A silky-smooth, stimulating powder is suddenly getting (and giving) tons of buzz in the Bay Area.
It's about time, given that this stuff has existed for over 400 years.
Matcha -- the shade-grown, stone-pulverized, high-antioxidant, air-dried Japanese-tea-ceremony tea that tastes bitter, sweet, creamy and astringent within one sip and whose dazzling hue is the love child of emeralds, shamrocks and jade -- is now officially a Next Big Thing. A growing tribe of devotees discuss it with the same intensity and insider lingo (think "mouthfeel," "body," "finish" and "notes") typically applied to wine, third-wave coffee and artisanal cheese.
It's a trendy cooking ingredient at restaurants such as Berkeley's Joshu-Ya Brasserie, where award-winning owner/author/executive chef Jason Kwon sees matcha as "belonging to the same family as chocolate and vanilla, in that it's that rich and that versatile.
"Its flavor doesn't occupy just one or two dimensions but many," says Kwon, who sprinkles savory dishes with house-made matcha salt and creates globally inspired desserts such as yuzu panna cotta with strawberries and matcha foam, and beignets served with matcha ice cream and matcha crème Anglaise. Streaking across the plate alongside the beignets is a vivid trail of matcha powder in which to dip forkfuls for a kaleidoscopic flavor epiphany.
"You can use matcha as the main star or to complement a dish," Kwon says. "However you use it, matcha's kind of like butter in that you pretty much can't go wrong."
Manufacturers are churning out mass-produced matcha-flavored drinks and snacks. Peet's, Starbucks and other cafés have leaped into the game with matcha lattes and matcha freddos that would surely horrify Sen No Rikyu, the Zen-trained 16th-century tea master who created the Japanese tea ceremony, aka chado (the way of tea) or chanoyu (hot water for tea).
This choreographed-down-to-the-last-glance ritual emphasizes respect, harmony, purity, tranquility -- and features matcha sieved into a tea-bowl (cha-wan), then whipped briskly (back and forth, not circularly) with a whisk (chasen) in water (hot, but not boiling) to yield a uniformly tiny-bubbled (because big and uneven bubbles are considered gross, thus must be popped by the master before serving) froth.
While lower-grade matchas -- known as culinary-grade and agricultural-grade -- are now popping up everywhere in sugary-sweet treats, the only tea considered worthy of sipping unadorned in the pure, plain-water chado-style is ceremonial-grade matcha, the finest of the three grades.
And that's what chef/author/teamonger Eric Gower, owner of San Anselmo-based Breakaway Matcha, sells for about $108 per ounce.
After earning a UC Berkeley BA "in that rip-roaringly useful subject, Japanese literature," Gower spent sixteen years living in Japan, where "I wasn't into the tea ceremony, per se. But I loved the tea."
After moving back to the States, Gower "couldn't find any good matcha -- only unpalatable, horrible matcha" -- even in Japantown, "a major offender" whose shopkeepers "obviously think there's no customer base for authentic, expensive matcha, so they stock tons of crap priced at $6.99 a can that's destined to sit unloved, dusty and unrefrigerated on the shelves forever."
This spurred him to source and sell the good stuff himself.
Ninth-century Buddhist monks first brought matcha from China to Japan, where it was sipped almost exclusively in monasteries and noble households until Sen no Rikyu expanded its popularity among samurai and ordinary citizens.
Matcha production is exacting. When new leaves sprout in spring, tea gardens are draped to block out 97 percent of sunlight. Slow, shaded growth spikes the production of chlorophyll and amino acids --particularly L-theanine, which Gower calls "a remarkable molecule" that delivers "a strangely calm, prolonged energy boost rather than the quick jittery effect" of most caffeinated drinks.
Tender leaves are hand-picked, washed, dried, then ground under two-foot-wide granite wheels that yield about one ounce of powder per hour. Top matcha producers grind batches only to order, never in advance.
Ceremonial-grade matcha is made only from the youngest, softest leaves from twig-tips. Lower-grade matchas include lower leaves and stems. How to tell them apart without drinking them? Texture. Color. Fragrance:
"Matcha should not smell like hay in any way."
Sipped in plain hot water, as it is not meant to be, agricultural-grade matcha "tastes nasty, rank, like a froggy pond," Gower winces. "But add enough fat, sugar and mouth-numbing ice and it becomes somewhat palatable in 500-calorie desserts."
At the Mission District's Yuzuki restaurant, matcha ice cream made according to owner Yuko Hayashi's personal recipe is served plain or with mochi, red beans and agar squares.
"It's popular in Japan," Hayashi says, "so it's natural to serve it here. I know exactly why people like it: because they've heard about matcha's health benefits and because matcha has umami. That special matcha flavor that's so hard to describe: It's something round and balanced, something outside 'sweetness' and 'sourness' that makes you feel good. That's umami."
Yuzuki's staff uses lower-grade matcha to make the ice cream. Cooking or baking with higher-grade matcha would be a waste of both matcha and money, because intense heat destroys the amino acids that make top-grade matcha so rich and brilliant.
"You wouldn't cook with ceremonial-grade matcha any more than you'd pour Romanée-Conti into a pasta sauce," Gower says. "Ceremonial-grade matcha is really fragile stuff. There's no surer way to destroy it than to pour boiling water over it. It doesn't like high heat. It doesn't like light. It doesn't like air. It doesn't like much."
This lofty, finicky, ethereal otherness is exactly what fuels today's matcha neo-geekdom.
Gower loves serving matcha to sommeliers.
"It appeals to them because it's so complicated and, like good wine, it's the product of all these micro-applications -- protected from frost by some guy walking around the tea field with hand-held equipment and a spoon. I've never met a sommelier who didn't like matcha. I can see them thinking: Here's a new beverage to get obsessed about."