It’s a potent Japanese green-tea powder that leaves you jonesing for another hit.
At least that’s how several matcha lovers have described it to me. I tried it for the first time two weeks ago, and I can’t say I disagree: it doesn’t take much to become a full-blown matcha junkie.
If you’re a New York City dweller, you’ve probably already sampled this latest drink obsession. At last month’s New York Fashion Week, models were spotted sipping bright green matcha instead of Red Bull. Matcha is on the menu at eateries across the city: David Chang sprinkles matcha powder on dishes in his tasting menu at Momofuku Ko; Voila Chocolat serves it on top of hot chocolate, while Maman offers a matcha-infused almond latte; you can have it prepared according to the rituals of a Japanese tea ceremony at Cha-an or Ippodo. Williamsburg, naturally, is now host to the nation’s first dedicated matcha cafe, MatchaBar.
The path to one’s matcha obsession usually starts the same way. Graham Fortgang, who launched MatchaBar with his brother last year, tells me that he was in search of an alternative to coffee that was powerful enough to fuel his busy life, but that did not lead to acid reflux, jitteriness, and the inevitable energy crash. He chanced upon matcha at a tea shop and was hooked: the drink produced sustained energy for several hours that petered out in a mellow fashion. “There’s a lot of science to why this happens,” Fortgang explains. “The caffeine molecules in matcha are binding to catechin, an antioxidant that is found in green tea leaves. It slows down the release of the caffeine, so what we’re getting is extended-release caffeine.”
The Fortgang brothers wanted to bring the drink to the masses, but the problem with matcha is that it is a very complex drink to navigate. Much like wine, matcha comes in a wide and subtle range of flavors. There are also vast differences in quality: premium matcha powder can cost more than gold, but low-quality versions abound. Trader Joe’s has an inexpensive matcha powder that is premixed with sugar and milk solids that would make any Japanese grandmother turn in her grave, while Starbucks and Peets offer matcha-flavored drinks that use low-grade powder. And real matcha requires special equipment: it does not dissolve into water, but must be blended using a special bamboo whisk made specifically for this purpose.
To simplify matcha for new drinkers, the Fortgangs identified their favorite high-quality tea leaves from Nishio, Japan, imported them, and packaged it all under their own private MatchaBar label. They then set up a physical store that would allow customers to feel the effects of the beverage firsthand and learn how to make it at home. This approach has worked well: business has been booming, and on a good day, they sell 450 cups of matcha.
MatchaBar offers a modern, uniquely Brooklyn interpretation of matcha. Apart from the straight shots, they have created a wide variety of matcha drinks that would be familiar to American crowds who grew up with fancy coffee beverages. If you like macchiatos, they offer a “matchiato.” If you like your fall pumpkin spice latte (and if so, we kind of pity you), they offer a cinnamon spice hemp milk matcha latte. They have also modernized the art of blending matcha into hot water by selling matcha kits with a metal electric whisk. “We try and put it in terms that are relatable to people by taking on the template of an espresso bar,” Graham Fortgang tells me. And soon, MatchaBar will be bringing this Brooklyn in-store experience to the rest of the country with a bottled version of their tea.
Panatea, a New York-based startup launched last year by husband-and-wife team David Mandelbaum and Jessica Lloyd, takes a totally different approach to matcha. They’re thinking way beyond New York to the rest of the country–even the world. “Matcha started in New York as trends often do, but it is having a ripple effect,” Lloyd says. “There is not one state in the U.S. in which we don’t have a customer. We also have loyal customers in Australia, Africa, France, and Guam.”
Rather than launching with a store, their entire business take place online, where the brand introduces consumers to the art of the making a cup of matcha at home. The Panatea team worked closely with Satoko Mori, a Japanese tea master, to identify a tea leaf that was both exquisite but also appealing to the American palate, and began to import it under their own label. They also tried to learn as much about the tea ceremony as possible to inform the tea set they designed. “We wanted to make sure we did not bastardize matcha in any way,” Mandelbaum says. They sell matcha sets for $59, which includes one tin of powder, and customers can purchase more powder on the site when the tin runs out. Coffee and tea bars can also buy Panatea’s matcha powder wholesale. In a year, they’ve attracted 40 wholesale accounts and close to 5,000 individual customers who have bought tea sets.
Mandelbaum and Lloyd came to matcha in exactly the same way that the Fortgangs did: they wanted a non-acidic, not-jitter-inducing alternative to coffee, which they found tucked away in a tea shop. But while they loved how matcha made them feel–Lloyd tells me it even leads to more glowing skin–they were even more drawn to the ritual of making the tea.
There is a slow, elaborate tea ceremony that accompanies matcha in Japan; Panatea wants to introduce this art to American consumers. “Our goal is to bring matcha, this ancient ritual that has been around since the 12th century, into people’s homes,” Lloyd says. “We want them to be able to take a meditative pause as they are making it and sipping it.”
For Panatea, the struggle has been to balance bringing the sacredness of this process to the American market without losing consumers by making it too complicated. They’ve tried to simplify tea making as much as possible with product design. Their website is very clean, and the brand only offers one variety of high-grade ceremonial tea to cut down the number of decisions a consumer has to make. The tea set has a spoon that measures out exactly how much matcha to use, and there’s a line on the glass drinking bowl that explains exactly how much water to pour. This Friday Panatea is launching a new version of this ceremonial tea set with a few more tweaks, such as a bowl with a wider mouth and a redesigned instruction booklet to explain the process. They believe that this careful design will make matcha approachable for modern consumers.
While MatchaBar is reinventing matcha for an American audience, Panatea wants to hearken back to matcha’s ancient Japanese roots. And while MatchaBar wants to fuel the passions of busy New Yorkers chasing their dreams–what Graham Fortgang describes as the “New York hustle”–Panatea is all about slowing life down a bit and taking the time to reflect. MatchaBar’s bottled matcha will be a fast-paced alternative to Panatea’s more meditative approach to whisking your own tea at home. But will it take off around the country? If this non-New Yorker is any indication, chances are good that it will.