• Tales of the Tea Trade

    It was at this point that Mr. Toshiro gestured me to push my hand into the soil, which I did until I was past his elbow; the light, aerated soil offered little resistance. On removing my arm I was instructed to taste the soil, which I did without hesitation. How could something that was growing such healthy plants be anything but good for me? It tasted sweet, soft and gritty. If it hadn’t been gritty, I would probably have gone back for another handful.” (Page 23)

    Tales of the Tea Trade Book Review

    Review at a glance
    Tales of the Tea Trade

    Intensely Human and Heartfelt

    It was at this point that Mr. Toshiro gestured me to push my hand into the soil, which I did until I was past his elbow; the light, aerated soil offered little resistance. On removing my arm I was instructed to taste the soil, which I did without hesitation. How could something that was growing such healthy plants be anything but good for me? It tasted sweet, soft and gritty. If it hadn’t been gritty, I would probably have gone back for another handful.” (Page 23)

    That’s a quote from Tales of the Tea Trade by Michelle and Rob Comins.  Voted our favourite book of the year in October 2020 by Tea Book Club members. I’m Kyle Whittington from the UK and founder of Tea Book Club, we are an international group of tea lovers and readers who meet up online each month to discuss tea books. 

    Tales of the tea trade was also shortlisted for the Andre Simmons Book Awards in 2020. 

    Here are my thoughts:

    After a general but thoughtfully written introduction to tea and its types (pages 6-55), Michelle and Rob take us on a journey to the different countries they source their tea from (pages 56-183). Taking turns to voice the stories, we hear from both Michelle and Rob, as well as the fascinating people they’ve met on their travels. This book is intensely human and heartfelt. You really feel a connection with Michelle and Rob, their love of tea, the places they go and the people they meet. 

    The book is thoughtfully laid out so you know right away who is speaking and can easily pick out the stories from tea people alongside interesting asides such as baking their own oolong (page 38)  and people’s relationships with tea. Countries are arranged in chronological order based on when they started growing and producing tea, a different and thoughtful approach. The book is easy to hop in and out of, reading sections that interest you, if you’re not a cover-to-cover reader. Overall a pleasure to read and a must add to any tea bookshelf. 

    Thoughts and comments from Tea Book Club members:

    I truly enjoyed the whole book” (Nadine, UK)

    I absolutely love the way they outlined the book, the flow and I love the bits at the end, such as the meditation (pages 187-189). A lovely way to finish it.” (Jin, USA)

    “I think it’s wonderful, it’s almost like meeting those people. I want to drink all of these teas. They really showcase the people and the teas. It’s not about them telling, it’s about the people and the teas.” (Nadine, UK)

    Definitely the storytelling, the personal connection. They put a face to the tea, they put people to the tea.” (Alison, UK)

    Peoples attitudes and passions about where they came to tea from, why they were doing it.” (Laura, UK)

    I really enjoyed the chapter on Korean tea (pages 100-113). I’ve never had Korean tea before, so it was really nice to immerse myself in that world.” (Jin, USA)

    Harvest Schedule

    “I like the table where you can see and compare the different harvest times depending on where they are and the different names of the picking seasons depending on where they are (page 30).” (Kristine, Sweden)

     “It was really nice for me reading about my friend in Nepal (pages 156-165). I didn’t read it from end to end, just hopped on and off reading different sections.” (Elke, Germany)

    “I love in the Chinese chapter about the clay and the pot making (page 80) and how they’re using different types of clay for different types of tea. For me it’s new and I haven’t really tasted the differences between using different teas and different clay.” (Kristine, Sweden)

    Some things that came out of the book:

    It made people more appreciative of the farmers, the work they put in, and their care for the tea. 

    Made them feel more mindful about the teas they buy. 

    Another reader commented: “Something that really got my attention was on tea preparation. They wrote that to taste tea really well requires people to have a quiet and compassionate heart. A good reminder that tea requires one to be peaceful.” (Greta, Sweden)

    You can purchase the Tales of the Tea Trade directly from cominstea.com or, of course, on Amazon

    If you’d like to join us for next read, visit teabookclub.org or @joinTeaBookClub on Instagram. 

    Kyle Whittington
    Kyle Whittington

    Comins Tea

    Michelle and Rob Comins, as well as authoring this wonderful book, own and run Comins Tea, a direct-trade fine tea merchant, with teahouses in the city of Bath and the picturesque town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset, UK. Definitely well worth a visit if you’re in the area or visiting the UK. I had the most wonderful afternoon at their Bath teahouse with friends a couple of years ago tasting a range of delicious teas (I couldn’t resist leaving with several teas and some wonderful teaware of course). With lockdowns in the UK this last year they have been doing loads of great stuff online, so check out their tea school and programs on offer on their website [www.cominstea.com]. — Kyle Whittington

    Michelle and Rob Comins
    Michelle and Rob Comins

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  • Maruyama: 21st Century Japanese Tea Production

    Maruyama Fields Shizuoka
    Meticulously groomed Maruyama Tea farm in Shizuoka, Japan

    Production Fields are Mechanically Harvested

    By Ian Chun | Yunomi Life

    With clockwork precision, the Shinkansen—Japan’s Bullet Train—smoothly pulled in to the Kakegawa train station. The trip from Tokyo to the heart of Japan’s tea production region operated with the characteristic technological sophistication that is this country’s trademark. While the image of tea leaf pluckers wandering among ordered rows of tea plants (beneath the benevolent gaze of the majestic Mount Fuji) pervade industry advertising, the foundation of Japan’s tea industry has been its incorporation of new technology. It has been apparent in the incorporation of shading in the cultivation of tea leaves in the 16th century, to the development of steaming and rolling in 1738 by Nagatani Souen, to the invention of machines to mechanize the laborious six-hour sencha hand-rolling process by Takabayashi Kenzo in the late 19th century.

