What Diversity in Tea Means to Your Next Cup – Japanese Green Tea Cultivars

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As we have discussed before, tea originates from the Camellia Sinensis plant.  However, just as the leaf size of tea grown in China vary dramatically different from that grown in India, so too does the varieties, or tea cultivars grown in Japan differ.  As the tea plant has traveled the globe, countries have invested in the tea industry, developing many different tea cultivars more suited for their part of the world.  Tea cultivars are the cultivated variety of a tea plant selected and breed by humans for a very specific set of characteristics like flavor, resistance to pest or diseases, and speed of growth.  What that tea cultivar was created for directly impacts the flavor of the final tea product.  So why care about these tea cultivars, so long as I get a good cup of teas?

As climate change alters the behavior of the jet stream and therefore our weather patterns, it will affect the quality and quantity of tea being produced.  Countries around the global are busy trying to breed a tea plant that can handle longer spells of drought, cold, rain and other weather pattern changes so as to minimize its effects on tea production.  So how do these researchers balance the need for a more hearty plant with keeping its signature flavor?

Rows of Trimmed Tea Plants - Tea Cultivars

Tea Plantation Kirishima, By Akuppa John Wigha, CC By 2.0

Over Fifty Tea Cultivars in Japan

Japan, offers an excellent case study of the impact of cultivar diversity in the tea industry.  Since the 1970’s, when Japan mechanized its tea harvesting in response for more demand for tea and less labor to harvest it, the country has been a study in both the positive and negative impacts of cultivar development and selection.  There are currently fifty-two tea cultivars registered with the country that are part of the commercial tea industry, but that was not always the case.  In the 1970’s, the Yabukita cultivar was selected as the best tea cultivar for mechanized harvesting while keeping the flavor that was expected in Sencha tea.  Yabukita became the tea plant of choice and rose to be almost 75% of all tea plants used for commercial production (Chika Yagi, 2010).

Having a nearly mono-culture tea industry created two very big problems for Japan.  First, there were frequent outbreaks of grey blight and pest infestations that would practically wipe out a single season’s harvest.  Then, in years when the crop could be harvested it caused price fluctuations in tea because the entire tea harvest occurred at the same time, glutting the market and dropping prices.  The National Institute of Tea Science quickly caught onto these problems and, in the 1980’s, began the development of more tea cultivars with different harvest periods and better pest and disease resistance.

Tea Cultivars Plus Standardized Cupping Methodology

In breeding more tea cultivars, Japan developed a regimented harvesting and simple tasting procedure to ensure flavor was not lost while breeding for other traits.  Their steps go so far as to dictate time of day of harvest, number of leaves to harvest, drying time and then cupping instructions.  They even require the tasting bench to be placed near a window with diffused morning sunlight to help standardize the evaluation of the color of the dried leaves and brewed liquor during cupping.  This attention to the small details around testing for the final product of cultivar allowed the Japanese tea industry to introduce more cultivars with extended harvesting periods, disease and pest tolerance, without losing flavor (Chika Yagi, 2010).

It gives me great hope that as other countries like India and Kenya start their own cultivation of new varieties in response to climate change that they can turn to Japan as a model to follow.  Do you see the cultivar that makes your favorite Japanese green tea below?

Five of the Most Widely Used Tea Cultivars in Japan

Tea Cultivar Name: Yabukita Okuhikari Okumidori Saemidori Yutakamidori
Spring Harvest Time: April to mid-May 5 to 6 days later than Yabukita Later than Yabukita Earlier than Yabukita 5 days earlier than Yubakita
Cold Resistance: High High High Low Medium-High
Pest and Disease Resistance: Susceptible to anthracnose Resistant to anthracnose Slightly susceptible to anthracnose Resistant to anthracnose High Resistance to anthracnose
Main Type of Green Created from Cultivar: Sencha Sencha/Bancha (higher yielding than Yabukita) Tencha Matcha Gyokuro

Works Cited
Chika Yagi, N. I. (2010, August). Characteristics of Eight Japanese Tea Cultivars. Honolulu: College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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