What Is Matcha?
Matcha is a special kind of ground green tea served in Japanese ceremonies.
It neither looks, nor tastes like any other kind of tea – and it’s super simple to make and drink anytime.
It has many distinguishing features, but the top four are probably:
- Form of tea leaves. Unlike all other teas, including green teas, matcha is finely ground.
- No steeping. Matcha isn’t steeped, it’s “eaten.” You simply pour hot water over the powder, froth it (either with a special handheld bamboo whisk or an electric milk frother), and drink the thick tea.
- Off-the-charts health properties. Matcha is full of naturally occurring antioxidants and amino acids; roughly 20 times those of regular green tea.
- It’s A LOT like really good wine. Terroir (conditions in which it’s grown) is hugely important, it has a balanced acid structure, a very long finish, and it pairs exceptionally well with food.
Speaking of Fine Wine
Drinking world-class matcha provides an epicurean experience along the lines of a truly great wine. Forget the health benefits of either for a moment, and let’s just concentrate on taste.
World-class matcha — and yes, we do count all three grades of Breakaway Matcha in this category — really is like a world-class red like Domain Romanée-Conti in many respects: both are heady, have perfect balance, have umami in spades, have acidity that’s racy and almost electrifying, have multilayered flavors and aromas on both front and mid palate, and have a long, smooth finish.
Lots of agricultural similarities, too: geography, soils, amount and intensity of sunlight, humidity, rain, harvest time, fertilizer …
And then we have similarities of craft: harvest timing, method of picking, processing procedures, aging, blending … ALL of these factors dramatically affect the final product, be it matcha or wine.
That said, it’s also important to note that, just as there is no shortage of truly bad wine in the world, the markets are full of very, very poor quality matcha. Much of it starts off bad (by poor/cost-cutting agricultural techniques, and by machine harvesting new growth, stems and all) and winds up much worse: poor storage, excess supply, and a “race to the bottom” in price all add up to matcha that is either sugared (meaning, sugar has been added to it to make it palatable), badly oxidized (resulting in a hay-like color and aroma), or simply lifeless and dead, bitter, dusty, and forgotten.
It is vile stuff; most unfortunately, this dead, cheap matcha is the only experience with matcha that many people have. If you’ve tried matcha and didn’t like it, join the club. That is what you had, and it’s ubiquitous.
Bad matcha is actually much worse than a clean-skin; it’s more like pouring a glass of “cooking wine.” Which is what it is, in essence: most matcha is meant for culinary purposes. It may still have enough of a “matcha” taste to taste ok as green tea ice cream, as cookies and cakes and all kinds of confections. The fats and sugars in those confections will often mask off-flavors, and the result will be quasi-acceptable.
Great matcha is very, very different. It is meant to be drank, like wine, not used as a cooking ingredient. All of the amino acids, umami, and acid structure of great matcha remain intact when brewed into a nice cup, but are destroyed/rendered undetectable if fat, sugar, and heat enter the picture.
So: think of great matcha as great wine. And think of culinary matcha as cooking wine. The parallels are pretty much exact.
at the same time … antiwine?
But in another important sense, great matcha is the antiwine: instead of the soporific effects associate with alcohol, matcha provides a calmly stimulating effect, perfect for sipping throughout the day and becoming supremely productive.