Even the most cursory inquiry into the literature on matcha will bring up a reference to the basic two traditional Japanese styles of matcha preparation: usucha (“thin tea,” literally translated) and koicha (“thick tea”). We’ll first describe the traditional meanings of these, then serve up a blending of the two.
The basic idea is that higher grades of matcha — by which we mean more vibrant color, loads of natural sweetness, maximum umami, and very long finish — should be used to make thicker/denser/stronger tea, and that lesser grades are good only for thinner/weaker tea. Another distinction made by tea teachers is that usucha is typically made from the leaves of tea bushes that are less than 30 years old, and koicha is made from the first harvest of plants that are a minimum of 30 years old.
Moreover, preparation methods for koicha and usucha are very different. For koicha, as much as four grams (two teaspoons) of matcha are used, roughly four times the typical one-gram serving for usucha.
Water quantity differs, too: koicha uses far less water (less than a single ounce) than usucha, which can use three or four ounces of water. As one can imagine, koicha preparation requires a very high quality matcha, or it’s going to taste unpleasant. Using culinary matcha, or even many of the “ceremonial” grades available commercially, in four times the normal strength AND using less than half the normal hot water quantity will result in a treacly, mud-like sludge.
Preparation of the two styles is couldn’t be more different. For usucha, one typically uses the traditional Japanese bamboo whisk (though breakaway souls love to experiment with electric whisks/milk frothers) to create a nice head of crema, which beautifully shows off the brilliant color of the tea. Koicha, in stark contrast, doesn’t have any crema at all. One “massages” the large quantity of tea with the bamboo whisk and a few drops of hot water, then incorporates a tiny bit more water, perhaps a tablespoon at most, which reheats the tea and makes it more viscous. The final viscosity of koicha is something like that of warm honey or melted chocolate. The viscosity of usucha is something like an espresso or perhaps a macchiato.
Here at Breakaway Matcha we find this entire koicha/usucha fixation confusing. Why does it have to be one or the other? There can be, should be, and are GRADES of thickness/viscosity. Koicha is edgy and challenging; it’s very, very intense in a very good way when made with worldclass matcha, and intensely unpleasant when made with subpar matcha. One has to have a rather wide-open mind to drink tea in this fashion. It’s hard to imagine drinking it regularly, during the workday kind of thing. Not likely to catch fire with the masses! There are probably a few hundred people worldwide who drink koicha on a daily basis, maybe as few as a few dozen.
We find that the sweet spot of matcha is something in between. We especially love making thick cups of Blends 97 and 100 in our creamers (designed in house, and handmade locally in Sonoma County), and then pouring them into our cups, which wind up looking something like this when served:
So the real “sweet spot” for matcha is somewhere in between thick and thin. But if a thicker cup of matcha, like the one shown above, can’t be made from the matcha you’re drinking, because the result is unpleasantly bitter and even downright nasty, you’re drinking the wrong matcha. Add some fat and sugar to this matcha and bake with it, make a smoothie or latte out of it! But don’t drink it straight up.
It’s not like we must adhere to this Manichean choice of thick versus thin. None of it matters if you use good matcha. Make your cup of matcha with a single gram of matcha, or, if you really want to let your hair down, use two. If you happen to like your tea on the stronger side, use a little less water. If you’d rather something less intense, just add hot water! And you’ll wind up with your personalized, perfect cup of matcha. The key is to never bother using a lesser grade of matcha, and none of these koicha/usucha distinctions will matter.