped loose leaf teas, but we sense a shift in attitude towards green tea. It’s becoming less of a fuddy-duddy drink for Japanese youth. They also see Sencha as a health boost when indulging in our New York style cheesecake… and they can’t wait to share it on Instagram!

With trendier teaware coming to market and more awareness around healthy lifestyles, we predict high-end steeped Japanese green tea will become the go-to drink again in Japan. Perhaps, though, ironically, one of the biggest driving forces for this revival will be the West’s interest, passion and commercialization of tea.


by Holly Helt

(This post was originally written for the T-Ching blog)


About Holly Helt

Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.

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