COFFEE COULD BE about to lose its centuries-old hold on Western society in favour of a strange green liquid from east Asia.
It doesn’t really sound like something that the Irish would be into. We like a nice cup of tea, maybe a coffee for some, and view strange flavoured blends with suspicion and skepticism, branding them as ‘notions’.
Despite that, and after being mainly relegated to the shelves of health food shops during the recession, a drink dubbed ‘green cocaine’ by food blog Lovin’ Dublin is starting to gain a foothold on the Irish market
Matcha is a strain of high-quality and pricey green tea, grown partially in darkness before it is harvested, and was originally used in tea ceremonies by Zen Buddhist monks who valued its unusual properties.
It provides an energy boost of up to six hours in a similar but less intense way to caffeinated drinks, with less jitters and no crash. As it contains a large amount of an amino acid known as l-theanine, it also focuses and calms the mind.
Because of this ability to energise the body but calm and concentrate the mind, the aforementioned monks were mad for it.
In Japan today, matcha is used as a flavouring in everything from ice cream to Kit Kats, occasionally in traditional tea ceremonies, although natives will stick to more common blends of green tea for day-to-day drinking.
Needless to say, other cultures are getting in on the act, as it was ripe to tap into the busy modern world’s craving for health, fitness, and energy. You can now get matcha lattes in cafes like Starbucks, and is attracting more casual drinkers.
One cafe in Dublin, Kaph on Drury Street, is now selling 300 matcha lattes a week, and occasionally one in 10 drinks sold every morning could be matcha.
“There’s definitely a curiosity factor involved,” manager Chris Keegan said.
“You have people coming in and seeing a poster about it pinned up beside the counter and saying ‘Hey, I’ve read about this stuff, what is it like?’ We also serve some paleo foods, and that seems to attract a whole group who are also into it.”
Around the corner is health food shop Nutri in George’s Street Arcade, who have seen sales increasing since 2013.
“You also find that people will start on the weakest blend, then come back for the next one up, and so on,” owner Mark Cullen said.
Now, 2014 looks to be matcha’s year.
“Everything is really starting to kick off,” Kevin O’Keeffe told TheJournal.ie.
His 3-man Irish company, Koyu Matcha Tea, first starting selling the tea in 2008, and were one of the few, if not the first, to import it for the UK and Irish market.
Since then, the company has become one of the manufactures of choice for health and fine food shops across the British Isles, and has started exporting to Malta and Kuwait. They even have their sights set on Scandinavia.
Koyu sell the tea in a small tin, advising that it can be drunk with hot water, juice, or milk, and even added as a powder to cereal or yogurt.
“I lived in Japan for six years and learned that the Japanese were obsessed with two things: – a brand of insanely good doughnuts, and matcha lattes,” O’Keeffe said.
“Every ex-pat I knew was addicted to the stuff. When I started to look into it, I discovered the health benefits… that blew me away and it was a no-brainer to try to start selling it here.”
Those health effects is what first caused a buzz about the drink. It has risen to popularity since mid-2012 on the back of reports that aside from giving you a calm buzz, it has strikingly high amounts of antioxidants.
One study has put this figure at 137 times the amount found in a cup of regular green tea.
“With all nutrients, you can ingest too much, that is why we have safe upper limits for nutrients. However, there is no set upper or lower limit for EGCG, the antioxidant in this tea, .”
These differences in health benefits between it and normal green tea are thought to be due to it being a powdered green tea leaf – which is consumed – instead of simply a leaf steeped in water.
“This will increase the amount of nutrition you will be getting from your cup of tea,” Walsh said, “including vitamins, mineral and fibre.”
“Four grams of fibre per mug is good considering the aim is for 24 grams of fibre per day. However, a single food won’t supply you with all the nutrition that you require, so variation is still key.”
Others have claimed that the drink results in weight loss, although Walsh said it is unlikely to provide this effect.
The tea is also reportedly a way of reducing stress and anxiety dramatically, something already linked with the amino acid l-thanine found in green tea.
A study published in science journal Biological Psychology found this to have “anti-stress effects” – oh, and by Bressie as well.
TheJournal.ie sampled matcha in a couple of forms. A small amount was whisked in cold water, before being topped up warm water and a couple of teaspoons of sugar, it tasted like a strong green tea, nothing too unpleasant despite its radioactive green appearance.
The latte wasn’t quite to our taste, and was an experience that reminded us of a trip to the seaside – tastes of seaweed, salt water, a bit of sand, but none the less was oddly refreshing and and almost satisfying.
Both resulted in a coffee-like buzz, but more calm and focused – similar to a good night’s sleep.
Working out as roughly 80 cent per cup, it is on the dear side, but still cheaper than most take-away drinks.
We survived the experience, but who should be careful?
“It may not be advisable to people who are very sensitive to caffeine, if you have IBS, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, or are pregnant,” Orla Walsh said.
“I would suggest, if someone wishes to try this tea, to start on half a cup in the morning, and to watch out for any adverse symptoms. I would not recommend having more than one cup per day.”
While this growing for matcha could prove to be a passing fad, it appears as though there is some truth to the drinks health benefits and coffee-like effects.
“People are reporting incredible results to us in testimonials they submit to us,” O’Keeffe said, “Some are even claiming it has changed their life by giving them a lot more energy.
“Some even say it has helped them when recovering from long-term or serious illnesses. Others used is a hangover cure, mixing it with some orange juice before they go to bed.”
Right now, O’Keeffe’s company is working on more variations of matcha. It could be taking a further hold on Irish tea drinkers in the months to come.
Originally published 6.30pm