Raising the value and potential of tea by pairing it with meals and desserts. [LogiConnecTea / Tomoki Kawano]

Until more than a decade ago, the standard Japanese tea was a blended deep-steamed tea, 100g of which sold for 1,000yen. During the past decade, however, tea has changed from a standardized drink to a unique and diverse beverage that includes single-origin tea and Japanese black tea. This trend has led to a new perspective of pairing tea with meals and desserts, which has started to attract attention.

In 2018, the Japan Tea Pairing Association was established.

Non-alcoholic trends such as sober curious (choosing not to drink alcohol) and smart drinking are also expanding the possibilities of tea pairings.

While the concept of tea pairing is gaining popularity, it is not always easy to answer what kind of food or dessert goes with this or that tea? 

We spoke about tea pairings with Tomoki Kawano, the CEO of LogiConnecTea, who supervises tea pairings at hotels and restaurants.

Tomoki Kawano

After obtaining the license of a registered dietitian at university, Kawano-san worked in a restaurant for 4 years. After that he launched LogiConnecTea, a wholesale tea business that focuses on tea during meals. In 2022, Kawano-san started a retail sales business called Ocha Okuru Hito – Tea Giver, an online shop specializing in tea gifts, and in 2023 they opened their shop as a tea stand in a 120-year-old renovated folk house.

He is always visiting tea producing regions to discover tea and then freely propose new forms of Japanese tea.

What is tea pairing? Matching tea with food.

Q: What is tea pairing?

Kawano: Tea pairing is the enjoyment of combining food, such as meals and sweets, with tea. Pairing food and wine has been common in restaurants recently, and when the wine part is replaced with tea, it is called a tea pairing.

Q: Why did you decide to start tea pairings?

Kawano: While working in a local restaurant, I saw the need to enhance the non-alcoholic offerings and took the initiative.

Kawano-san was working at a local restaurant when he started his career in pairing.

Back then, I did not know as much about tea as I do now, but for about a year I continued to prepare three types of tea, pairing them and explaining to customers why I chose them. The response we received from customers clearly changed. The percentage of repeat customers also increased. Perhaps that is where I started to feel the potential of tea.

Q: What was the first tea you offered?

Kawano: I am embarrassed to tell you this, but it was Darjeeling from India (laughs).

Kawano-san also makes his own original blended tea.

At first I really did not know much about tea and even assumed that there was no good tea in Japan. When I had a chance to visit tea producers, I realized that there were people who made such good tea in Japan.

If you think about it carefully, you might even say that it is only natural to pair tea with ingredients grown in Japan, and cooked by Japanese people. That is the smoothest and most satisfying way to do it.

After I came to this idea, I became obsessed with tea.

Q: Who was the producer that you had a connection with that led you to shift to tea?

Kawano: It was the Yoshida Chaen in Ibaraki Prefecture. My world changed when I drank Yoshida-san’s black tea as well as oolong tea from Kimura Seicha Kouba in Sashima, which they introduced to me.

Kawano-san (right) experiencing tea making with the 6th generation Yoshida-san (left) at Yoshida Chaen in Ibaraki.

I sensed the potential of tea, and was shocked that I had gathered so much information but had not realized it. Tea can play the best supporting role in tea pairings.

Q: Please tell us about the role of tea in the pairing process.

Kawano: The basic premise of tea pairing is that tea should play the supporting role.

This has been true for all beverages since my days as a restaurant server, but pairing is just an added value when enjoying a meal at a restaurant or eatery. The main focus is not on tea, but on the food and the space for the guests.

There was food, customers, and space. There was something there that made the conversation more lively than usual, something that made us feel a little more festive. When I think about what that was, I think it can be traced back to the fact that there was something to enjoy, such as wine or tea that matched the food and palate. Therefore, in my opinion, the minimum requirement for tea pairing is that the tea plays a supporting role.

Harmony, contrast, and complement. Pairing creates waves.

Q: What is your approach to tea pairing for teas to play the best supporting role?

Kawano: A pairing that satisfies the customer is when the beverage of choice is paired with a dish and it returns as a pleasant sensation that may include a surprise.

The pairings are so thoughtfully planned that you will want to forget about enjoying the food and tea and just listen to Kawano-san.

There are several logics for pairing tea with food. For example, the basic matching methods include harmony, contrast, and complement. Let me explain each way of pairing using an example of Wagyu steak and hojicha.

The first – harmony, is the method of combining tea with ingredients that have similar aromas and flavors. This is the simplest and easiest pairing to understand. For example, the reason for pairing Wagyu steak with hojicha is that the fat of Wagyu beef, which is exceptionally rich, goes very well with the richness of hojicha.

The second way of pairing is contrast. This is a way to pair tea with dishes that may seem completely different in taste. Tea is particularly excellent in contrast pairing. In this case, drinking tea after eating food will reset your palate and give you the urge to eat that food again. Using Wagyu steak and hojicha as an example again, the astringency of hojicha resets the palate after eating the meat, which is the contrast.

