By Taylor Smith
Open up Instagram, search “matcha,” and let the wave of green wash over you. Matcha ice cream, lattes, frappucinos, whipped cream — you name it and a savvy social media maven has infused it with green powder and snapped away. From Santa Monica to the Lower East Side traditional powdered Japanese green tea has become a sensation; apparently an increasingly important component of the young cosmopolitan lifestyle—a far cry from its ancient ceremonial roots.
Today you might find yourself at a cafe in the West Village, next to two young women photographing their Insta-worthy matcha concoctions for a good twenty minutes before starting their meals, as I did yesterday. In the few weeks it’s been open, downtown’s newest matcha cafe, Cha Cha Matcha on Broome St., has been packed to its pink and green gills with young professionals in need of a caffeine boost.
So as people clamor for this vibrant refreshment, we have to ask: What’s the big deal? Is matcha all it’s cracked up to be or just another Instagram-friendly foodie trend?
The Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu, dates back to at the 12th century, when Chinese Zen Buddhist monk Eisai first brought matcha (the ground powder of a shade-grown tea plant) to Japan from China, where the practice of drinking tea was already popular. The tea ceremony rose to cultural prominence in Japan in the 15th century, before being refined and more widely popularized in the 16th century by Sen no Rikyu, the merchant’s son and tea master who came to be known as the father of chanoyu. Rikyu based the ceremony on the principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility (Wa Kei Sei Jaku).
To this day it requires many years of study and in-depth knowledge of fields including not only tea but also calligraphy, kimono, ceramics, incense and more to become a tea master. Even to be a guest requires familiarity with the appropriate ways to accept the tea and sweets served during the ceremony. But the principles and ritual nature of chanoyu are noticeably absent from the U.S. matcha craze, where urbanites have not only taken to it as a coffee substitute, but built the beginnings of an industry around it (I’ve even heard rumors of friendships gone south over swiped matcha business plans). I spoke with a couple of matcha mavericks to learn about what’s taken the traditional tea from fad to booming business.
Behind the Counter
I first spoke with Eric Gower, founder of northern California’s Breakaway Matcha. Gower himself is no matcha bandwagoner. After majoring in modern Japanese studies in college, he spent 16 years in Japan, during what he describes as the economic boom the country was experiencing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Now back on the West Coast, Gower teaches cooking privately, writes cookbooks, and works with about 10 farms in Japan to produce the matcha he uses for Breakaway.
Gower pointed to a number of larger factors as responsible from the boom, which he thinks started back in 2009 when he first came across Starbucks’ matcha products, acknowledging that it’s at least partly due to matcha’s brilliant hue and the lovely-looking people who drink it:
“In the United States it’s got this reputation of being an extremely healthy drink, and social media’s really helped in this. It’s such eye candy. It’s so beautiful, it’s so vibrant green that people see a lot of photographs on Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook and all that, and people say, you know, ‘What is this?”
He also pointed to matcha’s ever-rising popularity as an indication of a larger cultural shift within the U.S.:
“There are a lot of people who are trying to make the switch from coffee to tea, so that represents a pretty big chunk of it. But also just in general ‘superfoods’ as a category; foods like tumeric and wild blueberries and ginger and dark chocolate, matcha definitely fits in the category of being a superfood that people seem to want to get into their bodies.”
I next interviewed Liang Shi, who pointed to matcha’s milder energy boost and versatility as causes for its ever-brighter spotlight. Shi’s new to the commercial matcha game, but no stranger to the popular tea. Shi started her pop-up, Ma Matcha, last September after a 10-year career in the creative design industry. Growing up, Shi was familiar with the taste of matcha in a variety of Asian meals and desserts, but turned to it as her main caffeine source a few years ago, when she found her fast-paced New York lifestyle demanded it:
“I just personally really love the taste of matcha and I prefer it over coffee,” Shi said. “When I drink a lot of coffee I crash, and I have a really low tolerance for coffee so I just crash literally an hour later. So for me matcha just gives me a more sustained energy, and I can drink it throughout the day and not feel awful afterwards.”
Since the first of her pop-ups, which she holds regularly at The Alchemist’s Kitchen Shi has experimented with the three different grades (ceremonial, everyday, and culinary) a number of flavor profiles, testing over 50, with coconut and lychee matcha becoming two of her biggest hits.
Her experimental approach may help explain why the ancient tea continues to attract new fans; after all, the taste can be hit-or-miss depending on where you buy it. Gower maintains that most readily available matcha actually doesn’t taste that great—as he puts it, “It’s a spectrum, from 0 to 10, and most of it hovers around 0. And it’s very hard to like that bad-tasting matcha. It’s more about OK, I know it’s good for me, I’m going to get it down, it tastes horrible and that’s going to be my experience with matcha.” The variability Gower describes has presented obstacles in my own relationship with the popular tea, but seems to be what has others hooked.
