If you've spent any time in Japan, you'll be familiar with matcha, the gorgeous, kelly green tea that looks more like liquid chlorophyll than a cup of, well, green tea. In Los Angeles, you can find matcha in some Japanese restaurants and, increasingly, in lattes or iced at tea shops. But if Eric Gower has anything to say about it, you'll be finding matcha on menus next to the excellent espresso and pourover coffee, the aperitifs and wines, that you customarily find in excellent restaurants.
Gower runs a small matcha company, Breakaway Matcha in San Anselmo, in Marin County. A cookbook author and chef who spent years in Japan, Gower founded Breakaway in 2010 because, he says, he couldn't find good matcha outside of Japan. His company sources, blends and distributes matcha grown on four small family farms in Uji, outside of Kyoto, and Nishio, in Aichi Prefecture.
If you're not among the initiated, matcha may be a bit of a puzzle - so ridiculously green it seems something that a Dr. Seuss character might drink.
Like ramen, another Japanese cult favorite, matcha's roots go back to China, where monks in the 8th century developed a system of steaming, drying and powdering green tea, which then was whisked into hot water. Matcha was introduced to Japan through the travels of a Japanese Buddhist monk, Eisai Myoan, who was so enamored of the stuff that he wrote a book about it. In the ensuing centuries, matcha became a favorite of monks and samurai, and spread to the wider population and into the culture of the tea ceremony.
These days, matcha is used not only by tea specialists but by pastry chefs, who've found many uses for the vibrant green powder. Bouchon's pastry chefs make awesome matcha French macarons; you can find boxes of matcha Pocky at Asian grocery stores.
And then there's the tea itself, which Gower has been supplying to some pretty great places. His first restaurant customer was Thomas Keller's French Laundry, not a bad place to start. Gower also supplies matcha to most all of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in California: Coi, Manresa, Benu, Baume, Saison and Quince, as well as our only other Michelin three-star, Meadowood. He's got matcha programs going with Airbnb and Evernote, and a matcha barista, of all things, at Zynga.
Like Myoan, Gower is a matcha disciple, interested not only in supplying the best stuff but also in telling people about its health benefits and history. Unsurprisingly, given that the green is actually from chlorophyll, the tea has a serious amount of antioxidants and phytonutrients. It also has about a quarter the amount of caffeine in the same amount of coffee; enough to help you out, not so much that you'll levitate after a few cups. (No Fukushima radiation either, if you're worried about that; the matcha has been tested extensively.)
If you can't get into République or Trois Mec or Lucques, you can order matcha from Gower's company and make the stuff yourself.
Matcha is fun to make, since you're not brewing it as you would tea but mixing it up: This is why you get so many antioxidants, since you're actually eating the tea rather than steeping and removing the leaves. You simply put some matcha powder into a cup, add hot water and then whizz it up with a milk frother. If you don't have one, you can whisk it (traditionally one used a small, bamboo whisk), but that's not nearly as much fun, and it's easy to find cheap milk frothers in this barista-crazed culture.
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Gower says that it's pretty good cold, too. Lately he has been experimenting with making cold-brewed matcha, and has developed a new blend specifically for that. He's also working on a tap for matcha kegs. Matcha kegs! Finally a good non-alcoholic option for your next St. Patrick's Day party.