“It is the umami that gives the Japanese tea its sense of richness.”
We have seen Japanese green tea and matcha getting more and more popular in the U.S. these days. But do we really know enough about the drink? Before the lecture/presentation in New York*, Swedish-born Japanese tea instructor, Oscar Brekell demystifies its features and shares its charms via his own experiences for Chopsticks NY readers.
What was your first impression when you tried Japanese green tea?
Actually it was not love at first tea cup. I found it too bitter and astringent and I was not used to the fragrance, which I perceived as grassy at the time. I believe that Japanese tea is an acquired taste and that it takes a while to get used to its rather unique taste. Curiously however, once you start liking it, you easily become really hooked. I know many people that have turned into full fledged Japanese tea fanatics despite not having a good first impression.
How did you get involved in this business of promoting Japanese green tea to the world?
When I received my Nihoncha (Japanese tea) Instructor Certificate in 2014, I was just working as a salesman in Tokyo (within a field completely unrelated to tea) but I wanted to get into the tea business somehow. As I had gone through all the trouble of studying Japanese for years and moved all the way to Japan, I was not content with studying tea only by reading books. So in 2015 I decided to quit my job and move to Shizuoka (Japan’s largest tea growing area) where I got an internship at the Prefectural Tea Research Center. That allowed me not only to do in-depth studies about tea but also to get connections within the tea industry. Since people who can speak foreign languages fluently are rare to find in the Japanese tea industry, I was often asked to do different translating jobs for various organizations during my year as an intern. One thing led to another, and just before Christmas in 2015 I received a phone call from the Secretary General of the Japan Tea Export Council, who offered me a full time job. Nowadays I am working not only with the council, but also with JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) and other organizations, using my language skills as well as the knowledge and experience I acquired during my year in Shizuoka and by visiting other tea producing areas.
Could you tell us the significant features of Japanese green tea as compared to other types of tea, such as black tea and Chinese tea?
Japanese green tea is usually said to have 4 taste elements; umami, sweetness, astringency and bitterness. These elements can be evoked or accentuated in different ways, depending on how you brew your tea. For example, by using cold water you will end up with a tea strong in umami and sweetness whereas tea brewed in hot water will leave you with a tea strong in astringency and bitterness. It is, of course, also possible to get anything in between as well if you prefer your cup of tea to be a perfect balance of all the different elements.
Among the different elements, umami, or savoriness is what makes it stand out from tea produced in other countries, and it is the umami that gives the Japanese tea its sense of richness. However, I would also like to add the fresh aroma as a fifth element. Since Japanese green tea is made by steaming the leaves you are able to keep the natural aroma intact throughout all the production stages. Other types of tea would go through a withering process (e.g. black and oolong tea) or a pan-firing process (most types of Chinese green tea) that would alter both the taste and the aroma to a large degree. However, Japanese tea is produced in a way that keeps the natural flavors alive, from the tea estate to your tea cup.
What aspects of Japanese green tea would you like to promote in the upcoming lecture in New York?
In the last couple of years we have seen a surge in the consumption of Matcha in the United States as well as in other countries. This is, of course, a positive thing, but sadly the Japanese leaf tea is often forgotten. This is unfortunate, because Japanese green tea has so much more to offer apart from Matcha. Therefore I would like to seize the opportunity to give all the attendees an introduction to Japanese leaf tea, which is often thought of as a difficult beverage to make, in the sense that it easily turns too bitter. However, once you grasp the basics of Japanese tea brewing, it is easy to make a tasty cup of Japanese green tea. It does not end there though. Apart from the standard way of preparing Japanese green tea, you can use different brewing techniques to adjust the taste and flavor to your own preferences or to the preferences of your guest (if you are making tea for someone else).
Could you share some of the good ways of enjoying green tea at home?
If you are unsure about how to brew your Japanese green tea, try making a cold infusion. By using cold water, the components in the tea will be released more slowly and especially bitterness and astringency will be held at bay. Another good thing about cold brewed Japanese green tea is that it will taste similar regardless of whether a professional is doing it or whether a beginner is doing it. In other words, it is almost failure proof.
