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WorldTuesday, February 9

All the Tea in Brazil

Brazil used to be one of the world's largest producers of black tea. Now a Japanese-Brazilian woman is working to revive the industry there.

It's Ume Shimada's 89th birthday, and she's celebrating with her family.

"Thank you, and thanks to tea, which brings me wonderful things," she says.

Shimada was born and raised in Registro, 200 kilometers from Sao Paolo. The city's early settlers were Japanese. They began focusing on tea-growing in the 1930s and Registro became known as Brazil's tea capital.

Fertile, acidic soil and a misty climate amount to fine conditions for growing tea leaves. By the golden years of the 1980s, the region was producing 12,000 tons of tea per year. Most of it was shipped abroad.

But then the Brazilian currency shot up in value. Registro's exports lost their edge. Some 50 processing plants -- almost all the region's tea industry -- shut down.

Shimada was born to a tea-farming family. She says she cried as she ran her hands over her dying tea bushes.

"I wondered, what would happen to Registro if there were no more tea?" she says. "Even if it's just our family's farm, I wanted to save the plants."

Two years ago, Shimada began weeding the plantation. She worked day in, day out for six months.

She inspired other locals who were hoping for a tea revival. One man restored a local leaf-rolling machine.

Family members helped, too. Shimada's daughter goes with her mother to the fields every day.

"We're doing our best to keep it going," Eiko Shimada says. "I feel I have the responsibility to do that."

In 2014, Shimada launched her own brand of organic, hand-picked tea. It has a rich aroma and flavor.

Tea lovers have noticed it in Brazil and abroad. In Japan last year, organizers of a black tea festival invited Shimada as a guest.

Tea producer Hirosato Goto is a big fan of Shimada's tea. He visited her last December and taught her techniques, such as how to pick the finest leaf tips.

"At her age, I think it's amazing. She's still so enthusiastic to learn and improve," Goto says.

Now, Shimada is aiming to produce the highest quality black tea, twisted and rolled by hand.

"Everyone who tries this tea says it's delicious, so I believe it holds some promise," Shimada says. "But in the end, all you can do is try your hardest. That's all I'm doing."

Shimada's enthusiasm for growing tea gets stronger by the day, and she's ready to pioneer the industry -- again.