Matcha, the shade-grown, powdered green tea leaf originally consumed during traditional Japanese tea ceremonies dating to the 12th century, has rapidly become the hottest new green drink of choice. Perhaps due in part to this country's recent attention to wellness, and even bolstered by the third wave coffee phenomenon, traditional and creative matcha-based beverages are hitting menus across the country, from the neon green iced tea at New York's Eleven Madison Park to Matcha Box's Froot Loops matcha latte in Los Angeles.
One of matcha's many draws, in addition to its powerful antioxidants and photogenic green hue, is that the leaf contains an ample dose of caffeine. "Caffeine in tea, specifically matcha, varies depending on the quality of the leaf and style of production," explains Zach Mangan, founder of nearly year-old Brooklyn-based Japanese tea importing company, kettl. "Early harvested teas (high quality matcha) have more naturally occurring caffeine than later harvest teas (lower quality matcha). An interesting note is that shaded tea (matcha) generally has less caffeine per pound than unshaded tea (sencha), but the fact that you're consuming the entire leaf when you drink matcha it ends up delivering more caffeine per serving."
But matcha is far easier on one's stomach, making it an optimal substitution for those seeking caffeine from sources other than coffee. According to Max Fortgang, co-founder of New York's contemporary matcha cafe MatchaBar, "... while coffee and many other oft-consumed beverages are acidic and over time are kinda harsh on your throat and stomach (affecting digestion), matcha, on the other hand, actually helps restore the balance to your system because it is on the alkaline end of the PH scale."
But beyond the level of caffeine in the leaf, one's body processes matcha caffeine and coffee caffeine differently. Caffeine from coffee is quickly absorbed by the body (which causes that jitteriness), whereas chemicals in the tea plant temper caffeine absorption. "The most well studied chemical is Theanine, an amino acid that is produced as a by product of shading a tea plant. As caffeine works to stimulate the nervous system, theanine promotes a centered-relaxation which accounts for the feeling of wellbeing tea provides," Mangan states.
I've consumed matcha for the last decade or so, first tasting the frothy, whisked green tea at Cha-an, a Japanese tea parlor in New York's East Village. I immediately became hooked on the pricey, grassy green elixir, sipping it inbetween bites of wagashi (Japanese sweets, such as mochi, served with tea) to offset the tea's sometimes lingering bitterness. Back then, finding matcha on a menu was mostly uncommon. New York's (now shuttered) Japanese department store Takashimaya served matcha in its cafe, but for the most part my matcha fix was satiated at Ch-an. Yet, since then, Manhattan has grown into ground zero for matcha, offering more matcha-serving cafes and restaurants than anywhere else in the country.
In April 2013, a branch of Kyoto's well-regarded Ippopo tea shop opened a sleek, minimalist counter on 39th and Lexington—on the ground floor below Michelin starred vegetarian restaurant Kaijitsu. There, one can sample a bevy of Japanese teas in addition to matcha, whisked to order in both styles: usucha and koicha. Most likely anyone that has tried matcha has sampled usucha, or "thin tea," whereas koicha is thicker, prepared with half the amount of water and double the matcha powder, for a highly caffeinated shot (this is also the style of matcha used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies).
Fast forward to a year ago and New York scored its first modern matcha bar, aptly named MatchaBar, in Williamsburg, and just this past October, brothers Max and Graham Fortgang opened a second location in Chelsea. Here one will find more traditional matcha drinks alongside playful Americanized interpretations that serve as a gateway for those uninitiated.
New York now counts more than a handful of matcha-dedicated cafes and restaurants serving the tea, some more traditional than others. And that's thanks in part to companies like Panatea, a New York-based matcha purveyor that sells its powder to chefs across the city. While a year and a half ago, Panatea, which launched in 2014, had the market pretty much cornered, in the last 12 months a slew of new brands have sprouted, each selling their own green tea powders.
MatchaBar sells tins, as does the city's nearly year-old matcha cafe, Chalait. Los Angeles' five month-old "matcha-teria" MatchaBox has its own brand, and owner Alissa White has been selling the powder under her Matcha Source label since 2006. Back in New York, even the West Village's eco-chic, natural product and wellness shop CAP Beauty has its own matcha powder, released as of last month.
Of course Starbucks has been shilling green tea lattes since 2007, but those were (and still are) a saccharine far cry from what the tea is really meant to be: quickly whisked together with hot water to yield a frothy, creamy, umami-rich drink. Teavana, the Starbucks-owned tea company, launched its "Imperial Grade" matcha powder in 2012, and I was curious to see how it compared to a variety of other powders from various purveyors.
