The Matcha Journey, Part 3: Cultivation
Today we examine two different philosophies in farming. You are now in the middle of our in-depth look into matcha. Start your journey here.
This series will take you on an in-depth journey of how a satisfying bowl of matcha came to be -
story of how tea is grown, cultivated, processed to become the relaxing drink you have
Not every farm has a second harvest
Growing tea for matcha requires special care and attention. There maybe three, maybe more, harvest opportunities a year, but the quality of the harvest relies much on how much care was put into the first months of the year for the spring harvest. For nibancha, the second harvest, to be less smooth, mellow and subtler in flavor it needs the nutrients left in the soil from the previous harvest. By this time, the rainy season has rolled in Japan. Leaf munching insects flock to the tea farms and they bring with them tea diseases.
With these two pronged problem comes the solution that is fertilization & artificial pest control. Japanese tea farmers practice both organic farming and in-organic farming which they call synthetic farming.
In preparation for the spring harvest, the bases of tea bushes are covered in organic fertilizer at the end of February until the start of March. Here comes the deal breaker for organic matcha farming: during the shading stage it’s crucial to ramp up photosynthesis, but when it’s deprived of the sunlight it needs, what then?
This is where synthetic fertilizers come in. Nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potassium fertilizer is applied in the middle of April to compensate for the slow moving organic fertilizers. Additional rapid-acting ammonium sulfate fertilizer is applied as May begins, just before the spring harvest. The extra boost from non-organic fertilizers give the extra energy the tea bush needs because the bitter truth is, despite modern technology, organic fertilizers give energy sufficient for it to grow with maximum amino acid structure. Its delivery of nitrogen is too meager for the leaves to develop complex amino acids. Synthetic farming ensures that the bushes can produce high-quality leaves and the farmer can harvest the amount of tea they anticipated.
But the knowledge that most tea on the market is grown with synthetic fertilizers should not scare you. Japan has tough regulations ensuring the safety of its tea. Farmers are required to keep records of what fertilizers and pesticides were used, how much and when it was used; and the kind, frequency, and amount should adhere to the standards set by law.
Organic tea farms exist in Japan, however it produces less than 1% of Japan’s tea. It’s umami may be a lot less than conventional matcha, but it has its own charm. It tastes simple and traditional which maybe a lot closer to teas in ancient Japan. The features of the cultivar, soil, climate and the efforts of the farmer’s toil bleed into the tea’s flavor. Organic tea farms experience same scrutiny, maybe even more, to retain its organic farm status.
Most farmers engage in both types of tea farming, but take careful measures to segment their conventional and organic tea bushes. They can’t be too close together because organic tea welcomes insects which act as natural pesticides, but synthetic tea bushes are sensitive to their presence. There’s also a financial risk that comes with organic farming.
Organic farms are limited to the one harvest a year because the second harvest relies so much on the nutrients left by the first batch, of which in organic farming is insufficient and slow acting. However, there’s a certain respect in being an organic farmer, of being reliant on the richness of the earth and the kindness of nature. They maybe few, but they are proud.
In the next part, the leaves will depart from the bush will begin the transformation into tea. Don’t miss it by signing up for the Matcha Organics Club, where you’ll be the first one notified.