I recently had what can only be described as a transcendent matcha experience: I drank the equivalent of about 12 servings of matcha, but did so in just three stunningly beautiful bowlfuls as I sipped a viscous, almost pudding-like manna that summarily blew out some neuronal pleasure circuits and launched me into alpha wave heaven .
We finished the last bowl just before midnight. And even though I’m fortunate enough not to be adversely affected by late-night caffeine, I did have to at least wonder whether 12 servings of matcha at that hour would, you know, keep me up, or make me jittery, or something. I’m happy to report that I slept like the dead when I did get in bed several hours later, but those few hours sure were interesting from a bio/pharmacological/hypernutrition perspective.
It was a high unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was definitely a strain of buddha mind of some sort: like an exaggerated version of the “calm elation” one can feel after an especially satisfying meditation or yoga session. Sort of how it feels in corpse pose/ shivasana, except turned up in intensity several-fold, perhaps several dozen-fold. Complete wakefulness and clarity and visual acuity. It felt like everything the buddhists have been so patiently sitting — often for entire lifetimes — on their cushions for! Delightful in every conceivable way.
But the experience also brought something else into stark clarity: I now have a new way to definitively test matcha quality in three easy steps:
1) use four times as much as my typical quantity (that is, four grams instead of one gram)
2) use about half the quantity of hot water (one ounce instead of two)
3) don’t whisk: “knead” –no crema!
Miniscule amounts of water are added in two stages. The first “wets the tea” and thus allows it to swell. It’s then “kneaded” with a traditional Japanese bamboo matcha whisk, slowly and gently, to break up any clumps. The rest of the water is then added to reheat the tea and to bring it to the right consistency.
It’s easy to tell good matcha from bad matcha, but making matcha in this hyperconcentrated manner — truly “thick” tea — amplifies ALL attributes of the tea, good and bad. Thus a great tea will soar to unimagined heights, and a not-great tea will become pretty repulsive. We were tasting the Blend 100, and I was ecstatic to discover that it tastes fantastically otherworldly in these concentrations. And relieved to get stellar marks from my venerable host, matcha teacher extraordinaire Doug Huskins.
I was slightly concerned that my breakaway method of serving matcha, frothed in creamers and served in cups, not bowls, would produce a raised eyebrow or two from Doug — who has studied traditional tea in the Omotesenke tradition for a very long time — but I had nothing to worry about, it turns out. Doug actually paid the biggest compliment I could possibly imagine: he said something like, and I paraphrase, “If Sen No Rikyu were alive today, I suspect he might serve matcha in the breakaway style.”
By which I’m pretty sure he meant: the very soul of tea, of the service of tea, ought to roll with the times, and to find expression according to local conditions. And because our local conditions are northern California, serving matcha in cups and keeping the atmosphere relaxed and contemporary seems like the natural and best thing to do, the best way to pay obeisance to this remarkable beverage (even calling it a beverage feels wrong; it’s probably closer to an elixir). As the Omotesenke Foundation itself has written, “The tradition of chanoyu was transmitted through the Edo Period through families of tea devotees, but within this tradition new utensils and tea procedures and new ways of thinking about chanoyu were developed, according to the demands of the age.”
Cheers to that.
(photo by Doug Huskins)