Contributor Alexa Toguri-Laurin shares how the recent saying “matcha tastes like grass” divides tea and coffee lovers and critiques poor matcha production.

“Matcha tastes like grass” has been ringing in my ears for the past three months and made me ponder people’s perception of Japanese tea culture. With matcha whipped up in trendy cafés to be stacked on grocery store shelves, the mass commodification of matcha and poor preparation of the tea leaves a bitter taste in people’s mouths. So, has the significance of matcha been watered down?

Growing up Nikkei Canadian, tea culture helped me connect with my Japanese heritage. My mother participated in chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), to embrace her roots and pass down Japanese culture to me and my siblings. She kept equipment from her training to reminisce. The Montreal Botanical garden reached out to her Urasenke teacher to host tea ceremonies and acquaint Montrealers with Japanese culture, while tuning in with nature.

Chanoyu emphasizes creating a meditative experience and being present in one’s environment. In the end, it’s all about drinking tea. I’d rather make my own matcha and watch Netflix than sit through three hours on your knees. However, the symbolism behind consuming matcha adds insight into our experiences in life: the good, the bad, and the hairy.

Before drinking the tea, guests are served with wagashi (design and flavour must be appropriate for the season), which prepares the taste buds for the bitter tea. The fragrant bitterness of the tea symbolizes the bitter challenges one faces in life. After drinking the tea, guests bow in respect to their host. The philosophy of bittersweetness in the tea ceremony reflects the positive and negative experiences one faces in life; we must face what is coming for us with grace, dignity and respect. 

From my mother’s Uransenke training, I didn’t realize how matcha possesses this much philosophy. 

With the growing popularity of matcha filling cups and grocery shelves worldwide, due to their distinct colour, unique flavor and health benefits, most people aren’t too fond of the tea. For one, the main flavour profile of matcha is its bitter, grassy taste. Hence the term: “Matcha tastes like grass.”

In addition, preparing matcha is labour-intensive and expensive. Buying essential equipment and ceremonial-grade matcha is costly, followed by heating water (and not boiling it), sifting the matcha powder and whisking it ferociously. Prepackaged and culinary-grade matcha is preferred due to its price range and practicality. 

From experience, what you see and what you get are two different things when it comes to preparing generic, store-bought matcha. Some of the matchas I’ve tasted were hit-or-miss. Some of them looked like swamp water and had a fishy aftertaste. 

Don’t get me started with cafés preparing matcha to hop on the trend. Besides, anything “Japanese-inspired” is a selling point now. Some baristas whisk the matcha, dump foamy milk on it and hope for the best. One of my friends ordered a matcha latte in a hipster café that tasted like straight-up dirt.

Where’s the flavour? Where’s the depth? I’m not a barista, but how could you mess up matcha and expect people to enjoy it?

In defense of people dissing matcha, I believe there’s a cultural basis for the strong dislike for the tea. For one, growing up in a coffee culture like Canada contributes to favouritism of one beverage over another. 

Most Canadians prefer a coffee-based beverage to get them through the daily grind of work, or school. Maybe their taste buds are more accustomed to the comforting taste of coffee. In fact, 71 per cent of Canadians drink coffee, whereas 45 per cent prefer tea. In 2023, Canada imported 15.6 million kilograms of coffee.

Tim Hortons, a prominent coffee/fast-food restaurant chain, is a go-to place to grab a coffee or pick up some TimBits for a birthday party. There are over 5,000 stores across Canada, making coffee accessible for anyone. Tim’s is also a sponsor of hockey games (despite the Hockey Canada controversy) and collaborated with Canadian celebrities like Justin Beiber.

The phrase: “The Ice Capp machine is broken,” pisses off many Canadians, including myself.

Coffee has a more robust flavour than the generic matcha prepared in cafés. It provides a jolt of energy to power through the day, whereas matcha has a relaxing yet stimulating sensation. Thus, coffee has more zing to it.

With the demographic preference and high consumption of coffee, maybe people’s taste buds are more accustomed to the comforting taste of coffee instead of matcha. Plus, tasting and describing a different drink feels weird for some people. 

The majority of food publications I frequent describe matcha’s flavour as “grassy.” The chlorophyll, catechins and tannins in the matcha give the tea’s earthy taste that the majority of people aren’t used to. 

Despite the technicalities of creating the ultimate cup of tea, matcha is an integral element in Japanese culture, gastronomy and philosophy. 

Photo by Matcha & CO on Unsplash

I’m not a tea expert or a barista, so don’t slice my head off. I also don’t know the ins and outs of the tea-making process of matcha and the global tea market. I genuinely dislike how many people can disregard the cultural significance of matcha and degrade it. 

With the commercialization of matcha-based products creating an unpleasant experience for consumers and finding a place in a coffee-dependent society, the more resistant people are willing to try the deliciousness of matcha and enjoy Japanese culture. 

Matcha tastes like grass ‘cause it’s from a plant, dumbass. What did you want it to taste like? 

Photo by Payoon Gerinto on Unsplash

Whining aside, people are allowed to drink what they want and it shouldn’t be a crime. Even critiquing a beverage shouldn’t be perceived as culturally ignorant. However, calling a culturally significant drink “grassy” discards the history and symbolism behind it, just because companies and cafés do a horrible job at preparing it. It’s like saying coffee tastes like tar while discarding the role coffee fostered in intellectual movements and creating third-spaces. 

There’s not much I can do to persuade people to enjoy the richness of matcha, maybe a tea ceremony might change their mind. 

Your matcha tastes like grass because it’s poorly made

Contributor Alexa Toguri-Laurin shares how the recent saying “matcha tastes like grass” divides tea and coffee lovers and critiques poor matcha production.

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