There is a small city in central Japan called Nishio. To get there by train, you take a scenic three-and-a-half-hour ride from Tokyo, past Mount Fuji and the rippling Pacific coastline. Nishio itself looks unremarkable: quiet residential blocks that could be found anywhere in Japan, a few restaurants, all surrounded by flat parcels of green farmland. But mention the city to tea aficionados and they will immediately respond: matcha!
As Maine is known for lobster and Kentucky for bourbon, the fields of Nishio
are famed for growing a variety of Camellia sinensis, the mother plant from which most teas (green or black) are made. The leaves from this plant are eventually stone ground and turned into some of the world’s finest matcha, a bright-green, powdered tea.
What makes this brew so special? Perhaps it’s the taste: smooth, bracing, slightly bitter. Perhaps it’s the mystical, centuries-old ritual of pouring the ground tea into a heated cup, carefully adding hot water, and mixing them together with a small bamboo whisk until the liquid is light and frothy. Perhaps it’s the nutrients. Unlike other green teas, which are steeped, matcha is mixed directly into the water and fully ingested, which gives you a bigger boost of antioxidants, caffeine, and L-theanine, an amino acid that devotees say creates a super calm, focused mental state. In ancient Japan, people thought matcha had magical properties, and Samurai warriors drank it to stay alert during battle. Today, matcha can be found everywhere from high-end coffeehouses to roadside 7-Elevens. But matcha from Nishio or Uji, another tea-growing region near Kyoto, is still viewed as the crème de la crème. There, far from Japan’s megacities, the soil is rich and the water pristine, conditions that produce an intensely flavorful, nutrient-rich brew.
Matcha is also having a moment in the United States, thanks in large part to Graham and Max Fortgang, who in 2014 opened MatchaBar, the country’s first all-matcha café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The duo discovered the tea by chance when they were served shots of ceremonial-grade brew in an East Village tea shop. They immediately identified the tea’s simultaneously soothing and vitalizing effects as an appealing alternative to coffee.
The Fortgangs source their matcha exclusively from one place, a Nishio farm-slash-general store on an irregular-shaped piece of land that has been owned by the same family for five generations. Every year, the Fortgangs travel to Nishio to help with the spring harvest, a weeklong event that brings the entire town together. Kids take off school, the streets are strung with tiny white flags depicting green leaves and bamboo whisks, and practically everyone in town, from teens to 80-year-olds, helps pick tea.
“Our whole business is based around this one product,” explains Graham. “It’s important for us to be there with the farmers, picking alongside them.”
After the harvest, the leaves are steamed, air-dried inside giant netted chambers, chopped up into large pieces, de-stemmed, and sealed in airtight bags in a farmhouse not far from the fields. There, each batch of matcha is ground to order in a mill made from hand-hewn granite until it has a texture finer than baby powder.
During the Fortgangs’ last visit, following a 13-hour day of picking, a segment about MatchaBar aired on a major Japanese network, a big win for the brothers. Japanese tea drinkers find it funny that Americans are only now catching on to something they’ve known about for centuries. “So for the family that grows our matcha to see the café understood and accepted by Japanese culture,” Graham says, “that’s the ultimate validation.”
© 2016 AFAR Media