Part 1. Developing your relationship with matcha
I was recently asked by Epicurious to come to their offices to speak about purchasing, preparing and enjoying matcha. I spend all day doing all of those things and it occurred to me that sometimes I become a little disconnected to the trials of combing the internet for reliable information on matcha and furthermore the sense of unease that can accompany purchasing and getting into drinking matcha. ("Is this matcha actually worth the cost?" - "Can I trust this company?" - "I am embarrassed to say I think matcha kinda tastes like pond water" "I know this matcha is cheap but I LIKE IT".) My point is, matcha can be a bit intimidating to build a relationship with. And it shouldn't be that way. I am a firm believer you do not need to be an expert to enjoy something. Running can be enjoyable without understanding exercise physiology, but knowing which shoes will give you the most comfort makes getting into running much easier. Delicious wine can be delicious without the approval of a sommelier (Although the help and guidance of a good Somm is a fast track to finding what you love). I guess what I am getting at is that like anything that comes from a faraway land and is marketed heavily by non experts - I mean 99% of what you read about matcha is written by companies that have very little authority or experience on the subject - it can be tricky to decipher whats really "good" and feel like you can get a quality product and start to find out for yourself what you like. This leads me to my first point on getting into matcha.
How do you buy good matcha?
The greatest thing you can do for yourself is to build a library of experience by tasting what the internet has to offer. The key is to navigate the internet with a few things in mind. Before we get to that a few words on owning your matcha experience.
Enjoying anything starts with building confidence in what you like. Giving yourself permission to say "I like this!" without the approval of an "expert" can be tough. But it actually isn't. My approach is try something and be honest about your initial reactions while still keeping an open mind knowing that our palates tend to develop over time. But I hate papaya. Always have, and always will. No amount of "palate development" is going to change that. But if you think you like matcha and aren't sure which kind etc, drinking as much as possible is the only way for you to discover your preferences. In addition to the heady glow of Theanine provided by drinking matcha, the real upside to drinking as much as possible is that you can begin to be clear about what you like. And when you know what you like you are free from the BS marketing jargon that accompanies almost every matcha available on the internet and begin to make choices based on your preferences (i.e. experiences) and not on what someone tells you is the best. And believe me, companies love to tell you they are the best. Here are some of my favorites:
"Bringing the world's best Matcha to you" / “This is the highest grade matcha tea available” “Best matcha for straight tea" (???) / It’s remarkable that this stuff is legal. It's as if visitors from another planet designed the perfect food/drink for humans, one that makes them perfectly nourished, sated, optimally healthy, insanely productive, and -- well, we might as well say it -- buddha beings." (A personal favorite).
None of the above actually tells you anything of relevance about the teas being sold.
Now, some of the matchas with these descriptions might be fine. But how do you evaluate? I don't know much about car tires. But luckily, there are reviews in auto magazines and consumer reports by people with a good understanding of what makes a great tire. The truth when it comes to matcha, it can be difficult to evaluate what to look for when buying a tea. Here are a few things you can do to discern what is likely good matcha from what will disappoint you. Disclaimer: if you are looking to put powdered green tea in a smoothie buried beneath lots of other ingredients, you will not notice much difference between grades.
When buying on the internet, look for the following four points.
- Your matcha should list Japan as the country of origin. And even better, a region, town, and grower. But most basically, your matcha should come from Japan. In no uncertain terms, true matcha comes from Japan. Other countries that produce “matcha” are providing you with powdered green tea of uncertain quality. Japan follows accepted guidelines for its growing, manufacturing and milling - and the combination of expertise, old world know-how and modern technology make Japan to only source for acceptable matcha. Origins inside Japan can be: Uji, Fukuoka (Yame), Aichi (Nishio) and more recently Kagoshima (often for organic).
- Good Matcha has a best by date. Drinking expensive, reminded matcha means nothing if the product is not fresh. Matcha is not like when and does not benefit from age or vintage. Once the leaf is ground, it should be consumed as quickly as possible. Reputable sellers will list the best buy date - generally on the bottom of the can or printed on the bag. If it is not there, there is no way to know when the matcha was produced or best to drink by.
- The best matcha will be packed in a small tin or foil bag (often in a tin) and include an oxygen absorber inside. Again, these may seem like small things but with matcha so finely ground the surface area of the leaf is exposed to air and within a matter of days it can degrade in flavor.
- Matcha should be refrigerated prior to sale. This is obviously hard to know when buying over the internet but you can always ask the company. If you see matcha being refrigerated at a tea shop, that is a tell tale sign that the retailer understands the importance of taking care of the product. Case in point, even the smallest local tea shops in Japan invest in refrigerating their tea.
Recap: Tea should be from Japan, have a best buy date, come in a can or foil lined bag. The best matcha will have oxygen absorbers inside and be kept refrigerated.
If you find matcha that checks all four boxes, buy it.
Coming up next: How to evaluate the matcha you've purchased
Thanks for reading.