Chagusaba Tea Production: Sustainable, Semi-Natural Meadows – and Delicious Teas
Written by Gerard Paul
Chagusaba is a traditional agricultural production method dating back more than 10,000 years.
It's a key method of producing high-quality, sweeter natural tea, with a distinct aroma and taste. By cultivating grasslands and meadows, plus processing native plants in thoughtful ways, Japan – and in particular, Shizuoka Prefecture – has proven out a traditional, sustainable method of tea-farming.
All of the activity behind producing tea – 5.8 metric tons, in 2018 – is of global importance. In areas where Chagusaba is practiced for tea cultivation, it's vital to continue this practice to prevent biodiversity loss and nurture the ecosystem.
What is Chagusaba?
The term Chagusaba refers to grasslands that are partially made by man and partly natural. Chagusaba, in fact, essentially translates to "semi-natural grasslands."
The method involves the periodic mowing of grasslands and the processing of the grass to provide benefits for tea farms. It's also beneficial to produce food for livestock – and even people!
Overview of Chagusaba
With Chagusaba, the grasslands around tea fields are critical. That's because these grasslands will eventually be used as mulch, which has a substantial positive impact on the cultivation quality of teas.
The grassland mulch augments the quality of the tea significantly. Management of the grasslands is intensive, but the tea produced by the Chagusaba method sells at a premium price. Chagusaba refers to the traditional tea-grass integrated system in Shizuoka.
Chagusaba in Detail
The grassland harvest contains a variety of regional tall grasses along with Japanese pampas grass and bamboo grass.
The grasslands have a very rich biodiversity. While it's impossible to give an exact count of the plant diversity in these meadows, the United Nations pegs it at over 300 species.
As these grasses grow over the summer, they look like nothing more than common grass – until the time comes for them to be cut and tied into bunches and hung to dry. These special grasses are used as a natural fertilizer – mulch. They keep the tea roots from burning due to too much nitrogen and provide nutrients to growing Camellia sinensis (tea plant) bushes.
The grasses are first harvested in autumn and then dried – sometimes for up to a year. The area where the grass is cut is called kusakariba, and the grasslands are called chabana.
Once the grass is thoroughly dried, it's cut and carefully placed throughout the tea fields. The extra layer of grass provides both moisture and insulation during the dry winter season. The layer also prevents weeds from growing out of control and halts erosion, and conveniently also has natural pest-control properties. Nutrients and microorganisms enter the soil as the grasses break down on top of the tea fields, leading to the distinctive flavor and chemical complexity of Chagusaba teas.
Chagusaba in Use Today
Much of the tea produced in Japan comes from Shizuoka on Japan's Honshu island. The steeply sloped mountains of the Prefecture lend it its nickname: the Capital of Tea.
Shizuoka is home to seven regions of tea growing that are all slightly different from one another. Four main cities and a town dominate the local tea trade – Kakegawa City, Kikugawa City, Shimada City, Makinohara City, and Kawanehon Town.
While tea isn't the only crop grown in the area, many of the farmers in the Prefecture happen to be tea farmers – somewhere around 80%. Many farmers there form cooperative groups or are partial owners of a tea farm too.
The area of Shizuoka Prefecture still heavily practices the Chagusaba tradition today. Shizuoka was certified as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) in 2013 for their dedication to the craft.
How Chagusaba Works
Chagusaba production enhances the landscape of Japan with perfectly manicured rows of shamrock green tea leaves lining the hillsides surrounded by natural meadows.
You can still spot these chagusaba tea fields in active production. The sprawling picturesque landscape is still enough to take your breath away. There are some rare meadow plants in species that are endangered, which only find their home in Chagusaba fields.
And unfortunately, the method itself finds itself at risk – threatened by the easier farming from factory methods which don't offer the same sustainability offered by Chagusaba.
