Will Matcha Become the New Espresso?

published Aug 16, 2010
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

You’ve probably heard of matcha, a form of high-quality Japanese green tea that has been ground into a powder. It’s been showing up in ice cream, shakes and smoothies, salt, cookies and cakes, and even chocolate truffles and frosting. But my favorite way to enjoy matcha is in its traditional form as a hot beverage. Made in single servings and sipped quickly while it is still hot, this bracing, stimulating and slightly bitter drink makes me wonder: Will matcha become the new espresso?

The short answer, in my view, is no. I have a hard time imagining droves of Italian office workers elbowing each other aside to queue up for anything but the rich dark brew of espresso. But it’s hard not to draw comparisons. Like a good espresso, creating a cup of matcha can be an art form, with both traditional and new-fangled approaches.

The basic technique is to whip a mixture of hot water and the powdered tea into a froth, using a whisk. The old school way, used in Japanese tea ceremony, can take a dozen years or more to learn how to do properly. The new way is to fire up one of those battery-powered latte aerators and have at it.

Either way, the matcha is usually ready in less than a minute. When the foamy, creama-topped beverage is served up in a smallish cup and consumed quickly in short, slurpy sips, it’s hard not to see it’s parallel to espresso. Traditional tea ceremony serves matcha in wide, hand-made bowls using elaborate, carefully choreographed movements that can take hours.

While it will never replace espresso, I suspect that matcha will find its niche, especially among people who appreciate hand-crafted, artisanal products with historical and ceremonial relevance. Lovers of Mast Chocolate, third-and-fourth-wave coffee aficionados and small-batch whiskey sippers are sure to appreciate the refined ritual and complex flavor profile that comes with a cup of matcha.

The caffeine hit of an espresso can be a bit like having an express train screaming through the middle of your body: a deep, powerful, jittery roar. I find the effects of matcha to be just as stimulating but in a more delicate, refined way, as if a thousand butterflies have descended on my body, beating their wings until I’m lifted, gently but resolutely, a few inches off the ground. (Seriously.)

A less poetic explanation of matcha’s effects on the body are explained by the presence of the amino-acid L-Theanine which has a relaxing effect, balancing the caffeine which is roughly equivalent to a cup of coffee. Experts also site matcha’s unique combination of phyto-nutrients that act as powerful antioxidants, causing the caffeine to be released more slowly and preventing coffee’s typical insulin and adrenaline spikes.

A good cup of matcha has a perfectly balanced bitter-to-sweet flavor profile, with hints of flowers and that characteristic vegetal ‘greenness’ of green tea. You should be able to find matcha in nicer grocery stores (like Whole Foods) and in tea shops as well as several places on the internet, but there’s a lot of low-quality stuff out there. Look for Usucha or the slightly milder Koicha grown in the Uji region of Japan. Usucha is prepared with with more water and has a thinner texture and a stronger, more astringent flavor than Koicha. There is also a culinary grade matcha that should only be used in in recipes and drinks, like smoothies.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

You can drink matcha out of smaller cups, espresso-style, as well as the traditional, larger bowls. The ceremonial aspect of matcha is important to me and while I don’t practice tea ceremony, I appreciate many of the traditional elements. The rhythmic whoosh of the bamboo whisk in a handmade bowl is the first, essential step towards my lifted-by-butterflies experience. To me, the whine and grind of a latte aerator kind of spoils the mood, but some people appreciate its efficiency.

Regardless, matcha should be consumed right away in several small, slurpy sips. A small, sweet treat is a nice compliment, but not necessary. Most importantly, drinking matcha is an opportunity for me to pause and focus on the present, appreciating both the bitterness and the sweetness on my tongue, and the wild, crazy vibrancy of travel by butterfly wing.

The author would like to thank Eric Gower for his suggestion that drinking matcha can be an espresso-like experience.

Update: Check out 5th Joy’s link, from the comments below, for step-by-step instructions on how to make a cup of matcha at home.

(Top image: Annabelle Breakey)