Saving the Endangered Tradition behind Goishi Tea
Japan’s aging population threatens the future of many local specialty foods and products. The ever-shrinking number of people from younger generations are leaving farming jobs in rural areas to pursue careers in larger cities. Centuries of tradition may be lost forever.
Against this bleak outlook, the Goishi Tea made by the Otoyo-cho Goishicha Cooperation offers a hopeful success story of a farming family surviving against all odds and bringing together a community of dedicated tea farmers to rescue this rare traditional tea from near extinction.
Goishi Tea Nearly Vanished
Goishi tea is produced in Otoyo in Kochi Prefecture, a mountainous region on the southern coast of the beautiful island of Shikoku. After being harvested, the tea is steamed and then fermented twice, giving the tea its unique acidic flavor and fragrance – some say similar to red wine.
This rare tea has a history stretching back over 400 years with origins in the Edo period. Its methods of production were passed from one generation to the next until the 1970’s, when production declined sharply. Only one family of tea masters remained – the Ogasawara family. The last farmer from that family fought to keep the tradition of goishi tea alive. Against all odds, he managed to continue producing tea and to pass down the tradition to his son.
Now all goishi tea from Japan is produced by a single cooperation of 7 tea farmers, lead by Koji Ogasawara – seventh generation descendent of the Ogasawara family.
Labor of Love to Produce Goishi Tea
From harvesting to the final drying step, goishi tea requires a great deal of effort to produce. In fact, the entire production process takes nearly two months from start to finish.
The tea plants grow in the mountains above 450 meters. Normally, tea farmers harvest tea in May. However, for Goishi tea, farmers hike into the mountains to harvest from the middle of June until the beginning of August, when leaves are most abundant. Instead of picking the leaves, entire branches of the tea plant are harvested.
The harvested tea plants are then steamed for almost 3 hours. To steam the leaves, the plants are packed into a wooden barrel with a piece of bamboo in the center. The bamboo is removed before heating, leaving a space for the leaves to move creating an intense internal heat.
The leaves are then separated from the branches and combined with a very specific type of mold from Kochi Prefecture for the first fermentation process. Leaves are heaped by hand into a pile reaching almost 1 meter in height. This arrangement leaves space between the leaves, which is critical for the growth of the lactic acid bacteria. The one-week process requires years of experience to judge and properly control the fermentation, which relies on nurturing the natural processes of the mold.
Next the leaves are combined with the juice from steaming the fresh leaves. For the second fermentation process, which lasts one week, the tea leaves are packed in barrels and compressed from above using heavy weights to create the conditions for anaerobic fermentation without oxygen. As the leaves ferment, they expand so much that the leaves actually lift the heavy weights.
Finally, the leaves are cut into squares and dried on straw mats for several days in the sun. The timing is critical, since the leaves cannot be exposed to rain. The farmers carefully chose a period when sunshine is forecasted for several straight days. As the leaves dry, they turn black, which is where the tea gets its name "goishi" (meaning "go stone"). The name refers to the black, round stones used to play the Japanese board game go.
Not only is the process time-consuming, since it relies on natural processes, goishi tea production requires very specific environmental conditions. For example, at lower elevations, the bacteria to ferment the tea do not grow well. The ideal conditions for fermentation are only found higher in the mountains (around 600m).
A Bright, Global Future for Goishi Tea
Traditionally, goishi tea has been used to make rice porridge, eaten for supposedly promoting gut health. Nowadays, the tea is enjoyed just like any other tea. In fact, demand has increased for this special tea to the point that the Otoyo-cho Goishicha Cooperation can barely keep up.
Goishi tea has been certified with the Japan Food Industry Association and may be designated in the future as an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan. This tea, which once disappeared entirely, has been revived and brought back for Japan - and the world to enjoy again.
Thanks to the efforts of the Ogasawara family and the Otoyo-cho Goishicha Cooperation, you can enjoy the special flavor of the four centuries behind this goishi tea.
Learn more about Goishi Tea and the Otoyo-Cho Goishicha Cooperation at http://goishicha.jp/.
Article written by Jessy LeClair.