On a chilled Sunday morning in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the streets were just beginning to rustle with tired feet tiptoeing into cafés and bakeries. As I turned the corner onto Wythe Avenue, I came face-to-face with a whitewashed brick front tucked between two gray buildings with freshly painted murals. The white front seemed to light up the street as it quietly drew me into MatchaBar, serving the traditional Japanese green tea made of tencha leaves that are thoughtfully grown, harvested, and ground into a fine powder.
Only a few feet into the MatchaBar, I instantly felt both energized and calmed with just one glance at the interior of the space. I was grounded by the sense of nature that the woodwork of the bar and communal table offered, that was then balanced by the green glow from neon lighting within a large clock and exposed bulbs that illuminated the menu. The deeply saturated green wallpaper seemed as if it was growing against the walls, the illustrated leaves and flowers almost looked as though they might begin to extend a vine in my direction.
Arriving just minutes after they opened their doors, I watched freshly baked canelés still nestled within their bakers box receive a dusting of matcha . The green flurry left a faint hint of tea powder in the air as Graham Fortgang, co-founder of MatchaBar, energetically greeted me. As he continued to hustle behind the bar performing the dance of the morning opening routine, I peered at the expansive menu featuring a single tea carefully crafted into a series of sips. For the purists, a matcha shot, matcha tea, or iced matcha. For those who seek something more comforting, a matcha latte or cinnamon hemp milk matcha latte. And then to help ease espresso lovers, matchaccino, and matchiatto. Juice lovers can rejoice over iced matcha mixed with watermelon and cucumber. One can easily tell that this is just a glimmer of the menu that will be gracing the walls within the bar. Pastries given a green tea twist linger within the baked goods display. Tins of both classic and premium grade matcha branded with the green MatchaBar logo line a refrigerated shelf so that customers can take the experience home with them.
The city that never sleeps seems like the perfect fit to transform a traditional Japanese tea into a modern day morning ritual.
Quite familiar with the traditional matcha sip, having made one at home that morning, I asked Graham to pick two favorites from the menu. Within minutes I was presented with a warm cup of matcha mixed with hemp milk and cinnamon and a tall iced glass of matcha blended with cucumber. The hemp milk aligned with the earthy, savory, umami notes of matcha while the cinnamon offered just a hint of subtle sweetness to round it all out. One could imagine curling up with this comforting sip on a crisp morning. The chilled cucumber sip was instantly refreshing and played upon the subtle grassy notes of the green tea (the cure for an overheated home or a hot day).
Meeting me at the wooden communal table set under the glowing neon lights of the clock, Graham enthusiastically shared what inspired him and his brother, Max, to bring this bar to Brooklyn. Throughout the course of two years, Max and Graham would meet each morning over a cup of matcha in the east village. Graham shared stories of carrying a thermos of matcha to keep him energized while working late at night. He would become known for the green tea sip among his friends who would regularly request a cup whenever they visited his home. Inspired by the way they felt after cups of this traditional Japanese green tea, Max and Graham realized that they needed to bring this experience and the matcha state of mind to New York.
The hemp milk aligned with the earthy, savory, umami notes of matcha while the cinnamon offered just a hint of subtle sweetness.
Charged with uplifting and motivating (their tagline) the New York City crowd, they hope to inspire a new way to caffeinate with a healthy dose of matcha’s antioxidants by ingesting the green tea leaves that are ground into the fine powder. Beyond the wholesome body and mind experience, Graham noted the green tea offers an energy boost without the coffee crash that could “fuel the New York hustle.” Considering that New York is known for welcoming and whole heartedly embracing new flavors and cultures, this city that never sleeps seems like the perfect fit to transform a traditional Japanese tea into a modern day morning ritual.
Inspired to be authorities on matcha and educate customers about the tea, Max and Graham travelled to Nishio, Japan after connecting with a fifth-generation farm that agreed to supply them the tea they needed for their new venture. Visiting the farm during late spring, Max and Graham were able to experience a tencha green tea harvest and the process of finely grinding the tea leaves with stone mills into matcha green tea powder. Graham fondly recalled moments of picking leaves with Japanese women who were laughing and singing, almost infusing the fresh leaves with a sense of joy that travels all the way to the finished cup. To contrast this traditional scene, Graham dreamed of a process to modernize the ceremonial way of mixing the green tea into the water with a bamboo whisk. While the brothers initially looked to the delicate, handheld aero latte mixers (that they sell at the bar), Graham awoke from a dream where he was mixing matcha with a milkshake machine. Offering a more powerful whirl, he noted that electric milkshake machines create a more consistent sip with less settling of ground matcha. This modern approach does not detract from the pure tea experience, as they don’t sweeten the tea behind the bar, encouraging you to taste as much as the true tea flavor (although they do offer a small sweetening station for those who insist on satisfying their sweet tooth).
Moments before Graham excused him self to begin greeting the flock of customers making their way into the MatchaBar, he shared that he was passionate about educating New Yorkers regarding the history, purpose, and pure flavor of matcha. He had sincerity in his eyes and exuded the positive energy bursting within the walls of the bar. He noted a sense of responsibility in sharing the matcha experience, which was evident minutes later as he introduced newcomers to the green tea, easing them in with the idea that MatchaBar was similar to an espresso bar before happily defining the green tea and pointing to the concoctions on the menu behind him. Within ten minutes, he repeated this mantra to five different customers and greeted them with the same enthusiasm. As I sipped the last of my matcha infusions, I peered around the space, taking in the quiet energy that revived the spirit but never sent you into overdrive.
MatchaBar’s uplifting calm was infectious. Max and Graham have plans to spread the joy with bottled matcha hopefully hitting shelves throughout New York this spring and a possible West Coast location. Before making my way out of the bar, I saw the menu held the phrase, “Every Morning since 2014.” I hope this fall leads a to a fulfilling adventure fueled by the history that matcha green tea carries with it.
—Story and photos by Alexis Siemons, tea writer and consultant. Alexis blogs about her steeped adventures at teaspoonsandpetals.com.