Matcha is a big deal. The powerful green powder has even die-hard coffee drinkers making the occasional tea detour.
If you’re David Lau, co-owner of Asha Tea House, matcha is a serious business that requires strong relationships with farmers and tea processors, plus a little barista magic. Luckily, Asha has hired 5 top-notch baristas through Localwise who help make their matcha magic happen.
As you might imagine, making the best matcha latte ever starts with the best tea ever. Asha Tea House sources their matcha from Japan, where there’s a well-regulated system around growing tea. David and wife, Diana, favor teas that are grown organically and sustainably.
“We want to make sure that the fertilizer [farmers are] using is natural and for the most part they’re good about it.” Each Japanese city they work with has an agricultural branch that provides farmers with research and info about fertilizers and pesticides that are best for the region. “And they also sell them to the farmers, so it’s very well organized,” David adds.
Taste is a major factor, too. Similar to wine, the flavor profile of teas changes by region and by the year. David says they ended up going with Japanese matcha because the Japanese factories are excellent at blending the tea so there is consistency.
“They’ve mastered the art of taking a little bit of this, a little bit of that and blending it all together,” David explains. “So even if the harvest isn’t as good, they can still get close to their target flavor — that’s the main advantage.”
This kind of precise blending also means that factories are familiar with the tea they’re processing and have built solid ties with farmers. “They don’t mind showing us around and introducing [us to the farmers],” says David. “It’s an unspoken rule that the farmers work exclusively with the factory.”
Refining the tea so that it ends up as a bright, beautiful green in your cup is quite involved. After the leaves are picked, it goes to a crude tea processing factory where it’s steamed and dried, and then roughly chopped.
“That step preserves them for the time being,” David adds. Because matcha only has a shelf life of about six months, the tea is ground as it’s needed.
Grinding the tea
The grind is what distinguishes a super classy matcha from a more casual one. Many factories still use stone mills made of two large pieces of granite. David describes the process for ceremonial grade tea.
“They carve these lines in the middle and it just rotates – and that’s how they do it still. Not by hand, but a mechanical arm that moves it constantly. The line is run 24/7 because it takes one hour for 40 grams.”
For those who don’t have that kind of time, there is standard grade matcha, which is generally ground by ball mills grinders at a rate ten times faster than ceremonial grade.
“The only thing is that the faster you make it, the hotter it gets and the powder doesn’t get as fine,” David explains. “All tea is sensitive to light and heat, but matcha especially because you grind it so fine. It’s not just the leaf getting exposed, it’s all these tiny particles getting exposed.”
And it's precisely that perfect blend of finely ground powder that allows for Asha's perfect handmade creation. Using the bamboo whisk (chasen), David mixes this delicate blend in warm water with just the right amount of air, which creates a mixture with a light, foamy froth on top.
Using his own expertise about flavor and the American palate, David took into account his patron's preferences and decided on the powder manufactured in Nishio, one of two main matcha regions in Japan.
While Uji is the traditional birthplace of matcha and tends to impart a very subtle, light, clean taste, David wasn’t convinced it was quite right for his shop.
“Nishio,” David shares, “produces a stronger, more savory powder—a flavor we think is a bit better for the lattes. We use quite a bit so that it retains a bold flavor — with a lot of caffeine!" he adds with a wink.
And like that, with just a drop of milk — either hot or cold — the matcha latte comes to life.
Why open Asha Tea House?
Originally David started Asha Tea House because he wanted to create a relaxed environment where people could easily access and learn about tea like they do with coffee.
“I spent about a year in Taiwan and China and got exposed to a lot of tea houses there. I drank different kinds of tea,” he says. But when he returned, David realized there weren’t many approachable places where anyone could get a cup of really good tea and talk to somebody about buying tea as a gift.
"We wanted to offer something that was truly stable, high-quality, reliable, and accessible to the public.”
Working at Asha
With a carefully curated team of baristas who could match their vision of creating the perfect matcha latte, he and his wife set off to open Asha Tea House, which now proudly serves downtown Berkeley and San Francisco.
If you want to make or taste the best matcha latte ever, don’t be intimidated. See if Asha is hiring or visit David & Diana for a matcha latte that’s both approachable and superlative. Now that's a matcha made in heaven.