Words by Louisa Martin
Photos by Gracie Walker and Annie Strawn
Have you ever had matcha? I have. Many times...since last month. Fine, I tasted a matcha latte for the first time a month ago. Color me intrigued! Like all initial crushes, he seemed perfect. The color, the milkiness, the controversy of flavor. I had to know more about Mr. Match.
My mission was simple: taste matcha in the city I call home: Birmingham, Alabama. What I lack in experience, expertise and knowledge, I make up for in the ability to call myself a matcha critic with little remorse. Let’s go!
First stop, Filter Coffee Parlor in Five Points South. Their firmest recommendation was sifting the matcha powder first. After some sifting, they add boiling water and take a thin bamboo whisk and combine the two into a frothy liquid. The combination of the sifting and paper thin whisk prongs create a clump free latte.
There was one question I asked at each stop on the tour: could matcha ever serve as a caffeine replacement to coffee? Oh, how I delighted in watching the Birmingham coffee elite squirm at the thought of a coffee free universe.
Filter didn’t seem to be phased by my question. They mostly identified the differences between the caffeine rush and jitters that coffee provides. Matcha is more of a gradual energy boost that might not rescue the midnight studier. Noted. Next stop!
Next we (my friends Stephen, Gracie, and Annie came as back up) walked around the corner to another Five Points South spot, Panache by Domestique. I opted for a hot latte as opposed to my trusty iced, for the sake of research. Domestique used a whisking method (although not bamboo). I was impressed by the latte art but should have taken them up on the offer to have it sweetened by vanilla syrup. I appreciate their response to my caffeine question. No! The caffeine from coffee could not be replaced (it’s just not the same boost), says them.
Our last stop downtown was Revelator. With the addition of their house made vanilla syrup, this was the sweetest of the tour. When asked the question, the barista seemed hopeful about matcha’s health benefits motivating the switch for some. No one seemed to be buying into the caffeine drama I sought, but I digress.
In Homewood, we visited Red Pearl Restaurant connected to Super Oriental Market. We ordered at the bar and then had maybe too much fun walking the aisles to check out the colorful selection of Chinese and Japanese groceries. They prepared their version Mary Poppins style, with a spoonful of matcha and a spoonful of sugar. It was served like bubble tea, with tapioca balls at the bottom (not my favorite, but Stephen loved).
I was a little too distracted with the wonderland grocery and forgot to ask about their caffeine stance. Considering coffee is not on their menu, I will take the liberty to assume it is not something they considered. Two more to go!
Caveat was the second and final Homewood stop. I have had their matcha before and typically have it sweetened with honey. Rather than the traditional whisking method, I noticed they used a mortar and pestle to combine the honey, matcha powder, and hot water. It was extra sweet and photographed well (see cover photo)! When asked, barista resolved that she did not think matcha could replace coffee because of its lack of versatility compared to coffee. Almost done!
Our final stop was Innova in Vestavia Hills. Because it is located in an apartment building lobby, this spot could fly under your radar, but they do have a pretty stellar menu. Their preparation method was a bit more traditional. They sifted the powder and used a bamboo whisk. One thing is for sure, Innova’s matcha won my favorite shade of green. It had a more mild flavor than some of its competitors, but I had already tried five other lattes at that point so don’t take my word for it.
When asked if matcha could dominate coffee, their reasoning was to mention how methodical the matcha process was. Brewing a pot of coffee in the morning or even making your own pour over requires less steps and provides more caffeine. Matcha does have notable health benefits but could be categorized as a more specialty drink.
Can matcha replace your morning coffee? 4.5 out of 6 Birmingham baristas say no, but make your own decision. Take my research with a grain of salt. Or should I say, matcha?