ITO EN Research and Development won the World Tea Award for Best Industry Innovation Leader at the World Tea Expo in June. Rona Tison, senior vice president of corporate relations at Ito En, North America goes into detail about Ito En’s innovation practices in this Q&A.
It’s said Ito En may have been the first company to roll out a line of cold brew teas. Is this true?
Yes, an unsweetened one. In Japan, which is a green tea culture, it literally was said you can’t bottle green tea because it would oxidize, which is why a lot of companies add a stabilizer such as citric acid.
Our founder realized that young people were not sitting at home brewing tea like their parents; they were more mobile. So we started developing and researching this technology; you can actually bottle green tea unsweetened. We really revolutionized green tea drinking, even in Japan. In Japan there are Ito En vending machines with our Ito En green tea. That was a big innovation, to have the purity, a quality with a very clean finish.
Ito En created a smooth, ready-to-drink matcha without the grassy taste some green tea products have by overcoming technical turbidity and integration challenges. Was there more to its success?
We have expansive experience in the world of green tea, being that we are one of the largest global suppliers of it. We were able to introduce matcha in a convenient, on-the-go format, unsweetened and really capture the integrity of the tea taste. I hate to say this, but so many RTDs out there are either concentrates or powdered teas and we use premium tea leaves and pure Japanese matcha, so yes that was sort of like evolving into a more premium tea format, in a sense.
Most recently, we came out with the cold-brew teas, unsweetened as well. We do have a couple that are slightly sweetened. These use the Japanese cold-brew technique of mizudashi. We really are the pioneers of it and have been able to continue evolving and introducing the new trends, while offering a larger portfolio of different ready-to-drinks.
What does the World Tea Award for Best Industry Innovation Leader award mean to you and your company?
It reaffirms to us that we have traveled in a direction that we felt very strongly about. We believe it is important to always think differently. The founder said, “Young people are on the go, we need something that they can have on the go and enjoy a good-tasting, quality tea.” So with that vision and direction there was a lot of focus and research and energy placed. It is rewarding when you get recognized for something that started as a wonderful idea and seemed impossible. It is the number one selling green tea in Japan today. There’s a very large demand for the teas here now and we were sort of ahead of our time here in the United States by coming out with our signature unsweetened green teas. Now, people are embracing it because I think people are consuming less sugary sodas and they’re looking for more healthy, pure, cleaner products. But when we first came to introduce it, there were a lot of little obstacles.
In what other ways is Ito En innovating?
We also started a tea leaf recycling program in Japan where we recycle the tea leaves that we use in brewing. For that we made kind of an eco-friendly recycled resin, and from that products are molded into tea benches and vending machines. That’s another big innovation and we’ve gotten awards for that.
In Australia, about 20 years ago, with abandoned land, we revitalized the land and started growing tea for sustainability. We also helped in terms of the economy. That concept of the innovation of planting and cultivating, harvesting was very new, too—that’s another example of forward thinking.
Most recently, Fortune magazine recognized us as one of 50 companies that are changing the world. It’s because of our tea farming practices in Japan. We work very closely with the local farmers and young farmers because, like in this country, not many people want to go into farming. We help support them and work closely with them to develop farmland they could have abandoned because of the young people moving to the cities.
There is innovation on all levels—from the innovation of our products, to thinking about the cultivar, the land, the tea plantations and the sustainable community as well.
Why does Ito En innovate?
Tthat’s really the core of who we are. You don’t want to always be mimicking. I think that’s what drives us—always wanting to be 10 steps forward, strongly believing in what you have and bringing good experiences to people. Innovation also happens because we are so tied into the community, working with the farmers or introducing products that are a byproduct from our teas. For example, we have washcloths made out of catechins. It is really great, because I think it’s the importance of thinking outside of the box and I think that’s what drives our company.
Does Ito En have an innovation department and what is its process?
We meet with our executive team, with our production people, with our marketing team. We always are watching and seeing lifestyles evolve. But I think it’s about always trying to encourage innovative ideas that give the most pleasure to our staff. It’s like, “What can we do next?” It’s about always raising the bar, bringing new fresh ideas and, of course, tapping into our tradition.
What percentage of Ito En’s budget goes to innovation?
We have a system called the voice system. Employees are able to submit their ideas and suggestions and are awarded if it’s selected. So we’re always encouraging people to always think, create—it’s an ongoing process in a sense.
Any company has an R&D budget, but I have to say, a lot of it is more mindset. When you have a very creative team, try to think outside the box and ask “What could we do that could be different?” That’s the challenge; that’s the excitement; that’s what drives everybody; and it’s not just a dollar value budget, it’s the mindset of the company.
The young man who started the recycling tea leaf program in Japan said, “When I first had this idea, they sort of laughed at me and said ‘It’s impossible.’” Now he has this whole repertoire of products and it has become an important initiative for us. So, what seemed impossible became possible. We share these stories with the company and it gives that mindset that if there’s an idea there’s always that opportunity to take on the challenge.
To be recognized for what we’ve done with the ready-to-drinks—it has incredibly rewarding for everybody because we’re doing our everyday work, but to have somebody stop and say, “This deserves recognition,” was really just incredible. It reaffirms that this is the kind of mindset and spirit that we need to continue with and bring great-tasting products that hopefully do make a difference in everyone’s daily lives. We’re having fun doing it, too.
How did Ito En know it was the right time to introduce cold-brew tea?
Back in Japan, the company really became successful because we pioneered the first RTD unsweetened green tea. That was first and foremost. Mizudashi, which means “cold brew” in Japan, people have done this in Japan for centuries by, I would say like sun tea. We introduced different flavors, seasonal flavors and so forth. We introduced in Japan a mizudashi in the summer in a ready-to-drink. Then, fast-forward to two years ago, we realized that we had this cold brew that we’d been doing in Japan and decided to tap into that expertise and introduce it using matcha.There certainly has been a buzz about cold-brew coffees for some time but never a matcha green tea. We tapped into our innovation that we’ve had and combined expertise in mizudashi, the cold brew process, and then incorporated it with matcha, which we knew was delicious and had added value and health benefits. The beauty about what we developed was a technology, patented technology, that kind of extracted oxygen to keep tea at its optimal moment to be enjoyed.
Are you able to give us a preview into any future innovations by Ito En?
We will keep you posted. We’re constantly thinking about what’s not out there, what we feel confident that we can introduce, so stay tuned.