When our friends at Ito En invited us to join them on a trip to their tea fields in Japan this summer, our bags were packed faster than you can say, “Matcha!”
Ito En is proud of every step of their tea-making process, and the reciprocated transparency and trust between our companies epitomizes everything our businesses stand for. Ito En’s crops are grown responsibly on small farms by people they know—it’s everything we love and look for in our partners.
After a long-haul flight, we had a night’s sleep to fight off the jetlag. Early the next hot and humid morning, we all piled into a minivan and drove for hours, snaking through lush green hills, headed for the Southern Kyushu region, where the high elevation and nutrient-rich soil has lent itself to the growing of tea for centuries.
Get the recipe for a matcha milkshake here.
Our first stop was a green tea field, just one of dozens Ito En cultivates to grow around 3,300 tons of tea annually, providing many previously unemployed workers with jobs (the company’s contribution to Japan’s struggling farming sector recently earned them a place in Fortune’s 2016 “Change the World” top 50, which recognizes businesses who are tackling society’s biggest problems while making money doing so). And, despite Ito En being a large global company—they’re the fourth-largest beverage producer in Japan—the farms they work with are notably small, and the company takes pride in building personal relationships with all of its farmers.
One of the first things we noticed when admiring the crops, was a blanket of spider webs glittering in the morning sunlight. This, we were told, is the preferred method of keeping insects at bay. The farmers also use a large air machine (picture a leaf blower the size of a tank) to blast the pests away. Less chemicals makes for a cleaner taste!
Next, we were led to another sweeping field, but this time the plants were covered in dark cloth. The reason? These trees were growing matcha—or “tencha” as it’s otherwise known—which is grown in the shade. Several weeks before harvest, cloth is stretched out over the plant, and the lack of sunlight forces the plant to produce more chlorophyll, which increases the amino acids and as a result both turns the leaves the familiar shade of “matcha” green and gives them their rich umami flavor.
Get the recipe for a matcha soy iced latte here.
After being picked, the leaves go directly from field to factory in less than an hour, and we continued to follow the matcha on its journey to becoming delicious. During the next step of the process, the leaves are deveined, which keeps the matcha from tasting too bitter and preserves the full vitality of the tea leaf, before it’s finally ground into the powder we all know and love.
Before heading back to our hotel, there was just time to join our hosts at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (known as “cha-no-yu”). Here, in a little tea house (or chashitsu) high in the mountains of Southern Japan, we got to experience and participate in an elaborate ceremony considered to symbolize respect and good grace to all in attendance. It was the perfect way to end our trip.
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Watch our trip to Japan to learn more about Ito En.