PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Discover the roots of this year’s trendiest flavor
A green wave has splashed down on Monterey Bay. All around town, restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries are turning green with Japanese matcha.
Chefs, bakers and baristas are finding inventive ways to feature the bright green powder of pulverized tea leaves. Matcha lattes are now ubiquitous at hipster coffee shops. The health conscious incorporate antioxidantrich matcha into smoothies and tonics. Pastry chefs add matcha to their desserts to blend sweet and savory. Even bartenders are mixing matcha into their cocktails.
The booming popularity of matcha represents a dramatic change from 46 years ago when Mitsuko Gammon first moved to the U.S. from Japan. “At that time, your only option for tea was Lipton,” she recalls, laughing. “It was very difficult to find very good tea, much less matcha. Every time I wanted to drink good tea, I had to ask my mom, ‘Would you send me some?’”
Gammon owns Cha-ya in Monterey and serves as a de facto ambassador for Japanese tea, its rich heritage and its expansive variety. She has seen firsthand the growing demand for matcha and other Japanese teas. “I sell so much matcha now,” she observes. “It’s changed so much in 16 years.”
Born and raised in Tokyo, Gammon opened Cha-ya in 2005 when she saw an opportunity to share her passion for Japanese culture with the community. “I couldn’t find good tea, and I thought people should know more about Japanese green tea,” she recalls. Specializing in Japanese gifts, antiques and teas, Cha-ya made its debut in Pacific Grove. In 2008, Gammon relocated the shop to its current address in downtown Monterey.
STEEPED IN TRADITION
Cultivation of green tea (Camellia sinensis) originated in China, but the lightly bittersweet brew has large cultural significance in Japan. After Buddhist monks brought tea seeds to the country in the ninth century, Japan’s tea culture blossomed. Gammon sources Cha-ya’s teas from two regions with deep ties to Japanese tea traditions—Shizuoka and Kyoto.
Shizuoka Prefecture is located on the Pacific coast of Honshu, about halfway between Osaka and Tokyo, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Tea cultivation there dates back to 1241, and this region now produces about 40% of Japan’s green tea, thanks largely to nutrient-rich volcanic soils, exceptional water quality and favorable climate.
Kyoto—and its southern suburb, Uji—have a storied history in tea cultivation and ceremony too. While tea drinking dates back more than 1,000 years in Japan, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the concept of tea as ritual took root. Kyoto is widely viewed as the origin of Japanese tea ceremony, and the country’s oldest operating tea house is in Uji.
You won’t find Japan’s tea titans on the shelves at Cha-ya. Instead of big brands like Yamamotoyama, Ippodo and ITO EN, Gammon sources teas from small producers. She is a longtime client of Den’s Tea— based in Southern California, but grown in Shizuoka—and a friend connected her to Azuma Tea Farm, in Wazuka, about an hour’s drive from downtown Kyoto.
Gammon likens her rapport with these multigenerational operations to the farm-to-table movement. “I’m getting the tea from the growers sent directly to me,” she says. She has visited both farms, citing the picturesque beauty of the rolling fields of bright green shrubs and pristine air.
Despite its celebrity, there’s still a lot of mystery behind matcha for many.
At Cha-ya, Gammon often finds herself clarifying the difference between green tea and matcha. “They come from the same plant, but they’re not the same thing,” she emphasizes. It boils down to leaves versus liquid. “With matcha, you’re drinking whole leaves. With loose tea, you’re drinking the liquids.”
For a month before harvest, farmers put bamboo shades over the tea bushes to shield the delicate leaves from the sun. Without the light, the leaves become more tender and rich in nutrients, like vitamin C and antioxidants. Leaves are harvested by hand, steamed, dried, then stone ground to make matcha. “A big bulk of leaves yields just a little bit of matcha powder,” says Gammon. “That’s the reason matcha is expensive.”
But the higher cost for matcha—exacerbated in recent months by rising shipping costs due to the pandemic—hasn’t deterred Gammon’s regulars. “I used to order once every six months, now it’s every two months,” she says. “Matcha is selling like crazy!”
Gammon curates a selection that speaks to the variety of Japanese green teas. Some are for everyday drinking, others are a bit more luxurious. Classics like sencha and matcha are Gammon’s bestsellers. Genmaicha— green tea mixed with roasted rice—is another popular pick. “It’s less expensive, but very comforting,” she explains. Hōjicha sees the leaves roasted instead of steamed before drying—“When you brew, it doesn’t even look like green tea”—and the caramel-colored concoction is a lowcaffeine option to enjoy in the evening.
