Japanese Companies Shake Up Chinese Wulong Tea Industry

This is a timely story since we are featuring WuYi Shan oolongs this month. This is from the Herald Tribune/Asahi a national business paper published in Japan.

Japan, as a tea producer, is strictly green tea. Chinese tea is the rage in Japan, and pretty expensive. The Japanese tea industry leads the world in tea technology and have been able to bargain their way into being involved in Chinese tea production with their factory equipment. I first saw this happen in Zhejiang province with organic green tea. You will not see much in the way of organic tea being produced in Japan because the producers there really love their chemicals and believe in their science where agriculture is concerned. There is a big market in Japan for organics, and the first Japanese factory equipment was installed in Zhejiang to produce organic sencha. The company now exports 90% of their tea production to Japan.

I saw the new Japanese machinery that had been installed in WuYiShan in the fall of 2003. I had never seen such a beautiful tea factory in China. The Hong Kong company that had set it up was sponsoring a big tea festival, and people were there from all over China. There was a big tea culture competition, and there were a lot of Chinese tea masters in attendance. Since I was the only American there and my wife is friends with some of the masters, we got to be guests of the tea company hosting the event and the mayor of WuYiShan. There were, however, no Japanese business men there. The Japanese are not too popular in China, especially in the countryside. It’s okay to show off your Japanese technology, but it’s a good idea to keep a low profile about Japanese involvement.

The Hong Kong company had also hired a lot of local people from the old government factory to work at the new factory, and a tea master that had published quite a few books in China as a front man. But as the article mentioned, tea production in this area goes back a thousand years, and putting a lot of money into a factory and marketing, doesn’t necessarily mean that great tea will be produced there. In fact the new factory is not popular now with the local tea culture, and because the tea being produced doesn’t match the taste and smell of the famous oolongs of Wuyi Shan, it is not doing as well as they had hoped. It is true that they are profitable, but the hopes of the hometown boy that made it rich in Hong Kong and returned home, for the respect given to a great tea maker has not been realized. I doubt the the Japanese taking more control of the operation is going to make it better. The old government factory still has its tea master who has focused on perfecting rock oolongs for the last fifty years applying his PhD. in tea science with his love of the traditional art of tea making.