From their gardens to our cups, Yamamotoyama is delighting the world with high quality tea that’s accessible to everyone.
In 1690, Nami Yamamoto’s great-great-great-grandfather opened a tea shop in Central Tokyo. “He wanted to share green tea with everyone. Just a cup of green tea.” That radically simple desire broke unexpected ground. At the time, green tea was reserved for Japan’s royalty, a drinking experience surrounded by reverential history, mystery, and beauty, brewed for only the most exalted. Fit only for the best of the best. Today, the company founded by the Yamamoto family is the best known tea grower and producer in Japan as well as one of the country’s leading seaweed distributors and has established itself in the US as a provider of high quality, truly delectable green tea, seaweed (nori), and soy wraps.
“If you can imagine 330 years ago what was available for the drinking experience, matcha was available only for royalty and wasn't really available for common people. Common people picked their own tea leaves, and made their own,” Yamamoto explained. “Just taking the tea leaves and putting them in a pot and boiling it turns into a brownish liquid that’s not tasty. Back then, the royalty would drink a really good quality matcha, while common people only had non-tasty tea available to them.
“Our family invented the way to democratize green tea and make it delicious … made it something that you could actually drink and enjoy. This is how sencha green tea started. It is actually green, not brown or yellow. Our family made green tea popular.”
In 1835, Kahei Yamamoto VI invented gyokuro tea, a superior quality beverage that drinkers have described as green tea’s answer to espresso. In 1947, Kahei Yamamoto VIII made nori as a holiday gift in Japan. It caught on and became a standard.
As CEO of Yamamotoyama U.S.A., Nami represents the 11th generation of family members in the business. The youngest-ever Yamamotoyama CEO and its first female in the corner office, she is on a mission to share the exhilaration of tasting authentic Japanese green tea with a rapidly expanding consumer base that’s craving more healthful and exciting alternatives to soda and sugar-laden drinks.
Across continents and cultures there’s an element of ritual, relaxation, and camaraderie in the simple act of sitting down for a cup of tea. “There is a tea wave coming,” Nami stressed. “The demand is really high. … I took over the company about two years ago, and I’m based in our USA office. My grandfather started operating in this market in the 1940s, and he still hasn't retired. He is in the Japan office almost every day. It's important that I carry the family tradition and DNA of the company, and it's important to be the first young female CEO.”
The Real Deal
In a retail market where anemic green tea replicas crowd the shelves and where authentic Japanese nori is often sacrificed by middling restaurant chefs in favor of cheaper, less flavorful nori not native to Japan, Yamamotoyama’s presence is welcome indeed. And in an era where authenticity matters, their arrival is right on time.
That said, Yamamotoyama’s presence in the States is hardly new. Daniel Kerbel, the company’s Vice President of Marketing, pointed out that the company’s first innovation, the invention of sencha tea as part of its efforts to democratize the Japanese tea drinking experience, led to the world’s embrace of the beverage. “The origins of green tea are Japanese. There's no proper green tea outside of Japan. Today, gyokuro, sencha, and hojicha are becoming more and more known in the US.
“We’re very proud of our operation because we are basically farm-to-table/cup. We bring seaweed from our farms in Japan and Korea, roast it in Pomona, Calif., and sell it from here. We bring the tea from our own tea gardens all over Japan and also from a Japanese tea garden we have in Brazil outside of Sao Paulo. We blend it here, package it here, and ship it from here to the rest of the world.”
In 1975, Steven Smith, one of the founders of Portland’s legendary Stash Tea Company, approached Yamamotoyama for help in packing its teas. “Stash was growing as a brand, but packaging was a huge capital investment,” Kerbel said. “The machinery needed is extremely advanced, expensive, and complicated—they still are—but nobody could just say, ‘I'm going to buy a machine and start a plant for tea.’ You need the know-how.”
Stash and Yamamotoyama continued their partnership until all shares of the company were sold to Yamamotoyama, which had interest in establishing a Western channel positioned brand. As tea aficionados well know, he would go on to establish Tazo and Steven Smith Teamaker before his untimely death in 2015.
“Today we operate both brands,” Kerbel added. “From a national perspective there’s still a lot of room to grow for us. We’re not middle America's forte, we have distribution but not a lot of it, and our brand is not very well known. Even so, we enjoy a lot of brand equity with Stash, and our drinkers are very loyal, and the reason for that is simple: Our blends have the highest quality and people recognize Stash for its bold flavors that no other brand can produce. In that sense the brand is extremely healthy, but we’re injecting a lot of money in Stash to bring it to a national level, give it a voice and a point of view, and compete. We sell for the same price as the huge brands, but our quality is far superior. There’s not a blend where we are not the significant winner in blind taste testing.”
Taste is everything
If you’re not fortunate enough to access a major metro area with a significant Japanese presence, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York City, you may have missed out on tasting truly authentic seaweed. Once you’ve had top shelf nori, your palate for sushi will be forever changed.
“Yamamotoyama is the premier Japanese seaweed company among maybe a handful of others. Quality is what really distinguishes us rather than being in the top three just because of the number of sales,” Kerbel noted. “Yamamotoyama has a very strong foothold on seaweed in the food service industry, and we maintain that today. It’s a big percentage of our business. They also carry our soy wraps, mostly used to make sushi.
For the traditional channel, we have retail SKUs that are available nationally in well-known grocery stores, as well as Asian markets, where we enjoy a very big share of shelf.
Yamamotoyama nori is a darling of the world’s most accomplished chefs. “We manufacture seaweed for the most discerning chefs in the world. High-end restaurants choose our seaweed because of the quality and the brand,” Kerbel said.
“In Japan, our seaweed and tea business goes through counters or boutique stores within department stores. In Takashimaya, the Saks of Japan, we have a counter that’s similar to where you would buy high end watches or skin care—except we sell seaweed. We have big counters in several hundred stores where our employees are ready to share their knowledge about tea and Nori with our consumers.”
Imagine. All this growth, all of this taste, all of this wonder from the need to share something as simple and incredibly rich and complex as a pot of tea. “We wanted to make green tea available for everyone. Not just for royalty. For everyday consumption. We set up a tea shop and gave tea to everyone on the street: the merchants, the people in the community, and it became really popular. That's our history,” Nami declared. “Tea can be intimidating sometimes, like a Japanese tea ceremony, but our tea is for every day, to have fun, to enjoy it, and share the moment to drink a cup of tea with somebody else.
“When our customers taste our green teas and seaweed, they are experiencing Japanese culture and stepping into something they don't know. It's really fun, it's exciting, and if they would like to know more about green tea or seaweed we are here for them.”
As for that little tea shop in Central Tokyo? It is still there, recently redesigned by Nami to reflect the company’s growth and vision for the generations of Yamomatoyamas to follow. “It’s a cafe for the world,” she says. “You can experience all kinds of tea and seaweed, have sushi or noodles. It’s an eye-opening experience for everyone.” Thanks to a simple yearning to share the privilege of royalty with the rest of us, we can now revel in the pure joy of authentic Japanese green tea in our own little tea rooms—kitchens—everywhere.
In 1690, the Yamamoto family moved from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo, modern-day Tokyo, and established a tea shop. Yamamotoyama is the oldest tea company and remains family owned and operated, drawing from its rich heritage and vast expertise to provide healthy and deliciously innovative foods. In fact, the Yamamoto family still serves the finest teas and seaweed-inspired cuisine from its store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, located in the same spot for over 330 years.