Shi’s pop-up, much like the herbal varieties offered at MatchaBar, is a perfect example of how matcha has become something of a new-and-improved coffee: trendy, photogenic, and even more adaptable. One of the largest differences lies in matcha’s stronger “superfood” credibility, which raises the question: is that reputation deserved?
How Healthy Is It Really?
First, the obvious: unlike with most teas, matcha leaves themselves are ingested, allowing the drinker to consume both the soluble and insoluble fibers that Gower said makes matcha so powerful: “The simple fact of consuming the leaves in ground form is ipso facto really good for you, even if it tastes crappy.”
And there are in fact a number of specific health benefits associated with the emerald beverage: vitamins A, C, E, and K, the productivity-boosting amino acid l-theanine, and high quantities of antioxidants, notably catechin and EGCg. This graph from Matcha Source, via Brunswick labs, illustrates just how loaded matcha is with antioxidants compared to other superfoods:
Of course, “antioxidants” is a term that’s been plastered all over so many bottled-drink labels that for some it’s begun to lose much meaning. I spoke with Amy Shapiro, RD, founder of nutritional counseling firm Real Nutrition, to get some insight on what this buzzword actually means for your body:
“Antioxidants help to prevent disease or wrinkles or aging…basically they prevent free radicals from forming. The agents that cause disease in the body can be prevented by increasing the amount of antioxidants that you have because it prevents oxidation of your cells and your skin and things like that on a basic level.”
As for the sustained energy the converted speak of, Shapiro described it as “mild” rather than more sustained, and suggested it boiled down to the lesser amount (matcha contains about 70 mg of caffeine per gram to coffee’s 100) and that drinkers should take the same precautions as they would with any caffeine source.
Interestingly, Gower noted that the quality of the matcha typically doesn’t diminish the health benefits — but no, that doesn’t mean your 430-calorie Starbucks Green Tea Créme Frappucino is “good for you.” He hailed l-theanine as premium matcha’s secret weapon:
“The finer you go in quality, the main difference is something called l-theanine, which tends to rise with better quality. It’s an amino acid that is probably responsible for a lot of the wakeful feelings that people get when they drink matcha. When caffeine binds with l-theanine it produces this wonderful kind of effect that’s not jittery like the caffeine you get from coffee.”
For her part, Shapiro thinks matcha’s reputation is “absolutely” deserved: “I think that as a superfood it’s getting the recognition that it should get and the fact that it’s being turned into everything from snacks to drinks to lattes is a great way to get the general population involved.”
That said, she said she would describe the antioxidants matcha offers as “very important” but not “essential” — an apt metaphor for the role matcha’s actual health benefits play in its legend. Prune juice is pretty nutritious, but I doubt we’ll see any prune juice cafés in the near future. Matcha has the advantage of being both healthy and marketable.
Does It Matter?
At many points throughout our conversation, Gower compared matcha to wine, a fitting analogy for the almost worshipful way consumers flock to it. Like wine, he said, the finest matcha does not have to be an acquired taste, even when paired with water alone:
“You can taste a slightly better one and you’ll go. ‘Oh, this is not only good for me—it’s pretty good.’ And then you taste a sublime one and you’re going, ‘Wow, I can drink this all day long.’ But most people haven’t experienced the upper end of the spectrum, they’ve only experienced the lower end of the spectrum, because that’s what the market is full of right now.”
But beyond the taste they enjoy and the energy they receive, both Gower and Shi, along with the many matcha drinkers I spoke with, have turned matcha into a regimen of sorts. For Rafael, it’s a cup after lunch. For the Chalait regular, it’s a matcha stop every day after work. Neither Gower nor Shi incorporates much of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony into their own routines, but both noted a certain meditative aspect of preparing matcha:
“For me, especially when I’m preparing it in a very traditional way, with the whisk, it is like a ritual because there are so many instruments and just the technique of it and everything — you’re not pouring yourself a beverage.” says Shi.
Though matcha’s traveled far from its ritualistic origins, it appears not to have lost its ability to inspire a practice of some form. And so it seems that its superfood-caliber nutritional benefits, the smooth, lingering caffeine boost, and the peaceful preparation will make matcha a foodie phenomenon with some staying power. As Shi puts it, “I think it’s more than just a fad because it’s something that is sustainable, it’s delicious, and it’s good for you.”
All photos courtesy of Breakaway Matcha.
Click here to read about Taylor Smith’s fraught relationship with all things matcha.
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