But Gammon’s personal favorite? Gyokuro, a higher-quality green tea that’s grown in the shade for a month before harvest, much like matcha. It’s a delicate tea best enjoyed at a lower temperature, which slowly opens the tea leaves as they steep. “It’s delicious.”
Green tea isn’t one size fits all. “Some customers come in and say, ‘Hmm, I don’t like green tea.’ I ask, ‘How do you make it?’” She cautions how steeping green tea too long makes the beverage bitingly bitter and how some varieties taste better at hotter (or colder) temperatures. There’s a bit of art and a bit of science to brewing the perfect cup.
Gammon welcomes the burgeoning matcha market and expanding interest in tea, acknowledging the powder’s health benefits. “Any way you can drink matcha is a good thing,” she says.
“I don’t say ‘You have to drink it only this way’ or ‘You cannot do it that way’—you have to have flexibility.” She equally embraces matcha served whisked in a traditional chawan bowl or enjoyed as a latte for the ’gram. “Life is too short to drink something you don’t like!”
18 Webster St., Monterey
Mitsuko Gammon—owner of Cha-ya in downtown Monterey—shares some tips for making matcha at home.
Tools Matcha is best enjoyed in a chawan (茶碗) or tea bowl. Look for a bowl that’s deep and wide for whisking the matcha, but will fit nicely in your hands. A bamboo tea scoop called a chashaku (茶杓) is recommended for measuring your matcha, but isn’t essential. You’ll need a bamboo whisk, or chasen (茶筅), to blend the powder and water.
Matcha Premium- or ceremonial-grade matcha is recommended for sipping. Store your matcha in a sealed bag in the cupboard. (Refrigerating or freezing isn’t recommended, since the delicate powder can easily absorb other odors.) Most matcha will keep for about a year.
Brewing First, pour some hot water into your chawan to warm the vessel. In a separate bowl to the side, discard the hot water from the chawan and soak the chasen. Using the chashaku, measure about one or two large scoops (about one teaspoon) of matcha powder, to taste, and put it in the chawan. Pour about a half cup of hot water over it for brewing. Matcha is best enjoyed at a temperature of 185 to 190° F. With one hand, hold the chawan in place on a counter. With the other hand, use the chasen to whisk the matcha back and forth in a W pattern (not in a circular motion) until frothy. Sip, savor and enjoy.
Care Clean your chasen by running it under hot water (no soap). It’s best to clean the chasen as soon as possible so the fine prongs don’t get clogged or damaged. If you make matcha frequently, you’ll need to replace the chasen every six months.
Ryokucha 緑茶 Literally translating to “green tea” in Japanese, this covers a suite of green tea variations Sencha 煎茶 Japan’s most popular green tea has a refreshing bitterness and is lightly sweet
Shincha 新茶 Also known as “new tea,” this is the first harvest of sencha with young leaves bearing a fresh aroma and sweetness Bancha 番茶 A lower-grade green tea harvested at the second flush, typically in summer or fall, with bolder flavor
Kabusecha 冠茶 Tea shielded from the sun under straw mats (typically for one week) during part of cultivation
Gyokuro 玉露 A highly prized green tea grown in shade for three to four weeks before the harvest and picked only once each year, resulting in a tea high in theanine and chlorophyll
Genmaicha 玄米茶 Bancha blended with genmai (roasted rice) and hana (popped rice), lending the tea a full, nutty flavor
Matcha 抹茶 A fine powder made from green tea plants grown in the shade for three to four weeks before the harvest, with stems and veins removed from the leaves before processing, that is sipped (not steeped) as a beverage
- Ceremonial grade is ground by granite stone mills for use in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples
- Premium grade is a high-grade matcha powder made from young green tea leaves
- Culinary grade is a lower-grade matcha powder suitable for baking and cooking, and thus slightly more bitter than premium or ceremonial matcha
Hōjicha 焙じ茶 While most green tea leaves are processed by steam, this variation sees tea leaves roasted over charcoal before drying, giving the brewed tea a caramel color and toasty flavor
Kukicha 茎茶 Sometimes called “twig tea,” this is tea made from stems and stalks of the tea shrub (sencha and matcha are made from tea leaves exclusively)