There’s no stopping the rising popularity of matcha in KL – it’s found in everything from lattes and brownies to soft serve ice cream, on supermarket shelves and at specialist tea stores. But there’s a lot more to this finely ground green powder, as we discovered when we spoke to Syun Hattori, the co-founder of Niko Neko Matcha, who explained to us the different grades of matcha, brewing methods and more.
First off, what exactly is matcha?
Matcha is essentially processed green tea leaves that have been ground into a powder. There are, however, many grades of matcha, each with its own distinctive characteristic depending on how it was grown, when it was harvested and how it was ground down. At the very top are the ceremonial matcha, which can cost up to hundreds of ringgits; followed by the premium grade matcha; and then the matcha used to make green tea desserts, lattes and soft serve ice cream.
There’s a difference between good and great matcha
Different grades of matcha have different tastes and appearances. For example, ceremonial matcha – like Niko Neko’s ‘Ren’ matcha – are made from the youngest tea leaves and have an emerald green colour; tea made with this matcha is smooth to drink and is highly caffeinated.
What truly separates the great from good is the balance between two protein molecules: L-theanine and catechin. ‘L-theanine – which is present in higher grade matcha – gives you a pleasant umami flavour, while catechins have an astringent and bitter taste,’ says Syun. ‘All green tea plants produce L-theanine, and when exposed to sunlight it’s converted into catechin.’ Maintaining a high level of L-theanine takes plenty of time and effort as growers need to periodically shade the leaves from the sun – hence, the higher price point. These are plucked during the first harvesting period in April.
Photo: Niko Neko Matcha
What’s the big deal behind L-theanine?
L-theanine has a chemical structure that’s very similar to glutamate – the component that gives MSG its flavour-boosting quality – that results in a surprisingly savoury taste. L-theanine is also an amino acid that promotes relaxation, reduces stress, improves sleep, and works with caffeine to produce what green tea aficionados call an ‘alert calmness’.
‘Conversely, normal green tea like commercial sencha are grown unshaded, resulting in a high amount catechins that causes the tea to have a thinner, less complex taste,’ says Syun. Which isn’t to say that catechins are a bad thing: they’re powerful antioxidants that fight, and may even prevent, cell damage.
It’s worth shelling out for artisanal matcha
While mass-market matcha are affordable and readily available, artisanal matcha like the ones sold by Niko Neko are what you should be aiming for. ‘Artisanal matcha are processed in a very different way compared to mass-produced matcha,’ says Syun. ‘For one thing, the tea is ground down slowly to a very fine powder, less than ten microns small, using a stone mill to minimise as much heat and friction as possible to preserve the flavours and compounds.’
Commercial matcha, on the other hand, are ground down using strong air currents that force the tea leaves to crush against each other. This not only results in uneven particle sizes, but the high level of heat caused by friction damages the leaves and the delicate proteins within. Artisanal matcha are also grown carefully and harvested just twice a year, compared to commercial green teas that are harvested four to five times a year, resulting in leaves that are underdeveloped and lacking in flavour.
Photo: Niko Neko Matcha
Don’t use a spoon to stir your matcha
Traditional matcha brewing methods involve a chasen, a traditional bamboo whisk that’s used to create a nice foamy froth when mixing matcha in a porcelain bowl. ‘You want the matcha powder to be evenly and completely mixed with the water – you can use a regular whisk or hand frother, but spoons are a poor way of making matcha; for one thing, the powder will tend to clump up and stick to the surface of the spoon, resulting in an uneven and thin cup of green tea,’ he says.
There’s an optimum water temperature
It’s also important to get the right water temperature when brewing a cup, as different temperature points extract different flavours from the matcha. ‘Optimally, you want your water to be between 70 and 75 degrees Celsius to extract the sweetness and umami flavours of the L-theanine, while water at 90 degrees Celsius will react with the catechins, resulting in a more bitter tea,’ says Syun, who also recommends that you use the traditional ratio of 1g of matcha to 75ml of water for an ideal cup of green tea.
Store your matcha away from heat and light
Don’t wait too long to consume your matcha. ‘Ideally, you should use up your matcha within two months after opening the tin – but it can last up to six months if you keep it away from sunlight and heat,’ he says, adding that improperly-kept matcha turn pale when exposed to sunlight and turn bitter when exposed to heat.