The most technical way of pairing is the complement. By understanding the aroma and flavor of the tea and adding them along the dish, you can create a new taste and enjoyment. This is what we call adding essence to a dish. It is easy to imagine this by replacing spices and herbs. To use another analogy, if you combine wagyu steak and hojicha, the wagyu steak will have an aroma as if it was grilled over charcoal. By combining the smoky aroma of roasted hojicha with the grilled Wagyu steak, the aroma of tea harmonizes with the flavor of meat, creating a complex taste that makes you feel like you are eating charcoal-grilled meat even though it was not grilled over charcoal.

There are three main principles of pairing: harmony, contrast, and complement. Furthermore, by combining these three main methods, the level will be raised.

And in course pairings, waves are important.

If all the teas used for the dishes of the course are combined in a harmonic manner, there will be no change. The first item will impress you, but as you continue to the second, third, and so on, you will get used to the same way of pairing, and the excitement will fade. At the end of the course, the customer should be able to say not only that it was delicious, or that they enjoyed it, but also that they would like to order it again next time.

In other words, waves from using the three main methods in the course are the key to customer satisfaction, or the quality of the pairing. The current situation is that there are still very few restaurants that are conscious of the wave aspect of tea pairing in their courses.

Tea pairing is in its infancy. It has merely started to grow.

Q: What is the current status of tea pairings?

Dinner preparation where you can enjoy pairing food and tea.

Kawano: Before talking about tea pairings, I would like to talk about non-alcoholic drink pairings in general. In the restaurant industry where I work, non-alcoholic pairings have been popular for about four years, especially at top restaurants. is. But to be honest, my impression is that it is just starting to grow.

It is like pairing with alcohol, but the quality of the non-alcoholic pairing is not as good as the one with alcohol.

Pairing sounds cool, and since it is becoming a boom in Japan, the word pairing itself is gradually becoming more popular. That said, I feel that the word alone tends to get ahead of itself and the essence of the concept tends to be overlooked.

Q: Where do you feel that the essence of tea pairing is being overlooked?

Kawano: There are many cases. But for example, when you serve me a cup of tea and I ask you why you chose that tea, and you cannot explain it.

Wine pairing is a field that has been studied by many people, so a kind of manual has been developed to some extent. Pairing is completed by taking approaches such as, “I will match this food with a wine from the same region” or “I will match the flavor of this wine with the flavor of food”. However, when it comes to tea pairings, I find that when I ask why the tea was chosen, I often hear, “The vendor said the tea from this tea garden is delicious” or “Because I have met the tea producer before”.

Of course it is good to use tea recommended by a tea vendor or because it is made by a farmer you have met. However, it is a different story when we ask whether it is worth the customer’s money. I believe that if we cannot explain the intention and reason for offering that tea to our customers, we are not providing value.

Kawano-san gives a lecture on how to serve tea at a bar.

Another thing is that the approach to tea pairings has not yet been established, so there are many cases where people are trying to find their own way around it.

People in the food and beverage industry have a sharper sense of taste and smell than the average person. Such people are interested in tea pairings and have started offering them. However, since the approach to tea pairing has not been established yet, even those who offer it have not mastered it yet.

There is a tendency to try to match tea with food based on hypotheses without fully understanding them, which does not produce quality and does accompany the meal well.

If you do that, you will not be able to provide an inspiring pairing that moves the heart, and customers will be left with the impression that it is the level of non-alcoholic pairing.

Q: Even though the term tea pairing is gaining recognition, why do you think we are getting ahead of ourselves?

Kawano: I think there are various factors behind this, but one is definitely the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tea Giver in Hakariya, Saitama.

Our sales increased a lot as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While we felt that the tea pairing industry was growing well, there were many people who introduced tea pairings simply because they could not serve alcohol. So, tea pairings were getting recognized, but the quality was not there.

While the quality of Japanese tea is gradually improving, there are very few people who can evaluate the quality of tea, due to the lack of information.

I believe that these two factors are the main reasons why the term – pairing has become so popular in the tea industry.

That is also why I think the timing is very important right now. If we do not involve the tea industry as well as the food and beverage industries, and think about tea pairings, I think we will end up with only half-hearted growth.

Q: What are your thoughts on mixology?

Kawano: Tea pairing and mixology are two different things. My impression is that mixology is using tea as an ingredient while understanding its potential.

Tea recognized as something valuable. LogiConnecTea uses tea to logically convey thoughts and feelings.

Q: What is LogiConnectTea working on now?

Kawano: Our business covers a wide range of fields, but our main focus is tea wholesale. My job is to select tea, from all over the country and sell it to restaurants. The second business area is custom blended teas. Another one is a gift business under the name of Tea Giver.

There are many gifts that would make great souvenirs at the Tea Giver inside Hakariya in Saitama.

I also supervise menus for restaurants, supervise staff training, work as a lecturer, do branding, and consulting. Consulting is a bit abstract, so to be a bit more specific, I explain how to communicate tea-related products and materials to customers, and how to approach businesses.

Q: What is the origin of LogiConnecTea?

