Ito En: Natural Green Tea
By ELIZABETH FUHRMAN
Ito En’s Teas’ Tea contains simple ingredients. The tea consists of just purified water, green tea and vitamin C.
“It’s really simple, but to keep it that simple an extremely complex process is employed,” says Beau Berstein, marketing manager for Ito En (North America) Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The company took this ancient product and made it relevant to this era, but still adhering to the traditions of antiquity.”
Founded in Japan in 1966, Ito En revolutionized the tea industry in Japan, says Rona Tison, vice president of corporate relations. “Because green tea is an unfermented tea leaf and oxidizes, it was impossible to take green tea in a mobile form before,” she says. The deceased Ito En Chairman Masanori Honjo, the father of Yosuke Honjo, Ito En North America Inc.’s current chief executive officer and president, realized that young Japanese people didn’t have time to brew loose leaf tea like their parents, and they needed an on-the-go form. The company first launched a canned green tea in Japan, and then developed the Teas’ Tea line in a PET bottle.
With Americans becoming more interested in Japanese cuisine and healthier lifestyles, Ito En opened its first office in New York in 2001 and launched its flagship store in Manhattan. “Part of having the store in Manhattan is that people can really experience the varietals of tea leaves,” Tison says.
Ito En now also operates two restaurants in New York, a retail location in New Jersey, and Mason Vitamins, a Miami Lakes, Fla.-based vitamin and supplement manufacturer.
Ito En released its Teas’ Tea line in the United States in 2002. Although specially packaged for the U.S. market, the company’s teas still are bottled in Japan because the technology Ito En uses currently is not available in the United States. Expanding Teas’ Tea with a couple of SKUs every year, the unsweetened, all-natural line now includes Pure Green, Green Jasmine, Golden Oolong, Green White, Lemongrass Green, Rose Green and Green Hoji in 16.9-ounce bottles. Teas’ Tea Pure Green, Green Jasmine and Green White also are available in 2-liter bottles.
Early last year, Ito En released a line of cane sugar-sweetened Natural Fruit Teas in Green Tea Apple, Green Tea Blueberry, Apple, Apricot, Cranberry, Lemon, Mango, Peach and Raspberry in 16.9-ounce bottles. In 2006, Ito En also introduced Sencha Shot, an all-natural tea brewed from Japanese loose tea leaves using a deeper brewing method that yields both a high content of natural catechin tea antioxidants and a more full-bodied green tea taste, the company says. Sencha Shot contains 152 mg. of catechin tea antioxidants per 6.4-ounce can.
Also last year, the company released Café Sepia, natural ready-to-drink coffees produced with beans roasted in Japan. Packaged in 6.4-ounce steel cans, Café Sepia launched in House Blend and Mocha varieties. In April, Ito En expanded the Café Sepia line with RTD teas Matcha Latte and Tea Latte. Both contain milk to give the beverages a creamy taste and are packaged in 8.1-ounce cans.
The new Café Sepia Tea Latte is made with black assam tea from India. Matcha Latte is made with Japanese matcha, a stone ground powdered green tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. “Through the Café Sepia line, we’re using the ingredient matcha in a way that is a little bit more approachable for somebody who isn’t familiar with matcha,” Tison says. “…For someone who is new to matcha and wants a little introduction to the Eastern infusion, having the traditional Japanese ingredients infused with a latte is really kind of fun.”
This spring, Ito En entered into a partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil, well known in the field of integrative medicine, to develop a line of tea beverages, which includes ready-to-drink teas, loose-leaf tea bags, matcha green teas and turmeric tea.
“We consider ourselves pioneers of authentic green tea,” Tison says. “And Weil is a pioneer in his education and communication about integrated medicine … I think the teas bring us into more of a mainstream with someone who can communicate that lifestyle as well.”
The Dr. Andrew Weil for Tea line of 17 SKUs includes ready-to-drink teas in 245-ml. cans that are available in Turmeric, Green White, Gyokuro, Jasmine White and Darjeeling. The tea bags are offered in Sencha with Matcha, Jasmine Green Tea, Genmaimatcha and Darjeeling. The loose leaf teas include White Peony, Jasmine Pearl, Sencha with Matcha, Genmaimatcha and Matcha varieties. Sencha and Genmaimatcha also are presented in loose leaf tea packs.
Further expanding the American consumer’s Eastern ingredient knowledge, the Dr. Andrew Weil line includes a powder and RTD form of turmeric, a spice from the ginger family known for its anti-inflammatory and other homeopathic properties. Tison believes Ito En is the only company to offer a RTD form of turmeric, a drink that follows in the cultural traditions of Okinawa, a Japanese island known for the longevity of its residents.
Expanding consumers’ knowledge and palates with these new ingredients and products is Ito En’s answer to a consumer shift for healthier products that aren’t laden with sugar.
“If people want to know what tea really tastes like, all-natural will do that for them,” Berstein continues.
Ito En takes tea education just as seriously internally. All of the company’s employees in Japan and the United States undergo training in tea and take a tea test every year.
Ito En’s plans are to eventually have the technology to produce the teas in the United States. With strong markets on the East and West Coasts, the company hopes to further expand in the central states. Ito En products currently are available in all Whole Foods Markets, and recently added distribution in Costco and Target stores. “It’s a matter of introduction and having availability,” Tison says.
Ito En sees its greatest possibility for growth in the Teas’ Tea line because of its all-natural taste profile minus acids and sugars found in other U.S. manufactured teas.
“That’s going to be the vehicle to educate the mainstream market to what tea ought to taste like,” Bernstein says. “While Teas’ Tea is premium, Dr. Andrea Weil’s line is super-premium and I think that will come later to a mass market. Right now it’s a different kind of a customer. The next year is to really show the rest of the country outside the major cities what Teas’ Tea is, and why it is so special.”