Ok, we’ve gone a little cuckoo for matcha lately, with all the blind-tasting going on. Daphne’s even salivating for her first taste!
Before I got turned on to seriously great matcha — and I’m talking really, really, seriously great, as in the best in the world — most of my matcha experiences were of the “eh” variety: good, interesting, certainly healthy, but life-changing? No. It took me a while to figure out the reason: I was drinking matcha that was, essentially, meant to be used as a culinary ingredient, not consumed as a beverage. Almost all of the matcha on the market today is actually culinary grade matcha: much of it does well in desserts and baked goods, and culinary-grade matcha makes good matcha salt, but it’s really not very good for drinking (and some of it is downright nasty, even for baking). One can make it work, and appreciate the many, many health benefits of it (more on these in another post to come), but to enjoy as one would a truly excellent wine? I don’t think so.
It took forever to dawn on me: ceremonial grade matcha, the matcha meant to be drunk straight up, is in a league all its own. Do you remember the first time you had a world-class sip of wine? If you’re like me, prior to that precious moment, you had only had everyday drinking wines (or worse). But that one taste was such an aha! moment: NOW I get what all the fuss is about! I still remember mine: I was with my friend Jack, who took me to Trumps, in West LA. It was a bottle of Chambertin, and it was like drinking Eden.
Drinking real matcha the first time was an equally epiphanic experience. It was so different from any kind of tea, or even any hot beverage for that matter! It had the complexity of a great wine — electric color and dozens of simultaneous notes, including bamboo, sugar, grass, herbs, earth . . . and it had a long, powerful finish. It was almost like tasting photosynthesis itself. No baking with this stuff: using this grade of tea as an ingredient to bake with would be every bit as folly as using Romanee Conti as “cooking wine.” It would destroy everything that’s wonderful about it.
I’ve gone from a once-in-a-while cup (when I was drinking culinary grade) to three or four a day, once I discovered ceremonial grade. It is expensive? Well, it’s deceiving because it certainly LOOKS expensive at about $65 or so for 30 grams. But since I only use about a gram per cup, that’s a little over two bucks for a Romanee Conti-like experience, which starts to sound not only reasonable, but in fact a great bargain, given the pleasure, not to mention health benefits, it delivers. And considering that no one ever blinks at spending three or four dollars for a fancy cup of coffee . . . it also dawned on me that ceremonial grade matcha at a buck fifty a cup probably represents one of the best bang-for-the-buck epicurean experiences available anywhere.
Where to buy it? It’s not easy. Whole Foods sells a brand called DoMatcha, which isn’t bad, but it’s not ethereal, either. Nijiya, in Japantown in SF — where one would expect an excellent selection, and where they carry all kinds of wonderful artisanal Japanese ingredients — sells some truly dreadful matcha, really bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. A whole slew of places on the net claim to sell ceremonial grade, but the problem with buying from many of these places is that they are so damn secretive about who actually makes their matcha. Many of them clam up if you ask even the most basic of questions (the manufacturer, date it was picked and processed, exact place it was grown, use of fertilizers, which tea masters prefer it, etc.).
I find this really odd. Imagine a great winemaker who simply says “I can’t tell you even the most basic information about my wine, including year, varietal, terroir, etc., but trust me, it’s good.” Not everyone is like that, of course. But enough are to make the entire matcha business a bit, I dunno, shadowy. Come out into the light, matcha people! It’s much more pleasant in the sunshine.
I’m working with an innovative and quality-driven matcha producer with a venerable history on a “breakaway blend” that, I hope, will set new standards for quality and accessibility. Much more on that as it unfolds!
There’s lots more to say about matcha, which I will be doing in future posts. I also need to get a video up of how, exactly, I make it, and to explain why I think it’s important to drop the Japanese weightiness of it all and to just enjoy it the way Italians enjoy coffee.
All to come! But meanwhile: are there any hardcore matcha fans here? Has anyone had the really good stuff? Would you compare it to a world-class wine?