Matcha madness: taking a sip of coffee’s trendy competitor

IMG_4781By now, you’ve probably seen the green powder powerhouse all over Instagram. With over one million ‘grams tagged #matcha, the tea is the caffeine trend that keeps on kicking (that or insert another caffeine-centric joke here since I’m not confident that “kicking” is funny enough).

If you’re anything like me, you’ve yet to try the green concoction and/or don’t even understand the fad. But as a caffeine fanatic with a propensity for terrible acid reflux (matcha is known to be less acidic than coffee), I figured it was time for me to dig deeper into the matcha madness erupting around me. So, follow along to catch up on the tea’s history and rise to popularity and learn how you (yes, you!) can hop on the trend ban wagon.

What is matcha?

Can it get any simpler? Matcha literally means “ground” or “powdered tea.” But the easiness stops there.

The process of growing and producing matcha is not a simple 1, 2, or 3-step process. Traditionally, it is shade grown for several weeks, meaning farmers usually cover the tea plants with bamboo mats or tarp. While this shading reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the plant, it allows an increase in the amounts of chlorophyll (which gives it that green color) and the amino acid L-Theanine (which accounts for its other nutritional benefits). The best leaves are found at the top, picked, steamed, and air-dried. The leaves are then sorted, de-stemmed and deveined. At this point, the product is known as “tencha,” which is the precursor to matcha. The tencha is finally ground into the fine powder known as matcha.

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Because of this labor-intense matcha-making process, the price of the tea is frequently several times that of other teas. It also accounts for many aspects of its nutritional significance. Matcha is packed with antioxidants and polyphenols that can help protect against illnesses like heart disease, regulate blood sugar, and reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. But these health positives aren’t the only reason matcha is so popular…

So, why is matcha so hot?

Not shockingly, many matcha enthusiasts praise the tea for its long list of health benefits. In addition to those noted above, matcha is said to boost your energy. After all, it—like all green tea—naturally contains caffeine, which can enhance your mood and your ability to concentrate. But unlike other caffeinated beverages (namely coffee), matcha has been found to relax and calm your body and mind. This is because of the amino acid L-Theanine, which produces a “calm feeling,” through a list of scientific interactions I won’t get into. This matcha-induced relaxation is also one of the reasons it was so attractive to Buddhist monks during meditation.

The history of matcha, especially its religious and spiritual significance as part of Japanese tea ceremony, is another reason that the tea has gained suchgiphy1 a following. In fact, the process of preparing matcha used in these ceremonies requires you to slow down, as it takes a while to properly whisk the powder so that it dissolves in hot, not boiling, water.

So, if you’re on the same page as me, you’ve noticed the irony here: matcha is a caffeinated beverage that kicks you into gear but also slows you down. No wonder it’s gotten so much praise!

But first, a few other matcha health notes:

  • The chlorophyll, which gives the powder its vibrant green color, is a strong detoxifier that helps eliminate chemicals and metals in the body. So, if a powder has a brighter, more neon hue, it has even more power to clean out your system!
  • Matcha’s antioxidants also help fight aging and fatigue and increase metabolism for more efficient weight loss.
  • It’s important to note that because the powder doesn’t entirely dissolve likely because the beverage doesn’t remain hot long enough for all of it to,  drinking matcha usually involves ingesting the leaf itself. As such, consuming the entire leaf can lead to higher exposure of toxic contaminants like lead that the tealeaves absorb when growing. Hmmm, all this good did seem a little too good to be true…

Are you in on the matcha trend yet? If so, here’s how you can make the most of the madness at home.

Before bringing the tea home, it’s important to know how to choose the right powder for what you’re making:

  • The more yellow or brown the powder, the more likely that oxidation has occurred and the tea will be bitterer.
  • The finer, softer tea (usually also brighter in color) is considered the highest quality matcha and is best for drinking. But when baking and cooking with matcha, the lower quality powder is better.
  • Simply put: the best matcha is from Japan. Like the ever-constant debate on the quality of champagne that’s not from Champagne, powdered green tea is not necessarily matcha unless it underwent the Japanese production process.

After browsing around the web, I found an endless supply of matcha recipes. But below are two that caught my eye, likely because they’re relatively simple and don’t require too many ingredients. Nonetheless, I hope you can find some seriously powderful (pun intended) inspiration in them also or with other recipes online.

