Tea Interview: Ian from Obubu Tea

The third interview in our series is for Ian, Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantation’s Overseas Marketing Agent.

If you’re not familiar with Kyoto Obubu Tea, they are a small farm based in the Wazuka valley of southern Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. They cultivate top quality tea leaves to produce great tasting sencha, genmaicha, houjicha, and of course matcha teas (all different types of Japanese green teas).

You can also follow Obubu Tea on Twitter as @obubutea and visit them on their Obubu Tea Facebook page for their latest updates!

Tell me about who you are and what makes you tick.

I am a firm believer that you can not only find happiness in pursuing your dreams, but also financial success and stability. After graduating with a comparative literature degree from Brown U., I moved to Japan and spent nearly ten years there first pursuing a career in academics as a specialist in Japanese contemporary literature, society and culture, then moved into the business arena as a web and product marketing specialist. I was introduced to Obubu and was immediately drawn in to their incredible whirlpool of passion for their Japanese tea and for their effort in reaching out to customers as farmers.

Tell ms about Obubu Tea as a company and what makes it different.

When one thinks of tea companies, one rarely thinks of the tea farmer — one thinks of the farm workers on the tea plantation slaving in the cold spring and the hot summer sun. At Obubu, things are reversed. Our president, Akihiro “Akky” Kita, is the farm worker slaving away from dawn to midnight cultivating the tea plants and processing the tea leaves.

Meanwhile the staff are in the office doing our best to both sell his tea and teach our customers about tea farming, scheduling time for Akky to talk to his customers whenever possible (such as this winter’s tea tour, www.obubutea.com/news/obubu-winter-tea-tour). Obubu as a company is proactive as farmers in reaching out to teach more people about tea farming, an industry that is slowly shrinking in Japan due to an aging farm population and a lack of new farmers like Akky himself.

What does it mean to be the Overseas Marketing Agent for Obubu Tea?

It’s challenging. They have a business model and product built upon the Japanese market — an entire country of consumers who grow up drinking Japanese teas. Transferring that business model to countries and cultures beyond Japan’s shores with a very limited budget and attempting to minimize the farmers’ risk as much as possible has been an incredible learning experience filled with both successes and failures.

Specifically, their business model is distribution of the tea grown by Akky to individual consumers via the internet. For the overseas business, this makes the tea fresher as it minimizes transport time as much as possible from farm to tea lover. As their voice in English, I have found the opportunity to communicate, educate as well as learn from tea lovers from around the world very rewarding, especially when I meet people who make the decision to come to Japan and visit Akky and Matsu at Obubu’s tea fields after learning about them through ObubuTea.com.

For those aspiring to get into the tea industry, do you have any advice or insights to share?

First, learn your teas — especially the ones you plan to specialize in. However, equally important is to learn business — how to organize and create a plan, how to adjust that plan when necessary, how to determine who your market is and how to approach them. Third, if possible, learn the language of your suppliers — Japanese, Chinese, Hindi….it will come in incredibly useful in finding and dealing with just the right partners/suppliers.

What does tea mean to you? Describe a meaningful tea moment.

I will confess, I am a coffee drinker. Tea has been a transformative element in my life as I move from corporate life to small business. Getting involved with the farmers at Obubu has taught me the many different complexities of tea, and as a result I not only drink tea heavily, but I have also started to appreciate the subtleties other foods and drinks, including coffee! The one defining moment would have to be my first cup of kabuse sencha that Matsumoto-san poured for me. Warm, not hot, it was sweet and powerful–an eye-opening experience, one that forever changed the way I thought of Japanese sencha.

If there’s one tea you could recommend to everyone, what would it be and why?

I would recommend the Genmaicha to everyone because it is the most accessible. However, the Kabuse Sencha, or a gyokuro tea (which does not grow well in Obubu’s region), is absolutely heavenly for those who like the combination of umami (a slightly salty flavor) and bitterness.

Visit Obubu Tea at www.obubutea.com.