Kawano: When I think about what is at the core of who I am, I realize that I am very indebted to the tea growers. I came to the tea industry because I was struck by the attitude of tea growers to create and produce the best tea products possible. However, I also feel a sense of crisis that tea is not being appreciated, and I am doing this work so that through tea pairings, it can be appreciated as something of value.

Examining which tea goes well with which baked sweets.

Thinking back to those origins and motivations of mine, I thought that a major mission of the company would be to convey my thoughts of entering the tea industry to restaurants and business partners, and I coined the term LogiConnecTea to logically connect with tea.

Q: What does tea mean to you?

Kawano: I cannot say anything big… but it is a tool for connecting. It is a tool for connecting with producers, customers, suppliers, and everyone else, and I think the appeal of tea is that it can do that.

Q: What do you find most attractive about working in this business?

Kawano: The major point that appeals to our customers is that LogiConnecTea has expertise in both food and tea, and specializes in both areas. There are currently very few companies that have such expertise.

Another attraction is the Tea Giver gift business, in that it allows us to approach the tea culture and the commercial product of tea, which has continued until now, in a way that is appropriate for the current era.

There are two main things that I find rewarding about doing these things as a business.

One is helping the growers to improve the level of their production. I consider myself and the tea farmers as a team. I visit the producing areas and farmers directly and we can talk to each other and say, “Isn’t it better to do things this way?”. I find it very rewarding to see how the quality of tea improves through this dialogue.

Peach Earl Gray was a popular seasonal menu item.

Another reason is that tea is increasingly recognized as a luxury item. Tea is a highly palatable product, so if you make and offer quality tea, customers will come and buy it. I believe that this trend of customers coming in search of tea is a good thing.

Q: Are there any special characteristics of the teas that you handle?

Kawano: Tea from many of the producers I work with does not have a very strong umami flavor. If the flavor is too strong, the tea will become the main character, and it will no longer be able to play a supporting role.

Q: Do you have any restrictions on teas that you sell?

Kawano: I do not have any particular restrictions, but being comfortable to drink is very important in my mind.

Kawano-san (left) tasting several kinds of tea at once.

I know “comfortable to drink” is hard to convey, but perhaps it would be better to think of it as a tea that you would want to drink many cups of when paired with a meal. I try to select teas on the condition that no matter how many cups are served, I will not get tired of drinking it.

When I choose teas based on this criteria of comfort drinking it, I tend to deal with teas that are organic and free of pesticides and fertilizers, and sometimes I think that this is similar to natural wines.

Q: You brought up the term natural wine, but are there any references for tea pairings?

Kawano: I think we can learn a lot from Vinaiota, a natural wine importer from Ibaraki Prefecture.

Personally, I think the process of promoting bio-wine and tea is similar. At first, a name emerges, but the good ones and the bad ones get mixed up. Quality does not accompany it. It was Ota-san who set the standard in the world of bio-wine, to find out what is good, collect it, and promote it.

There are various reasons for being called natural: no pesticides, no natural fermentation, no use of antioxidants, etc. Natural means that the product is made by the power of nature as much as possible.

I do not believe that all natural products are good, but the minimum requirement is that they are of high quality.

When dealing with natural products, human modification of them is a step closer to the unnatural, isn’t it? I believe that the skill of the producers is to find the space between the opposites of nature and cultivation and turn them into products. I think there is a similarity between tea and natural wine in this way of thinking.

People who make, sell, and use tea. Creating a team to push the tea industry forward.

Q: What is your vision for the future of LogiConnectTea?

Kawano: My goal is to push the tea industry forward by having producers, wholesalers, and restaurants, those who make, sell, and use tea, work together as a team.

Kawano-san (middle) works closely with producers. The photo shows a training visit to Yoshida Chaen in Ibaraki.

I would like to be able to distribute 3 to 5 times as much tea as I do now. To begin with, the Japanese tea market is very small from both the domestic and international perspective. Exports of tea are increasing, but when you look at the overall situation, tea is mostly distributed domestically. I myself would like to approach overseas exports.

Q: Are there any difficulties in handling tea?

Kawano: The big thing is the stereotypes of both the tea industry people and consumers. In a positive sense, there is a brand called tea, but I think this is no longer appropriate for the current era. As tea has had a long history of culture, there are many fixed notions about tea drinking occasions and price ranges. Breaking down these stereotypes is both a challenge and a pleasure.

Q: What do you think the tea industry will look like in the future?

Kawano: I think the tea industry will grow, although it will be more from the perspective of oxidized tea. I think it will be recognized and start growing little by little. However, I would like that growth to be appropriate.

I would like everyone to have a common understanding that the information provided by the media and makers is not the whole story when it comes to tea.

Also, speaking of the tea industry, there are many tea producers who do not know how to make black tea. So I think it would be great if the tea industry released appropriate information, and more producers learn how to make it. This would raise the level of the whole industry.

I think many tea producers have potential to make higher quality black tea, but they do not know how yet. That is why I think it would be great if the industry released more information on how to make good black tea. And I would like to help spread it.

All photo by LogiConnecTea