"What's better company to keep than one monk and one samurai?" What sounds like the lead-in to a terrible joke is how Max Fortgang begins talking about matcha, a bright-green Japanese powdered tea.
Max is the co-owner of MatchaBar, which he shares with his brother Graham. He explains that 11th-century Zen monks drank this bitter tea before meditation for its calming quality. Several-hundred years later, matcha became popular among samurai for its caffeine. Fast-forward another few hundred years to modern-day Brooklyn where commuters have adapted the ancient tea ceremony associated with matcha in to-go cups with a splash of almond milk.
As Max and Graham discovered as students at NYU (after realizing that their "full-blown coffee and Red Bull habits" weren't sustainable), matcha can serve the same purpose as coffee, without a crash: It has 70 milligrams of caffeine, as opposed to 100 milligrams in a similar-sized serving of coffee, and releases the stimulant over a longer period of time. And—despite what I had always believed—it can taste pretty good. Here's how to make matcha, and find your go-to way to drink it:
There are two main classifications of matcha: ceremonial grade and culinary grade. Culinary-grade matcha is generally used in matcha-flavored foods (hey there, matcha pops) and is from mature leaves further down the green tea plant with little nutritional value or caffeine. Ceremonial-grade matcha uses younger leaves that are higher on the plant (the best is from the leaves at the tip of the tea plant), and is what Max and Graham recommend—plus, it's healthier.
Matcha isn't nearly as acidic as coffee (in fact, it's a base!), and it contains antioxidants like catechins that protect the body from free radicals and increase the time it takes for the caffeine to break down (that's where the smaller crash comes from).
Modern iterations of matcha (those in the aformentioned to-go cups) can be made into either cream-based, coffee-inspired drinks or fruit-based, iced refreshments.
For the coffee-inspired drinks, matcha can be used in the same way you'd use a shot of espresso, with the same ratios of milk. One teaspoon of matcha plus roughly 1/2 cup of water is equal to one shot of espresso, for these purposes. For example, MatchaBar serves something called a Flat Green, their matcha version of a flat white. Graham explained, "What we’re trying to do is make an unfamiliar product more familiar."
Fruit-based iced matcha drinks work in the same way lemonade does with tea in an Arnold Palmer. Max explained as I sipped a peach and matcha drink, "In the tea industry, one of the main ways you get people to start drinking it is to put lemonade in it, which is a very basic move that's opened up tea to a lot of people." He explained that matcha is a perfect canvas for a whole range of flavors and often brings out earthy tones of other ingredients. At MatchaBar, he mixes it with watermelon, peach, and fuji apple, among other juices. To do the same at home (and make the Peaches and Cream drink pictured above), fill a twelve-ounce glass with ice, then add 4 ounces of the fruit juice of your choice, and top with roughly 6 ounces of matcha, or 1 1/2 times as much matcha as juice.
Matcha is traditionally made with a tea whisk. To use one (and if you don't already have one, they retail for about $15), scoop 2 grams, or roughly 1 teaspoon, of matcha powder into a small bowl with relatively high edges so that the tea doesn't go overboard. Pour 1 cup boiling or cold water over the tea (matcha doesn't dissolve in water, it's just "suspended" as Max says, so the temperature of the water doesn't matter), and whisk quickly in a double-U or zig-zag formation until little bubbles start to form. Continue whisking until all of the clumps are broken up and the top of the tea is covered in a thin layer of foam. This takes about a minute.
As with the whisk method, add 1 teaspoon of matcha to a small bowl with 1 cup of water over it, then use an electronic milk frother to create a layer of foam and break up all the clumps. Unlike the whisk method, which can take up to a minute, this method can take as little as 10 seconds.
Not all hope is lost! Max and Graham suggest sourcing a small airtight container with a secure lid. Add to it 1 teaspoon of matcha, 1/2 cup of cold water, and some ice cubes (the ice cubes help break up the clumps in the powder). Close the lid and shake the container vigorously until the matcha is fully suspended in the water.
To Max and Graham, there are several ways to make matcha tea that diverge from the original ceremony, but the drink itself is an art. As Graham puts it, "I would have a painting of Max's Peaches and Cream in my house if I could."
What's your preferred way to enjoy matcha? Do you think Peaches and Cream should be reserved for the classic dessert? Tell us in the comments below!
Photos by James Ransom