Taste is ubiquitous. It spices our dishes to perfection, adds distinctive vibrancy to our different cultures, and graces our every sip of tea. The myriad flavor profiles present in each cup of tea have the uncanny ability to set our taste buds and our senses alight. Accordingly, there are countless words to describe them – fruity, earthy, nutty, and a wealth of others we use to embody the layered complexity of each brew. Yet, there are just five universally-accepted flavors. Four of the five are easily identifiable: the bitter notes in a slice of grapefruit, the salty hit of a black olive, the sour tang of a green apple, the natural sweetness in a pineapple. The fifth elemental flavor is one we’ve likely all experienced, but may have struggled to describe – umami.
If you’ve come to consider umami is something of a culinary enigma, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s no direct English translation. In general, it refers to a strong, pleasantly savory or even “meaty” flavor. Topping the list of umami-rich foods are dishes like seafood, parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and of course, green tea.
When it comes to tea, no regional refreshment quite embodies umami like Japanese green tea. Umami is characteristic of all Japanese green teas, but it's especially salient in tea plants that have undergone shading prior to harvesting. This unique cultivation technique allows the plant’s chlorophyll and amino acid levels to flourish rather than breaking down during photosynthesis. One amino acid in particular is of note – L-theanine. Combined with the stimulating effect of the naturally-occurring caffeine found in the tea plant, L-theanine imparts a calm alertness that makes Japanese green tea suitable for all-day enjoyment. But that’s not the only notable characteristic of this amino acid; L-theanine actually bestows the tea plant with this indelible umami flavor. As such, the longer the plants undergo the aforementioned shading process, the more intense their umami taste. Even slight discrepancies in the cultivation process account for stark variations between the numerous types of Japanese green tea. With shading lasting for as many as 5 weeks, harvesting teas at their respective stages creates a range of umami flavor between them. At the milder end of the umami spectrum is Sencha, which is harvested sans-shading. Then comes Kabusecha with a 2-week shading period and Gyokuro with an impressive 4-to-5-week shading. At the height of umami flavor is Matcha, with a full 5 weeks of uninterrupted shading prior to harvest.
Cultivation isn’t the only determinant of umami, however. Brewing technique plays a sizable role in the tea’s flavor as well. At a fundamental level, brewing is simply the process of nutrient-extraction. With the exception of whole-leaf grinds like matcha, Japanese green tea leaves are steeped in water, effectively transporting nutrients and flavor from the plant to your palate. But by controlling the means of extraction, you’re also exacting greater influence over the finished flavor of your tea. To maximize the umami taste when preparing a cup of Japanese green tea, opt for a slow infusion by steeping the tea for a longer time in lower temperature water. One method of infusion known as “kooridashi” even involves combining ice water and tea leaves to prolong the extraction as much as possible. This protracted extraction suppresses the caffeine being drawn out and keeps its accompanying bitterness at bay. Concurrently, even more L-theanine is released into the water, thus enhancing the umami flavor. By experimenting with water temperatures and times, you can achieve your perfect balance.
Speaking of balance, Japanese green teas aren’t the only ones bursting with umami. Much of the conversation about umami-esque teas centers on Japanese green teas, but Chinese green teas, pu-erhs, and Korean black teas each have a claim to umami fame. Some of our favorite pu-erhs are Wild & Raw, a brisk-tasting tea made through traditional fermentation, and Vintage Lotus, a deep, earthy tea made through accelerated fermentation. Of course, you can’t go wrong with the classics, either – our bestselling Kumano is a lively blend of premium Gyokuro stems stippled with sencha, and our Mighty Green is an elite sencha with a subtle umami flavor. Also try our Daikoku, a lightly-shaded Kabusecha with grassy overtones.
Subtle or sapid, fast infusion or slow – the way you experience umami is up to you. Let taste be your guide as you brew, and you’ll be sure to enjoy each sip.