After an hour-long wait, I finally earned one of the eight coveted counter seats at Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience – a modern, minimalist-designed Tokyo tea café decorated in copper, practising some of the city’s best leaf-steeping etiquette.
Perusing a menu of premium Japanese teas with prices to match (nearly $50 for a pot of tea!?), out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a barista slowly whisking away at a bowl of koicha (or thick-style) matcha. And in what appeared to be the blink of an eye, she poured the viscous, neon green liquid into the bottom of a pint glass, then topped it off with beer.
While matcha-spiked and stained beer has been somewhat of a specialty drink in Japan over the last decade or so, served by brew bars and tea shops alike, it’s thanks to Stefen Ramirez – proprietor of New York City-based specialty tea importer Tea Dealers and new Alphabet City café 29B Teahouse – that the enigmatic green tea tonic has jumped seas. And not only has Ramirez introduced New York’s tea-inclined denizens to this seemingly unlikely duo of a drink, he’s also found a way to improve upon the fizzy cocktail with one small, but vital, beverage-bending step.
‘The first match beer I ever had was seven years ago, when I was living in Kyoto,’ begins Ramirez, who spotted the caffeine-rich tipple – made from a rice lager blended with the powder of finely-milled green tea leaves – on the menu at a local tea café. As both a match-lover and a beer fan, Ramirez was intrigued by the drink, and though he enjoyed its bittersweet taste, he felt as though ‘it was lacking some things.’ A couple of years later, he encountered the combination again, and came to the same conclusion.
Ramirez realised ‘the tea company is focused on the taste of tea, and the beer company is focused on the taste of beer – the mistake [they make]is that they add water to [bloom the]matcha,’ which dilutes the beer’s flavour, flattens its carbonation, and reduces the amount it foams. So, he set out to rework the unsung pairing using a method that wouldn’t compromise the brew’s personality – by blending the matcha with beer in place of water.
To make his improved matcha beer, Ramirez adds about an ounce of Echigo – a 5% abv Japanese rice lager – to about two grams of matcha, and whisks the two together to make a type of thick matcha called koicha. He transfers the mixture into a tall pilsner glass, and pours the beer atop, forming a thick head of foam to the glass lip that stays even once the beer has settled. The drink ends up resembling a vibrant green Guinness.
What Is Matcha?
– It’s the finely milled, anti-oxidant-rich powder made from shade-grown green tea leaves
While Ramirez would have ideally liked to build his matcha beer with Yebisu – a heavier-bodied rice lager that’s slightly sharper than Echigo, and one that proper tea shops in Japan use to make the drink – it’s not distributed in the States.
So, instead he picked Echigo because of the beer’s natural sweetness and subtle bitterness, which helps the beverage achieve a ‘layering effect’ between the beer and the matcha, without muddling each component’s individual flavours.
Equally important to the type of beer one uses is the quality and flavour of its complementary matcha. Ramirez sources several top-grade powders from a small farm in Uji, near Kyoto.
And while he retails three types of matcha, priced at $30, $40, and $50 per 30 grams, for the matcha beer he selected a fourth powder that’s slightly more bitter, and offers a sharpness that cuts through, yet still jives with the Echigo.
Ultimately, the imbiber is left with a lightly alcoholic caffeine bomb of a cocktail, one that’s crisp and refreshing, yet charged with a richer body, and imbued with the subtle sweetness of green tea. As one sips the drink, adding more beer along the way, it changes, transitioning from matcha-forward, to beer-forward.
And while matcha beer might sound quite novel, boozy green tea-stained beverages are a current proliferating trend. ‘[W]e enjoy merging our Japanese sensibility with American culture,’ explains bar honcho Toshifumi Mori of his matcha-accented White Russian-inspired Smoked Matcha Cocktail, on offer at newly-minted New York ramen shop, Tonchin. Mori’s rich elixir blends vodka and PX sherry with matcha ice cream. The drink is smoked for 30 seconds, then served.
Meanwhile, Lee Zaremba, beverage director at sleek Chicago newcomer Bellemore, is keen on matcha for the tea’s adaptability. ‘It’s delicate, but lets itself be known,’ states Zaremba, who incorporates matcha into the Phil F’In Collins, a riff on the classic Long Island iced tea. Lemon, carob, and saffron, plus splashes of tequila and gin, mingle with the tea’s sweet-grassy flavor. ‘[T]he matcha acts like bitters, wrapping around the tequila’s minerality and the gin’s botanicals,’ he adds.
Whether colouring beer or cocktails, boozy matcha is a force to be reckoned with. And chances are the UK could very well be next.