You might not have tried a cup of matcha yet, but chances are good you've heard of it. The Japanese green tea powder seems to be everywhere right now, appearing not only as a hot beverage in its ceremonial ceramic cups, but also in lattes, smoothies, waffles, ice cream and pastries. Admired for its grassy, vegetal flavor, substantial health benefits and uplifting jolt of caffeine, matcha is becoming a popular sight all over town.
Ever since he opened Vintage Tea and Coffee downtown two years ago, Jeff Su has been selling matcha. But he has noticed a decided uptick at his fine tea and coffee shop in the number of customers who either already are familiar with matcha or are eager to give the trendy beverage a try.
"Some people already know about matcha, but others come in for tea and see that we have matcha and don't really know about it," Su reports. "We explain it to them and then they feel like trying it and then they fall in love with it."
Su explains that matcha is unique from regular green tea in both how it's grown and how it's prepared, two reasons that the beverage offers comparatively more health benefits to the consumer. For the three weeks leading up to harvest, tea farmers shade their crops, which encourages the plant to produce extra chlorophyll in response. The hyper-green leaves are hand-picked, steamed, dried and stone-ground into a fine powder.
Su spoons a small amount of the bright green powder into a cup, adds three ounces of 185-degree water, and proceeds to blend the ingredients by hand using a small bamboo whisk. After a few moments the concoction is as smooth and frothy as pea-green meringue. The entire contents are consumed, ground leaves and all, which sets matcha apart from all other teas that are steeped and strained.
As Cleveland's leading importer of matcha, Su also sells the powder to other tea shops, as well as a diverse collection of businesses that range from cold-pressed juice shops to bakeries, all of which use the flavorful powder in myriad ways.
"The applications of matcha are endless," says Su.
Michael George and Amber Pompeii, the couple who run Cleveland Tea Revival in Ohio City, offer matcha the traditional way, in wheat grass-style shots, and also as a supplement in their iced matcha latte, made with lavender and housemade cashew milk.
"If you consume it the traditional way, with just the water and the matcha, it can be a little hard to take, I think," says George. "It's a taste you have to get used to."
Matcha's characteristic vibrant, grassy flavor is easily destroyed by high heat, so the beverage is consumed at temperatures well below a hot cup of coffee. That alone can put off first timers, says George. But for customers looking for a gentle boost of caffeine, matcha outperforms all other teas.
"Green teas are real sensitive to temperature, and there's this bitterness that will completely ruin your experience if you use really hot water." he says. "But with matcha, you are getting the most caffeine that you can get out of tea. It's not as strong as coffee, but the closest you can come to it is matcha."
Su sells two categories of matcha: high-grade ceremonial and a lower-grade culinary style. Because the high-end stuff can approach $100 per pound, most applications that don't involve straight sipping employ the more affordable non-ceremonial grade. That's what Helen Qin and Jesse Mason of Mason's Creamery use to make their popular green tea matcha ice cream. They also combine the matcha powder with confectioners' sugar and use it as a topping for the black sesame with squid ink ice cream.
"I had been introduced to green tea ice cream long ago at a sushi restaurant," says Mason. "As we progressed as an ice cream shop, we do a lot of Asian flavors, and one of the most ubiquitous Asian flavors would be matcha. It really has a fantastic flavor that is a really great complement to pretty much anything we do with it. It tastes like spring to me. It's bright and green and has this life to it."
That distinctive and refreshing flavor profile, not to mention the flamboyant shades of green the powder introduces, is the reason matcha continues to worm its way into culinary treats around town. Lola pastry chef Summer Genetti uses matcha in truffles and petit fours, pastry chef Bridget Thibeault sells summer-green matcha macarons at Luna Bakery, and Restore Cold Pressed adds the powder to a superfood smoothie with coconut, mint and almond milk.
"There's a lot more interest and a lot more curiosity in matcha," notes George of Cleveland Tea Revival. "It was not very well known when we first opened, but it seems that it's becoming more and more well known."