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Largely unfamiliar to North Americans, barley tea is a staple in much of Asia, where it is consumed by people of all ages. Sisters Janice Ishizaka and Cilla Watkins launched The Canadian Barley Tea Company to introduce Canadians to the beverage.

The caffeine-free tea is especially popular in Japan and South Korea, where it is primarily consumed cold. Japan’s number 1 beverage for more than five centuries, sales in that country alone tally $1.3 billion annually.

Ishizaka became obsessed with the drink when she taught English in Japan from 1998 to 2000. Barley tea quickly supplanted her jittery coffee habit. “It’s got no calories or sugar and has this roasty, nutty taste with a hint of sweetness reminiscent of the puffed wheat cereal many of us ate as kids,” she said. “It’s a kind of a nostalgic flavour.”

Ishizaka returned to Canada and introduced her sister to barley tea. Their mutual love of the drink provided the entrepreneurial inspiration to market their own product, mo’mugi. The name is a portmanteau of “mugicha,” the Japanese word for barley tea, and “mo” for “more.” It is made with organic, two-row barley grown in northern B.C.

Neither woman previously had food industry experience. Ishikaza has worked in copywriting, advertising and marketing, and Watkins is a dental hygienist and director at the BC Dental Hygiene Association. New to the food manufacturing game, the women started small in 2019. They ground and roasted 20 kilograms of barley per month and sold the product at craft shows, farmers’ markets, festivals and local shops.

The pair won a local entrepreneurial pitch competition their first year and used the package of cash and business services they received to expand their operation. They even nabbed the support of the Dragons’ Den TV program when they pitched mo’mugi on a Season 15 episode. It didn’t air due to technical issues, but the enthusiastic response of the dragons validated their business concept. “We received a very fast deal, but didn’t proceed with it,” said Watkins. “It was disappointing the episode never aired, as the exposure would have been more important than the deal itself.”

Still, their product has been well received by consumers who seek healthy alternatives to caffeinated beverages. Barley tea’s health benefits are well established. A source of antioxidants, it has also been shown to reduce tooth decay. Middle-aged people are the sisters’ main clientele. Their newsletter subscribers receive a recipe eBook chock full of drink recipes such as Maple mo’mugi latte.

The sisters produce their product at a purpose-built space in Zest Commercial Food Hub, a shared food processing facility in Salmon Arm, B.C. Employing a roaster imported from Germany, the mo’mugi duo roasts, grinds and packages the tea in compostable, corn-fibre tea bags. They now use about eight times more barley than when they started out.

Sales are primarily online at and via Amazon, and the tea can be found in shops across the country, including the gift ship in Toronto’s CN Tower. In Alberta, it can be purchased at the Canmore Tea Company and at Blue & Bairn Collective in Cremona.


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