Among acres of berry vines and apple trees in Skagit Valley, you’ll find Richard Sakuma tending to his tea plants.
Sakuma is a third generation Japanese-American. His family has been running Sakuma Brothers Farms for more than 85 years. These days, Sakuma and seven cousins farm more than 700 acres of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and apples in Burlington.
When a couple of guys from Oregon talked to Sakuma about their vision to create a tea-growing region in the Northwest, he jumped at the chance.
“I like to do unique things, trying to create or do something that’s not common,” said Sakuma.
Sakuma is one of only four tea farmers in the country. There are two plantations in the south and a tea co-op in Hawaii.
The farmer knew he was taking a big risk 15 years ago when he planted a few dozen Camellia sinensis. That’s what tea is made from. The bushes, with their shiny leaves and rubbery texture, stand about 3 feet high and are a relative of the garden Camellia.
You can create any type of tea from the Camellia sinensis plant. Sakuma makes green tea, oolong, and white tea from his crop. What makes the teas taste differently is the process used, more specifically the variations in oxidation and exposure to air. Green tea, for instance, requires almost no oxidation. And that’s what Sakuma was making the day I visited.
“Any new shoots that come up, we pluck the two leaf and the little bud, mainly,” said Sakuma. “It’s the best and the tenderest part of the leaf, the most flavor.”
Those growth spurts are called flushes. Sakuma is able to get three flushes in a growing season. He usually handpicks the harvest and says one person can average around 5 pounds of leaf per hour. His yield last year totaled 150 pounds, and he’s already well over that this year.
To make green tea, as soon as the leaves are plucked, Sakuma trucks the batch to a nearby commercial kitchen where he stores his equipment. He has a baking machine and a dryer that he ordered from a company in Asia. He fires up the baking machine, a 7-foot-long cylindrical tube called a “panner,” and tosses in the leaves which then heat up and tumble in a rotating drum.
“So there’s steam coming off there right now. I want them to turn a bit of a pale color almost like cooked spinach,” he said. “Just think of all the antioxidants you can get from this steam.”
When the tea leaves have roasted for about 10 minutes, Sakuma tips the panner, pours out the leaves onto a muslin cloth and spins the cloth into a ball—a technique he learned from tea masters in Taiwan.
“I’m just rolling, spinning that and kneading it with my hands and my knee, and then putting it back in the panning unit to heat up again. Each time, there’s a certain percent of moisture that comes out of the leaves, so the leaves are slowly drying as we’re heating and rolling, and heating and rolling.” (Watch video of the tea-making process)
The tea leaves are dried and roasted slowly to remain fully intact, which is an indication of a higher-grade tea.
Sakuma says his tea-making skills still involve frequent trials and errors, but his teas are gaining in popularity. And it turns out this is a good place for growing tea, with our cool, gentle climate.
Other smaller tea farms are popping up in Oregon and Victoria, B.C. But Sakuma sees himself as a pioneer, starting the tradition of tea growing in the Pacific Northwest.