Chugasaba and Qualiries of Tea
Camellia sinensis produces leaves four times throughout the year before going dormant for a period. Management of the grasslands around the tea fields helps prevent cheap, bigger, or more dominant plants from completely taking over the fields. Cutting the grass also allows the sunlight to reach the soil causing new shoots to sprout.
The grass cutting encourages meadow plants to grow. These grasses are rich in silicic acid, which enhances the soil while the grass decomposes. Chaff and rice bran may be used to add amino acids.
These labor-intensive methods certainly bolster the reputation of the green tea in Shizuoka. However, it filters through to taste too – especially deep steamed Chagusaba-sourced teas have a distinct deep green color, aromas, and taste.
Hand-Kneading and Chagusaba
Hand kneading is another cultural tea practice. It's a detailed process to learn that takes five hours to complete – manual kneaders unravel and knead bundles of leaves for preparation.
Nowadays, machines have taken up this job, but there are still pro Chashi kneaders preserving the tradition.
Plants and Grasses Used in Chagusaba
There are a variety of grasses used in the cultivation of chagusaba, including Japanese silver grass and all sorts of herbs and plants. As mentioned above, there is no complete catalog - but the UN has recognized over 300 distinct grass species in the Chagusaba meadows.
Among them are the famous seven herbs of autumn, too – the seven edible herbs of autumn include:
- Japanese parsley (seri)
- Shepherd's purse (nazuna)
- Cudweed (gogyou)
- Chickweed (hakobera)
- Henbit (hotokenoza)
- Turnip (suzuna)
- Japanese radish (suzushiro)
All seven are part of the rich biodiversity of Chagusaba.
Popularity of Chagusaba
It's safe to say: the management of these semi-natural grasslands in Japan exemplifies sustainable farming. This traditional system has stood the test of time and truly improves tea cultivation quality.
But – as with all industries – the tea industry is subject to modernization. The people of Shizuoka would mostly prefer to maintain the old process that produces excellent tea and preserves biodiversity, but it's only sustainable if the market rewards the effort to some degree.
To that end, practitioners with authorization are allowed to apply a seal showing that the tea was produced by Chagusaba methods. The GIAHS label does appear to have value in the market; especially for gifted tea, people do value knowing their tea was produced through traditional means.
Chagusaba and Sustainability
Chagusaba techniques are self-evidently sustainable and have been passed from generation to generation. The method is hugely beneficial for sustainability farming – Chagusaba adds a lot of nutrients to the soil, improves yield, and fights rot and insects – and provides value in the market, to boot. So many agricultural interventions hurt topsoil – but not Chagusaba tea production. All of these factors truly make it worth all of the added effort.
(Of course, the taste, color, and aroma benefits make the labor worth it as well!)
Tea connoisseurs consider Chagusaba tea to be particularly sweet. Since this method produces naturally sweeter tea, it's an excellent methodology for people who couldn't otherwise handle more bitter varieties without sweeteners.
The excellent agricultural qualities, plus the taste and purity of chagusaba-derived tea, only come with great effort. It takes about 600 hours per farmer to cut and utilize the grasslands.
Even though the methods are more sustainable than others and the tea is of higher quality, it's only economically viable if we reward growers. And yes, that's my plea for you to try – and hopefully, keep trying – traditionally grown tea.
Sustainable Growing – and Delicious Tea
Maybe I'm a dreamer, but with so much attention on sustainable agricultural methods, we'll likely see Chagusaba-style methods integrated into the farming of other crops in other areas of the globe. Perhaps areas with tons of runoff, or areas requiring excessive crop rotation will soon see the benefits of a Chagusaba-like process for growing crops?
But again, let me leave you with this. We know that teas – especially green teas – have many benefits outside their caffeine. If you help support teas grown and harvested using the traditional methods, it can nudge the market towards more and more teas grown sustainably.
Better for the environment, plus better taste and aroma? I'll raise a cup to that!
Gerard Paul writes about food and drink at ManyEats. While he's more often found with a cup of coffee, he's fascinated by all the varieties and history with tea (and prefers drinking green!).