Breaking the Mold
Marin’s Breakaway Matcha Is Bringing Matcha Out of the Formal Teahouse
Noticed certain lattes looking green these days? Matcha, the ground green tea from Japan, has made an electric splash in the foodie world—from soft serve, to pastries, to green tea lattes—and it looks like it’s here to stay.
But Eric Gower has been into matcha since way before it was blowing up your Instagram. The author and chef caught the matcha bug while living in Japan, and since 2010 he’s been sourcing some of the highest-quality stuff for his Marin-based company, Breakaway Matcha. Gower first arrived to Japan via his studies in modern Japanese literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and ended up staying for 16 years. After coming home and being unable to find quality matcha, he decided to bring in his own.
“In Japan, tea is usually had in a formal setting. There is a series of events that are highly choreographed. It’s more about the movement rather than the tea,” he said at his San Anselmo studio. “But I fell in love with the drink itself.”
What Gower is referring to is chanoyu, commonly called Japanese tea ceremony. The highly stylized tradition of preparing and serving matcha blends spiritual and artistic practice, and is intended to evoke self-awareness, respect and harmony. This is how most people have experienced matcha, until now.
Matcha goes back to eighth-century China, where the laborious picking, grinding and consumption of tea played an important role for Zen Buddhists. In the 12th century, an influential Japanese monk brought the practice to Japan, and Japanese Zen Buddhism became forever linked to matcha. By the 16th century, tea growers in the Kyoto region were perfecting the cultivation techniques they still use today. As the tea lost popularity in China, it grew in Japan, expanding beyond monasteries and into the general public.
Matcha comes from the same tea plant most tea comes from, Camellia sinensis. Whether a tea is labeled black, green, oolong or pu-erh all depends on the specific varietal of plant and how it’s prepared after it’s harvested. Like wine or coffee, the taste can greatly depend on where it’s grown and how it’s produced. So, low-quality matcha can taste like a dirty aquarium tank. High-quality bursts with umami (the fifth basic taste, a Japanese term for pleasant, savory taste) and is naturally sweet and chlorophyll-like with a long finish.
In most large-scale industrial production, matcha is made with any kind of ground green tea leaf, including the bitter stems and veins, and ground at a speed that scorches the delicate leaves.
“It should be labeled ‘questionable ground tea,’” joked Gower. “Now in Tokyo there’s a boom with matcha in the culinary world. You can’t walk down the street without being assaulted by a beautiful soft-serve matcha, matcha eclairs, matcha wafers,” said Gower. “But 99% of the matcha out there is intended for culinary applications, it’s intended to go with fat and sweet. The flavor of those matchas holds up under those conditions, but on its own it’s really quite vile.”
Gower sources from small family cooperatives where specific varietals are shade grown, hand harvested, steamed, dried and slowly ground by granite wheels. The tea is ground to order and it takes over an hour to make 30 grams. The cold-brew I drank with him was produced by a family that’s been doing it for 23 generations.
For the same reasons matcha is all the rage now, Zen monasteries have been enjoying it for centuries. Matcha has somewhere between a sixth and a fifth of the caffeine of coffee, but because of its other components (including antioxidants and phytonutrients), it’s absorbed into the body in a way that makes the high smoother than a typical caffeine high. Drinkers report being calm but alert with no caffeine crash, perfect for activities like meditation.
The tea also has a handful of notable health benefits (although, unfortunately, they probably don’t transfer to a matcha cupcake). Matcha has extremely high levels of phytonutrients and antioxidants, which act as anti-inflammatory and antiviral agents in the body. Because matcha bushes are grown partially shaded from sunlight, there’s greater chlorophyll production (helping to create that vibrant green), which health gurus claim helps detoxify the blood and creates alkalinity. And, unlike other green teas, you’re taking in more nutrients because you’re actually eating the tea leaves versus steeping the leaves and tossing them out.
When Gower and I share a cup, he tries to avoid discussing the health benefits of matcha, arguing that the drink should speak for itself from a purely epicurean standpoint. And he’s built his business on carefully sourced, refined, almost ethereal matcha aligned with the ethos of Northern California’s food scene. His first commercial client was the French Laundry, and he’s developed matcha programs at restaurants like Saison and Benu, and many other of our area’s most acclaimed restaurants. Breakaway Matcha now has over nine blends of hyper-premium matcha, a cold brew, a culinary-grade and a curated selection of ceramic accessories. Business has grown 100% every year, according to Gower.
Christy Bartlett, director of the San Francisco Urasenke Foundation, which provides learning opportunities for people to experience and learn about chanoyu (the tea ceremony), said that she hopes that the Bay Area’s growing interest in matcha will trickle down to an interest in Japanese tea culture.
“I think it’s great that people are enjoying the flavors and colors of tea and I hope that it will bring more and higher quality [matcha] into the U.S.,” she said. “And I hope that more people will become aware of not only how delicious it is, but also how it can enrich their quality of life, as well.”
In a way, Breakaway Matcha is a natural progression for Gower, a self-taught chef and former San Francisco Chronicle columnist whose successful cookbook career is based on no-fuss weeknight meals combining local produce and global flavors. His recipes are heavy on Japanese ingredients and techniques, light on dishes considered traditional. One could easily argue that he’s appropriating elements of Japanese culture, but he says enjoying matcha unattached from chanoyu offers drinkers the opportunity to create new personal traditions versus replicating a profound cultural practice.
“The tendency to replicate the Japanese tea ceremony is strong and the marketing used by a lot of these matcha companies always presents Japan as this mystical or esoteric or zen place. It presents the Japanese as another, as an exotic species. It’s kind of orientalism,” he said. “Matcha is a product that needs new expression when it leaves the homeland. So, why not give it a California expression?”
HOW TO SPOT HIGH-QUALITY MATCHA
Want to buy matcha but not sure what to look for? Here’s what the experts say:
You want a brilliant, electric, almost hallucinogenic bright green. Nothing dull or yellow.
It should be finely ground to a powder so that it's smooth and creamy. If you throw a pinch on some paper and draw a line with your finger, it should stain the paper like pigment.
Umami! It should pop with the fifth taste, literally translated from Japanese to savory, pleasant taste. Think about good broth, kombu and mushrooms.
Matcha should linger like a complex wine, and you should be able to feel it in your mouth for a few minutes after sipping.