At Ever, a contemporary fine dining restaurant in Chicago with two Michelin stars, one of the most memorable drinks on the non-alcoholic pairing menu is a hot gyokuro kukicha from Uji, Japan, steeped with mint and mixed with lime cordial and finger lime. The hot drink offers a surprising contrast to the cold hamachi crudo, and the tea’s sweet, mellow flavor with a splash of acidity and subtle umami perfectly accentuates the buttery but delicate fish.
In recent years, high-end restaurants have beefed up their non-alcoholic beverage offerings in response to consumer demand. And as more diners look for alternatives to wine and cocktails, one beverage in particular has become a favorite among discerning palates: Japanese green tea.
“The demand for Japanese green tea as a non-alcoholic beverage has increased not only in household consumption but also restaurant consumption among the sober curious,” says Zach Mangan, a Japanese green tea specialist and CEO of Kettl. Mangan says that many of Kettl’s restaurant clients, like Torien, the first international branch of one Michelin-starred yakitori bar Torishiki in Japan, are now offering Japanese green tea menus and utilizing Japanese green tea in non-alcoholic beverage pairings due to increased demand.
Akio Matsumoto, a sommelier at Torien, believes it’s a win for both restaurants and customers to have Japanese green tea on more drink menus: “From a business perspective, even customers who don’t order alcoholic beverages often order from the Japanese green tea menu, which helps us maintain our profit margin because we can maintain higher customer spending. From customers’ perspectives, they can be satisfied with a wide range of variations based on their preference and have a special dining experience with Japanese green tea pairings.”
Green tea is already popular for its earthy taste, comparatively low caffeine content, and antioxidants. However, Japanese green tea in particular is known for its rich sweetness and lasting umami flavor — both of which make it an ideal choice to pair with savory and sweet foods alike. Additionally, Japanese green tea contains elevated levels of L-Theanine, a flavorful amino acid that adds depth to the tea’s flavor. All varieties of Japanese green tea are hand-harvested and processed with precision and consistency, allowing those nuances in flavor to shine.
“Japanese green tea offers remarkable texture on the palate with a pleasing depth that easily pairs with both sweet and savory foods due to elevated levels of L-Theanine,” Mangan says. “Whether brewed hot or cold, Japanese green tea can enhance and inspire the table experience by adding a level of unexpected depth while either contrasting or complementing a dish in the same way wine can.”
Unsurprisingly, sushi is a favorite traditional food pairing for Japanese green tea. At Sushi Noz, one of the finest omakase sushi counters in New York, diners are offered a tea pairing or sake pairing in the seven-seat Hinoki room. The tea pairing comprises seven different types of Japanese green tea, freshly brewed throughout the course of your meal. According to beverage director Gene Sidorov, Sushi Noz offers nearly a dozen different teas at a time, depending on the season, from sencha and shincha to gyokurocha, kamairicha, tamaryokucha, and genmaicha.
“A sip of hot tea is full of umami thanks to the presence of catechins and amino acids, like L-Theanine, often balanced by flavors of kombu and bright salinity,” Sidorov explains. “It will not only enhance the bite but also help cleanse the palate for the next course.” With a sushi menu that changes daily, Sidorov must regularly create new drink pairings. For example, he pairs shiro ebi (baby white shrimp) with a mildly sweet and refreshing Miyabi sencha from Fukuoka, and Hokkaido uni is complemented by Ogura gyokurocha from Kyoto, with its rich umami flavors and pronounced salinity.
Executive chef Kazutaka Iimori of Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill also enjoys pairing green tea with savory fare. He recommends Blue Ribbon’s Hapa Palmer, a blend of matcha tea and yuzu lemonade that is one of the most popular drinks on the menu. “The Hapa Palmer pairs brilliantly with a variety of fried items,” Iimori says. He recommends it with oxtail fried rice and their fried chicken wings: “The cold green tea simply refreshes the taste buds and washes the palette like nothing else.” Crispy Rice with spicy tuna and truffle eel sauce is also one of his favorite dishes to pair with green tea, thanks to the flavors brought out by L-Theanine.
Sidorov adds that he’s noticed customers “are opening up their minds and are more eager” to try different types of traditional Japanese green teas. With more and more people adopting a sober-curious lifestyle, it’s clear that Japanese green tea is becoming a desirable non-alcoholic alternative.
Learn more about Japanese green tea here.