    In the late 20th century, as Japan urbanized and the farm worker population plunged, as the average age of farmers crept upward to 68 years old in 2020, the development and incorporation of new technologies to maintain productivity and quality has been important to the health of the tea industry.

    In the fields, we see tractor like tea trimmers and harvesters, in the modern processing factories, the machinery allows for the finest adjustments to account for differences in the leaves, and in the daily weather — the craft of tea creation combined with technology to supply an entire nation.

    Perhaps the area of development that gets the least attention are the technologies used to preserve tea quality. Hashimoto Naoyuki, international sales director at Maruyama Tea in Kakegawa, Shizuoka, explained the technology behind the refiner and wholesaler’s tea quality. “Green tea,” he explains, “still has about 5% moisture content in the leaf when we purchase it from the production factories. We need to store it at low temperature or the flavor quality will go bad in a few months after harvest.”

    Maruyama installed its first -25C refrigerator in 1996. Hashimoto-san showed me a few of their storage facilities where the rooms are ordered in levels of temperature — 10C to 0C to -20C. Asked if there is an ideal temperature for tea storage, he replied, “The colder the better, but colder temperatures require more energy and so has a higher maintenance cost.”

    He pointed to the large fans at the ceiling blowing in the sub-zero air.

    “And when you remove the tea, you need to do it in stages. Japanese summers are very humid so you have to slowly acclimate the leaf to room temperature before handling it.”

    The tea leaves at this state is called aracha, literally “rough tea”; it is tea at its unfinished state, and besides removing stems and broken leaf bits to refine the aracha, Maruyama Tea’s facility also green roasts the leaf (in Japanese hi-ire, pronounced “hee-ee-reh”). By controlling the roasting time and temperature, refiners are able to add different levels of sweet toastiness to a green tea leaf. More importantly, the reduction of the moisture content in the leaf to 1-2% guarantees that the leaf quality will last for at least a year on store shelves without significant decline in quality. This process allows the manufacturer to prepare (green roast) leaf at anytime after harvest to start the clock for maximum quality. After green roasting, the leaves are nitrogen flushed and vacuum packed to remove as much oxygen as possible to maintain best quality, and placed back into the refrigerated storage rooms to await shipment.

    The other very impressive aspect of Maruyama’s facilities is the level cleanliness— the FSSC22000 level cleanliness, a food safety standard, requires workers to dress in protective suits, and undergo an air shower before entering the clean room environment for leaf processing and packaging. This helps to ensure a sanitary, dust-free environment for refining tea and grinding matcha.

    Yakuji Maruyama Tsuyomatsu, the founder of Maruyama Japanese Tea, learned his tea making skills working for Kyoyeki-Sha prior to establishing Maruyama Tea in 1933. Maruyama has always believed in creating a cupful of tradition and innovation. This philosophy led the company to work with local farmers to master deep-steam sencha, a Kakegawa cultivar shaded for a few days prior to harvest and then steamed for 45- to 60-seconds to make Fukamushi Sencha. President and heir Katsuhisa Maruyama continues the company’s tradition of technological innovation.

    A canopy of traditional grass forces tea leaves to produce additional polyphenols and healthful catechins.

    Matcha is a mainstay for Germany’s Wollenhaupt Tee

    Marco Sinram, head of tea trading at Wollenhaupt, a Hamburg-based supplier of Japanese tea, writes that family-owned Wollenhaupt and Maruyama share a similar ownership structure and philosophy in management style.


    Wollenhaupt imports Japanese teas exclusively from Maruyama. “Since 2018 we have entered ever-closer cooperation to focus on promoting Japanese teas to the western markets,” said Sinram. Wollenhaupt, founded in 1881 and Maruyama, founded in 1933, retain traditional values and time-honored practices while embracing technology and production efficiency.

    Last year Wollenhaupt constructed a large volume, cold-chain distribution hub to ensure timely tea delivery on short notice. Tencha, processed in Japan using traditional horticultural practices, is ground only when it needs to be packed against an order. Until then, it remains as the raw material, stored at minus 20°C,” said Sinram.

    He explained that Maruyama’s ability to nitrogen flush and vacuum pack tea is critical to meeting the expectations of beverage and culinary matcha clients in 70 countries. Shipments arrive every eight weeks. On arrival Wollenhaupt refrigerates teas at a constant temperature below 8°C. Container lots and a regular shipping schedule lower costs, and “stock never stays too long. This ensures absolute fresh quality to the customer,” writes Sinram. 

    Learn more at www.wollenhaupt.com.

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