It's the color that commands your attention. That deep, vibrant green, the unmistakable shade of matcha.
At its most basic, matcha is a high quality green tea from Japan. The tea leaves are stone ground in a mill until it becomes a fine powder. The traditional Japanese drink is prepared by whisking the powdered matcha into a bowl with hot water and drinking it directly out of that bowl. The drink is simultaneously earthy and vegetal with a subtle, sweet finish. You can make the matcha thin, which is called usucha. Or have it thick, which is called koicha.
There is much more to it: ritual, technique...there could be books on those alone. But let's keep it simple. I was recently introduced to a Brooklyn-based brand called Tea Wing, which carries a select range of high-end Japanese teas (the owner personally goes to source in Japan each harvest). Matcha is their signature product.
Compared with other teas, production costs for hand-picked stone-ground matcha are significantly higher—many tea producers have abandoned the traditional method of production because it is too expensive and time consuming. A good deal of matcha found in the commercial market is of a lower grade. But the ones from Tea Wing are still hand harvested from top producers in Japan. Tea Wing offers three types of matcha, all of which are certified tea ceremony quality. I visited the Tea Wing headquarters for a taste, and their offerings were easily best matcha I've tasted in the US.
Their Shinme is ideal for usucha, or thin matcha. Shinme has a distinct element of astringency that you want from a good thin matcha.
Their Hibiki can be used to make usucha and thicker koicha. Hibiki produces a very concentrated flavor and creaminess, with the bitterness and astringency muted when it's made as koicha.
Their Kiwami is best for koicha. This matcha is made from the most tender, highest-grade tea leaves. The result is a tea that is the sweetest of the three and most velvety on the tongue.
If you want to spring for an elegant matcha gift, Tea Wing offers a handcrafted matcha utensil kit, with a display box made in Brooklyn by Pat Kim, a Chasen whisk and Karatsu-yaki chawan tea bowl, both made in Japan, plus a white oak chashaku tea scoop, stone scoop rest, and felt-lined trivet (for the kettle), all made in New York. The kit's lid also functions as a removable serving tray. (Can't spring for high-end equipment? You can find matcha utensils at many Japanese groceries—I bought mine at Sunrise Mart for about $30.)
To make thin matcha, whisk 2 sifted chashaku scoops (about 1.5 grams) of matcha with 2.5 ounces of 190°F water. Whisk vigorously in an "M" or "Z" shape until a thin foam appears on top. For koicha (thick matcha), you'll use 4 scoops of matcha and 2 ounces 190°F water, kneading the matcha in a circle or cross pattern until any lumps are removed.
Pair the matcha with wagashi (a traditional Japanese confection made from mochi, azuki bean paste, and fruit), and you are good to go.