Another thing I would recommend is to not be afraid of failure. Try to brew your tea in different ways and try to enjoy yourself as you search for your favorite way of brewing tea. If your tea turns too bitter, steep it for a shorter time or lower the temperature. On the other hand, if you feel as if your tea lacks a punch, you should raise the temperature or perhaps steep it for a little longer time. Thickness and weakness can be adjusted by using more or less tea leaves in proportion to water.
If you really want to make the best of your tea experience, I would recommend you to use Japanese teaware, but experimenting with what you have in the kitchen is an interesting and enjoyable way to go about it if you are a beginner.
You are from Sweden, which is famous for light roast single origin coffee. Do you think such coffee drinking culture affected your way of appreciating Japanese green tea? And if so, please elaborate on that?
Swedes love their coffee and ”fika”, coffee breaks usually accompanied with some kind of pastry or cookies, is an essential concept in Swedish culture, cherished as an important time for Swedes to communicate and interact with each other, in private or at work. In the case of my family, we were similar to other Swedes but different. Although most of my countrymen would prefer coffee over tea, I grew up with two tea loving parents that were very interested in British culture, so tea (black tea) and teapots were always present as an integral part of daily life. So while most Swedes would be enjoying their coffee slowly, I would be spending a lot of time with the Queen of Camellias (i.e. tea). So when I started to drink Japanese green tea in high school, it was only natural to try different types of tea, and to spend time on learning how to try to brew tea and handle teaware etc. When I came to Japan, I finally became able to enjoy Single Origin Japanese tea, something that I had been looking forward to for many years. Putting it in another way, I suppose you could say that I am the green tea version of a Swedish coffee geek.
Except for the fact that you are non-Japanese, what do you think your uniqueness and strengths are as a tea instructor over other Japanese tea instructors?
Many instructors that are residing in big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka have obtained their knowledge from textbooks but many would rarely visit tea plantations or factories. On the other hand, most instructors that are residing in tea producing areas rarely see other areas which could make their view on tea a little bit one-sided. As I spent one year as an intern at the Tea Research Center in Shizuoka, I have experience in tea cultivation and tea production as well as quality evaluation to some degree. Also, although I live in Tokyo now, I frequently travel to tea growing regions, not only Shizuoka but also Kyoto, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Gifu and many others. So I believe that I can offer consumers a wider perspective than most other instructors. Also, since I speak three different languages I am able to convey information to an international audience as well.
Oscar Brekell at tea field in Shizuoka Prefecture.
You’ve been living in Japan for 6 years. Could you list some of the places or things to do in Japan you recommend to foreign tourists?
Japan has so much to offer, from bustling metropolises to serene gardens and breathtaking nature. However, the thing that I find most appealing about Japan and which makes me feel privileged to live here is without a doubt the food culture. Although Japan tends to look small on the map, all regions have their specific traditions and unique dishes. So if you find yourself in Japan, make sure to challenge yourself and try as much different food as possible to make the most of your stay. Not only washoku (Japanese cuisine), but also different kinds of fusion food, or foreign dishes with a Japanese touch is a feast for both the palate and the eyes. And food would of course not be complete without beverages. High quality Japanese tea and sake for example is still hard to come across in the West so this is definitely something that you need to explore when you are in Japan.
Finally, as a tea person, I have to recommend visiting a tea plantation, preferably in one of the mountainous tea growing regions. The lush green tea plants and the misty forest clad mountains that surround them make up stunningly beautiful scenery that is both refreshing and invigorating. It is also an excellent place to digest all the thousands of impressions that you will inevitably get during your stay in Japan.
*On November 15, JETRO New York and The Norinchukin Bank will host a Japanese green tea seminar for professionals from the food and beverage industry and journalists, during which Mr. Brekell will give a lecture and presentation.
Japanese Tea instructor. Born and raised in Sweden, he first came to Japan to study the Japanese language while enrolled at Lund University in Sweden. After graduation he came back to Japan for business, and he later decided to pursue his passion for Japanese tea. Currently he works at the Japan Tea Export Council, promoting Japanese tea to those outside Japan. He also gives lectures and seminars both in Japan and other countries. His book “Boku ga Koishita Nihoncha no Koto (Falling in Love with Japanese Tea)” (Japanese only) was released this August.