February 7, 2017 1:30 pm JST

Green tea as high art -- with the price tag too

Japanese maker rolls out $18,000 bottles overseas

HISASHI TSUTSUI, Nikkei staff writer

Royal Blue Tea's Japanese green tea was served to the Group of Seven leaders at the Ise-Shima summit in Mie Prefecture in May 2016.

TOKYO -- While the Japanese no longer drink traditional green tea as much as they used to, makers are now exporting an ultrahigh-class version overseas. 

On Jan. 28, at the beginning of the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday, a Japanese tea maker began selling 750-milliliter bottles of green tea online in Singapore and Hong Kong. A single bottle has a price tag of, amazingly, 25,000 Singapore dollars ($17,768).

Keiko Yoshimoto, president of Royal Blue Tea Japan, said an increasing number of overseas customers want their products.

The maker's tea has been available mainly in Japan at places such as in first class on airplanes and luxury restaurants at high-end hotels. Wealthy tourists from abroad who have enjoyed the tea while visiting Japan often want to continue drinking it when they return home. 

The more common price range for bottles of Royal Blue Tea's products is around 5,000 yen ($44.72) each -- which is still expensive for tea, though it is much more reasonable compared to the new lineup costing nearly $20,000.

The tea maker buys quality tea leaves from skilled farmers who are highly ranked at fairs and competitions. "Even when grown in the same field, the quality of tea leaves can vary depending on conditions such as the amount of sunlight they get," Yoshimoto said. Royal Blue Tea's leaves are in the highest grade in Japan -- a mere handful at 0.0001% of total production.

Slow, cold dripping

It takes three to six days to make enough tea for a 750ml bottle. The maker uses cold water, rather than hot water, to drip the tea so as to extract the best taste from the leaves. To add a luxury look, the tea comes in bottles just like wine and should be enjoyed from a delicate glass.    

Royal Blue Tea was able to produce only 10 bottles a day, but it now has increased capacity with a new factory it built in March 2016 in the coastal city of Chigasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture, just southwest of Tokyo. The factory was built to respond to growing demand from overseas customers. 

In addition to Japanese green tea varieties, Royal Blue Tea also sells Taiwanese high-grade oolong tea. Customers can even order single bottles, Yoshimoto said. 

A major hurdle to expanding into overseas markets was the temperature control that is necessary during shipping. To keep the condition and taste of the tea, it must be transported in a stable, cool temperature.

The company decided to target Hong Kong and Singapore -- competitive commercial areas located fairly close to Japan. 

For its highest-grade products, the company requires from distribution agents exclusive handling similar to that for artwork. As a result, the retail price abroad is triple that in Japan. 

Royal Blue Tea was initially considering selling its tea at local stores as well. But the company decided to stick with its online platform, Yoshimoto said, in an effort to keep the price and brand value at a desired level. While negotiating with a high-end supermarket in Hong Kong, "I realized they could take control of the price from us," Yoshimoto said. 

At the new Chigasaki factory there is a stylish barlike shop where visitors can enjoy glasses of the ultrahigh-quality tea. 

"We are thinking of opening similar shops in Singapore and Hong Kong, too, in the future," Yoshimoto said. "I want more people overseas to enjoy the excellence of Japanese tea."

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