For this taste test I tried 14 different matcha powders, traditionally prepared with 2.5 grams of matcha to 70 gams of water. Right off the bat, I eyeballed the powders, and the powder that appeared the most swampy green (as opposed to bright lime green) was from French-Japanese tea company Jugetsudo, my least favorite of the group. The matcha itself smelled like cooked beans and, when whisked, it tasted crazy bitter, almost as if the leaves had been burned at some point. I also wasn't especially keen on Teavana and DoMatcha's powders. DoMatcha lacked umami and tasted vegetal. Teavana, on the other hand, was just flat in flavor.
Though overall the powders displayed varying shades of green, the three most brilliant and neon green powders came from kettl.
Mangan's company, kettl, brings in a smart selection of super high quality teas, inclusive of several seasonal matchas. And, spoiler alert, the matchas Mangan sells are the best quality I've tried outside of Japan. Aside from the powder's zippy green hue, the three matchas I sampled (Kiwami, Hibiki, Shinme ) carried the most pure, grassy flavor, with pleasing umami and sweetness, likewise incorporating subtle smoke/roasted notes.
Regionality and Flavors
Matcha is produced in four major regions in Japan: Uji, Fukuoka, Nishio, and Shizuoka. Similar to the idea of terroir in wine, matchas from these regions each display unique flavors, a result of both terroir but also the way in which the powder is processed.
Uji, a town and prefecture located near Kyoto, is considered the most respectable matcha-producing area. Because of its close proximity to Kyoto, matcha from Uji was originally used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies—so this is a region with a longstanding matcha producing history. And for that reason, Uji set the standard for all matcha production.
Seeing "Uji" listed on a label is akin to "Bordeaux" on a wine label. It's a region that stands for quality. Here, matcha leaves are not roasted, and rather are fired at a low temperature. These teas channel a grassy creaminess, with notes of white flowers, and umami.
Fukuoka, located on the island of Kyushu, is a much younger matcha-producing region, yet it has quickly established itself in the last 10 to 15 years as a high quality green tea player. By way of example, the finest gyokuro in the last 20 years has grown in this region. And that's exactly why tea growers got into the matcha game.
Consider matcha from Fukuoka to be a New World-style, with a higher fire temperature, one will note flavors of toasted hazelnut, cacao, mixed with some of those more familiar notes of butter, umami and sweetness.
Nishio, a region in Aichi Prefecture, is the largest matcha producer by volume in Japan and is responsible for most of the mass market style stuff. Flavors here are less complex, and these matchas usually lack aromatics. That being said, there are still some good producers to be found, but most of what comes in to the U.S. isn't super high quality.
Shizuoka is a prefecture and city, the largest producer of all green tea by volume in Japan. Generally matcha from this region isn't especially well regarded.
There's more than enough matcha to go around, not to count the stuff sold at Japanese grocery stores like Sunrise Mart in New York or Nijiya Market in Los Angeles. But, not all powders are equal. Sometimes one will find buzzwords like "ceremonial grade," but these are really just marketing terms that carry no weight in Japan and are created to help westerners understand matcha quality levels. "In Japan, grading of matcha usually occurs before the leaves are ground. 'Tencha,' or unground matcha, is graded and sold at auction," states Mangan. "Most matcha is a blend of varietals of the tea plant. Higher grade teas tend to contain fewer varietals and come from pedigreed plants."
Further, matcha producers usually make a range of powders, which the company names for the sake of retail. However, that same powder is often renamed by heads of tea schools, so that when someone is studying the art of the tea ceremony, that person can quickly identify which powder is recommended for that specific tea ceremony. The leaves in those tins are exactly the same but the teas as branded differently.
A few of the teas in his taste test were sold under different names but were produced by the same manufacturer in Uji. For example, In Pursuit of Tea's "Unkaku" ($44/20g), Camellia Sinensis' "Choan" ($45/.71oz), and Palais des Thés' "Seijo No Shiro" ($99/1.4oz) all hail from Marukyu Koyamaen Co. in Uji, yet are all different powders. Regardless, they all did all convey a mildly buttery profile with light umami, grassiness, and back palate roundness.
Ippodo's (Uji) powder ($16/20g) yields a round, grassy tea with umami and an overall clean, pure flavor. I was especially keen on Matcha Box's ($48/1oz) bright green powder, which produced an especially buttery, sweet tea.
CAP Beauty's ($34/29g) matcha (Shizuoka) was one of the most floral of the bunch, with notes reminiscent of jasmine. But overall, all three kettl (Fukuoka) matchas won me over with their bright, grassy roundness and velvety, roasted, smokey profile. Kiwami ($42/20g) tasted of buttered popcorn and was super grassy, Shinmae ($32/20g) tasted especially roasty, while Hibiki ($36/20g) brought the most umami.
For those unfamiliar with the flavor of matcha, any of the powders mentioned in this piece would serve as a more than adequate gateway. And clearly, good quality matcha is anything but cheap. Those curious to get into the matcha game without totally breaking the bank might want to start with Ippodo, CAP Beauty, or MatchaBar's powder. But I'd steer matcha enthusiasts to kettl.