My brief stint with matcha has evolved into something neither of us anticipated – the aroma, hue, and ritualistic whisking to create the sought-after layer of foam has enchanted me, for a time (in praise of short-term love). I’ve been spending time working as a barista and getting trained in the art of matcha at a local Japanese tea house. It’s a fine way to spend the better part of my evenings.
Matcha, literally powdered tea, consists of shade-grown stone-ground green tea, traditionally from Japan. The importance of the shade is that the growth of the tea bush slows down. This in turn stimulates chlorophyll levels and the production of caffeine and theanine (theanine is an animo acid known to boost cognition, improve mood, and energize) . The leaves, once picked, are steamed for about 20 seconds. This steaming stops the oxidation process and therefore the degradation process of the leaves’ color and nutrients. [Almost all Japanese green tea goes through this steaming process – including sencha and gyokuro]. The leaves are then laid out to dry. The dried leaves, at this stage of the process, are called tencha. The tencha is de-stemmed and stone-ground to create matcha.
Practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony typically only use ceremonial grade matcha for use in the ceremonies, but premium grade matcha is still delicious and healthy and usually about half as expensive. Premium grade leaves still come from the top of the tea bush, like ceremonial grade leaves do. Culinary grade matcha does not have the depth of flavor that higher grades do, and it is used to flavor various other foods.
There are two main ways to prepare matcha – usucha and koicha. usucha is about a quarter as thick as koicha. Usucha has the characteristic foam that comes to mind with the mention of matcha, while koicha is so thick that no foam is made in the slow stirring that is necessary to prepare it.
Without getting too much into specifics, usucha is generally prepared with a bowl (chawan) and a bamboo whisk(chasen). The matcha powder is sifted into the bowl (sifted matcha more easily mixes into the water. Matcha does not actually dissolve in water, it is a suspension. Given enough time, the matcha will settle out of suspension) and hot water (but not boiling – matcha’s subtlety can be destroyed with hot enough water, for obvious reasons – the resultant matcha will end up far too bitter if water that is too hot, above 87° Celsius, is used) is added to the bowl. The whisk is used to incorporate the matcha and water, with passionate, repetitive back-and-forth motions rather than side to side. The end result should have a layer of foam with small, tight bubbles on the top of the matcha tea.
Koicha in general necessitates higher grade matcha, and is prepared most often in Japanese tea ceremonies. Since it is so thick, any unpleasantly bitter or otherwise flawed matcha powder will be almost unpalatable. Whisking koicha is done primarily by gentle kneading and rotating movements. Traditionally, Koicha is not supposed to have foam on top, and is supposed to have a consistency close to melted chocolate.
Matcha has significantly more caffeine than other types of tea, because of the growing method but also because one consumes the whole tea leaf rather than just an extraction from the tea leaves. The reason matcha foams is because it contains saponins ( glycosides, which are sugars bound to functional groups, that have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic parts [like soap!]) which are natural foaming agents.
Matcha commands such a high price for a few reasons: For high grade matcha, only the top leaves from the tea bushes are used because of the increased subtlety in flavor and enhanced nutritional profile. The mills for grinding the dried tencha are run very slowly and deliberately; if the mills get too hot from friction, the quality of the matcha can degrade considerably. The third reason is a common affliction in the tea world: the supply of good matcha is low enough for the suppliers to charge a premium, and with enough mislabeling and mishandling of good tea in the world, a trusted and knowledgeable tea sourcer is invaluable.
Matcha is and has been a very fun and exciting episode. I am not-so-slowly discovering a short list of worthy beverages and ingredients to use in my personal foray both in mixology and creating a home bar experience that highlights beverages that I love (both as singular experiences and as complements to a greater sensory experience). I’m very grateful to have been exposed to a drink so magical, so utterly delicious in its subtlety, that requires some skill to prepare well, and that looks otherworldly. How beautiful, to love easily and with abandon.