When new tea gardens are planted, manufacturers select tea cultivars with the eye on factors as the tea to be produced; the ways they use to manage and cultivate the farm; the size of the tea farm; the area’s weather conditions, etc. As seen in the previous article, cultivars are chosen based on their suitability to a specific class of tea, but other factors such as adaptability to the region’s climate also play a decisive role in the survival and successful cultivation of a tea bush. A producer in the south of Japan, where the climate is warmer and thus proves less threatening to expose the tea bushes to cold and frost, the preference often goes to early growers with a good yield. On the contrary, manufacturers in colder mountainous areas by default base their decisions on the species’ resistance against cold and frost, which leads them to favor tardy growers since warmer times also arrive later in such regions.

The major benefit of using tea cultivars

The main advantage of working with cultivars is that tea manufacturers with a wide area of tea gardens under their care, and various plots of land to manage, often resort to working with different cultivars. When the bushes on all their gardens are of the same species, it is commonly the case that they bud at the exact same time. This causes the producer to have to harvest all plots of land simultaneously, which causes a tremendous work overload. This he can impossibly manage himself, nor can he find a sufficient amount of labor for to aid him in this overwhelming task. Cultivars are divided in three groups, ‘speedy-‘, ‘seasonable-‘, and ‘tardy’ growers. These provide immense benefits for the producer in terms of time management for harvesting periods.

By choosing a variety of cultivars that bud at a marginally different pace, the producer can manage his tea gardens so that different gardens don’t sprout and get ready for harvest at the same time. They rather get harvest ready in succession to each other. This enables him to spread his period of harvest out over a wider span of time, limiting the amount of work to be done in one day. Successively, he can more efficiently manage the whole of his farm and the multiple plots of land. And it is this specific trait that has made cultivar species become favored over native and seed-grown bushes.

4 tea cultivars in one garden
4 tea cultivars on one plot of land. (Yabukita, Benifuki, Benihikari, Yamatomidori)

The Yabukita cultivar

Take for example the Yabukita cultivar. This species was discovered by Hikosaburo Sugiyama [杉山彦三郎] at the tea garden north of his bamboo grove, which explains the name of the bush literally signifying ‘north of the bamboo grove’ [やぶきた(薮北); Yabukita]. His research revolved around the discovery of species that can produce quality buds and leaves for the manufacturing of tea, which led him to the discovery of ‘speedy-’, ‘seasonal-’, and ‘tardy’ growers among different tea varieties.

He also made the discovery that when seeds taken from cultivars are planted again, the characteristics of that specific cultivar are lost, which made him aware of the necessity to reproduce tea cultivars from cuttings in order to maintain its traits. For his research he gathered plants from all areas throughout Japan, which he planted in the experimental tea garden where he monitored the bushes, noting their specifications down in search of the best suitable varietals for tea. It was at this garden that he discovered the Yabukita cultivar, which is contemporarily in use at over 70% of the gardens for green tea production in Japan.

The Yabukita cultivar was chosen as promoted species in 1945 and was registered as #6 in 1953 under the Japanese tea cultivar registration system. Currently it is taken as the yardstick to measure the velocity with which other cultivars produce new buds and become ready for harvest. This cultivar is average in all areas, especially renown for its strong growth and good yield, and durability against cold and frost, making it a versatile and highly adaptable bush in different environments.

The downside of tea cultivars

However, contemporarily the Yabukita cultivar’s superiority is not necessarily based on its superiority in taste and aroma. On the contrary, this cultivar is praised for its stable amount of produce, adaptability to different weather conditions, and average flavor. These traits make it not only a bush that can grow just about anywhere, but also an easy plant to manage for the farmer. In addition, it is a variety that lends itself to human interference with the taste through fertilizing and blending practices by virtue of the plant’s mediocre flavor pattern. Accordingly, the choice to use the Yabukita cultivar at the majority of tea farms throughout Japan is not a choice made in consideration of the preferences of the consumer, nor is it a distinction made to discern the cultivar’s surmounting characteristics and potential to produce a unique unparalleled product. In fact it is but a choice on behalf the manufacturer and the industry evolved around the manufacturing of tea in Japan.

The consideration of the manufacturer is the ease of cultivation and harvest of the bushes he chooses. In addition, the consideration for the major industry is a matter of how they can develop a generic flavor in the tea.Their interest is the facilitation of mass production for a commodity with equal and predictable flavor. This flavor must just sufficiently appeal to the greater public, but nothing more.

Cultivars were initially discovered and registered for their adaptability to different climates and for the range of unique tastes and flavors they propose. Nevertheless, the industry has moved towards a focus on mass-production and economization, inevitably reducing the potential of tea products manufactured, limiting them to monotonously unified tastes and aromas. While cultivars possess great appeal and distinct characteristics of their own, the majority of large-scale tea manufacturers tend to neglect their potential. It are the small artisan tea producers that take great joy in experimenting with different tea cultivars to learn from their different behaviors and to bring products onto the market that present a uniqueness and diversity to the more curious consumer.

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