  • “Matcha Mint Iced Tea”: Just from the title, I can tell this one will be a summer hit. It even makes me think of mojitos and after all, those aren’t Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 6.48.34 PMappropriate to drink earlier in the day. So get your mint—and most importantly, caffeine fix, by making these the next sunny day.
  • “Matcha Popcorn”: Not only is this recipe dairy free (and I try my hardest to eat sans-dairy), but it also is so simple that Ina Garten wouldn’t be able to not ask, “How easy is that?”
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I wonder if the Barefoot Contessa is a fan of matcha…

And last but not least, here are my thoughts on my matcha experience… 

After reading, watching, and learning so much on matcha, I thought that maybe, just maybe I cIMG_4740ould become a convert (shh! Don’t tell coffee!). But my optimism was immediately crushed with my first sip of a green concoction from Sawada Coffee. For weeks, I’ve seen matcha beverages from this West Loop sIMG_4782hop shining in their green glory on Instagram, so Ifigured it would be a good place to start sipping.

Six dollars and 13 cents later, I was in possession of an iced Matcha Green Tea Latte (soy milk to save my stomach). It was vibrantly bright—a good sign according to my research—and little grains of the powder were slowly dripping to the bottom—a phenomenon I had read about. Despite being prepared for these characteristics, I was a bit disturbed by the color; it just didn’t seem natural (although green and tea are completely natural) to drink something that neon.

But, alas, I went for it. And, let me tell you, I hated it. This matcha drink was an assault on my taste buds and my mouth as a whole. I even joked to Adriana (of “Chicago Does Brunch“) that I needed to apologize to my old friend, coffee, for cheating on it with such a repulsive “alternative.” (This noun is in quotation marks because it would be an insult to coffee to call matcha a potential equal!)

latte 1

My first sip of the latte was surprisingly thick for a beverage, a tea nonetheless, poured over ice. It left an incredibly bitter aftertaste in the back of my throat and my tongue and teeth felt like they were covered in a gritty paste. Essentially, the first sip coated my trying the drinkmouth so much and left me with such a sour taste that I handed the cup off, insisting Adriana experience what I had. She couldn’t stomach the green monster either.

But I couldn’t leave my matcha experience at just one sip. So I grabbed a straw, as it helps me more easily swallow bad tasting liquids, and slurped another mouthful. Like you’re supposed to do when tasting wine, I let the matcha mixture sit in my mouth for a little while and moved by tongue around to feel the texture. That was a bad idea. Again, all I got was a thick, grainy substance that tasted like something dug right out of the Earth (and yes, I have unfortunately had instances where I’ve eaten soil).

I’m a loud person, so unfortunately my retched responses to the drink warranted attention and forced us to leave abruptly. We walked around a little, laugranulesghing about the drink I held in my hand and questioning how people could be such fans. I even sent a picture to my friend who is a matcha groupie with the text, “I feel lied to!”

And apparently since I am a masochist—or a brave food reporter (what do you think, Professor Elizabeth?)—I tried a third and final sip of this matcha latte. Warmer now and a bit diluted thanks to the oppressive summer heat and my shaking of the cup, the concoction tasted more like sweet soy milk with little dirt-flavored granules making an appearance. Nonetheless the difference in taste, the sip still lingered in my moutlatte 3h, sticking to my teeth and tongue. Finally, I tossed the cup in the garbage and said goodbye to matcha drinks. I’m still up for trying matcha when its cooked or baked since I think—and hope—that such processes will mask the grainy texture, dirty taste and unwelcome teeth-clinging, and bitter aftertaste.*

Now, if you’re reading this coffee, don’t worry, I’ll be back tomorrow morning to pick up a Pikes Roast at Starbucks. I’ll never leave you again…

So, readers, what now?

I think my thoughts are pretty clear, but I’ll state my conclusion here just to be clear. Coffee should not be scared of this trendy green competitor. Matcha might be a super powder packed with a long list of health benefits and a range of preparation (beverages, snacks, meals) but coffee is a tried and true companion that can’t be replaced. Coffee is unique in its taste (is there a stronger word for “delicious?”), its jolt (there’s not

laughing at latte
I couldn’t help but laugh at this experience; I was just so shocked by the matcha latte’s color, taste, and texture. Apparently plenty of research couldn’t even prepare me for such an experience!

hing quite like a kick into gear by an espresso), its texture (even if grinds do get into a drink, they taste good and not like dirt!), and its smell (a scent that powers you no matter the time of the day just like its caffeine upon ingestion).

Sure, I liked the experience of trying matcha. But that is mostly because it taught me that the closest I should get to another green beverage is a “like” on Instagram. ButI respect those matcha followers (and readers that might be you now or soon enough). So, to you I say, keep on ‘gramming your green concoction (after all, it does look pretty nice with a Valencia filter), praising the powder, and trying to make coffee converts but this is one coffee drinker (me!) you can’t get to join the craze.

*I am currently on a gluten-free diet as mandated by my doctor so I was unable to try any baked/cooked goods. I fed my curiosity as much as possible by spending the last hour looking at them on Instagram, though!

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