Why is matcha suddenly in everything?

Last month, the American business magazine Forbes featured a headline that asked, "Is matcha the new coffee?" In fact, some in the industry think matcha may do for tea what espresso did for coffee.

High antioxidant content pushing Japanese tea trend

Matcha is a powdered green tea touted for high antioxidant content. (Jigme Datse Rasku/Flickr)

Last month, the American business magazine Forbes featured a headline that asked, "Is matcha the new coffee?"

While it may not be a vitally important economic issue, the trend may shape the future of major coffee and tea chains. In fact, some in the industry think matcha may do for tea what espresso did for coffee.

After all, before the 1980s or '90s, coffee was pretty straightforward. But with the popularization of Italian espresso culture in North America, consumers were suddenly willing to pay a lot more for their daily fix. It was a shift that propelled everyone from Starbucks to your local corner barista.

Coffee, increasingly, isn't the only game in town. Consumers and investors are turning to tea. Last year, Starbucks bought up the multinational tea chain, Teavana.

Montreal-based David's Tea is only seven years old and already has more than 100 outlets. Meanwhile, a U.S. survey last month suggested that tea consumption is way up, particularly among people under 30.

As for Forbes' "new coffee," matcha is a specialized type of Japanese green tea that is shade-grown, which makes it vibrantly green. Once the young leaves are picked, they're de-stemmed and de-veined. Once they're dried, the leaves are ground to a very fine powder.
Jared Nyberg specializes in matcha in his back alley tea shop, Jagasilk in Victoria, B.C. 

"We currently have seven different selections of matcha. We like to take a wine approach," he said. "We like to focus on the cultivars. In wine, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, these are all different cultivars. In tea, kanaya, yabukita, okyataka, samudori, these are all different cultivars of matcha."

Nyberg said the colours and aromatic qualities of the different cultivars are noticeable.

Matcha is typically dissolved in boiling water and the leaves are consumed. (Khalil Akhtar)
Part of the reason for the surge in
matcha's popularity is a lengthy list of purported health benefits due to the tea's high antioxidant content. Major coffee chains are serving matchalattes, but usually with plenty of sugar.

Nyberg leans heavily on tradition in his shop. He uses bamboo whisks, which cost hundreds of dollars in some cases, to combine a small amount of the matcha with hot water. Unlike the tea most of us know, matcha drinkers actually consume the ground tea leaves along with the water.

"Essentially it's green tea that you're eating," Nyberg explained. "So I like to make the comparison that regular tea or steeping your tea is like drinking the water from steaming up some kale. And then if you were to actually eat that kale, there is so much more healthful opportunity."

While some traditionalists worry that growing mainstream interest of a traditional product may ruin it, Nyberg disagrees. 

"If this mainstream element did not exist, I think there would be far less interest. My company suddenly became viable when big coffee chains started selling matcha with sugar in it as lattes," he said. 

And just like with coffee, as word gets out and consumers gain a taste for something a bit better, prices inevitably rise. In the case of matcha, that can be significant for the average Canadian tea drinker.
Good matcha can cost a buck or two a gram, with a couple of grams needed for a single cup. Which may sound expensive -- but a generation ago, so did a $5 cup of single-origin direct-trade coffee.