Here’s some exciting tea news from the motherland (Japan)! Earlier this month, the world’s only Matcha Latte Art Competition was held in Tokyo’s famous Harajuku district, at a community cafe-style space that brings together coffee, technology and design called Dotcom Space.
Hosted by Saten Japanese Tea, CafeSnap and Chashigoto, the intention behind this annual competition is to widely promote the craft, stories, deliciousness and beauty of Japanese tea. But why, matcha latte art?, you may wonder. On the one hand, while “Japanese tea” symbolizes the history and culture of Japan, having an essential presence in the lives of Japanese people, with connotations of a formal, ceremonial drink that has limited accessibility. For many people, this also means they have very limited interest in such an antiquated, time consuming, formality. On a positive note, in the last few years, more cafes and stands that specialize in Japanese tea have opened, especially in major cities, bringing potential to a cup of tea being casually enjoyed in public space, just like coffee.
A snapshot of one of the very rare occasions where I ordered a matcha latte at a cozy coffee shop in Pennsylvania. I usually don't succumb to matcha drinks outside Japan but I remember it felt fitting with the beautiful white snow outside...
Moreover, matcha has been attracting attention domestically and internationally, and is now available at many cafes, restaurants and even in bakeries. Beautiful matcha Christmas cakes are already being promoted in Japan for example, and where I reside (Southern France), I’ve noticed lately some boulangeries even have matcha cookies! Although tea farmers and the tea industry as a whole worry about the continuous decline in domestic loose leaf tea consumption and overall green tea demand, matcha and its’ latte art may offer some light, attracting interest from both the younger generations and overseas audience.
Don't be surprised however, if you’ve never heard of the competition. The Matcha Latte Art Competition is still rather young, with the very first competition being held in the year 2018. In fact, although it claims to be the world’s only matcha latte competition, it is still a very domestic event. The competitors are all Japanese, representing not countries, but often, well-known cafés. This year marked the 5th competition, with a record number of 62 entrees and 8 finalists, including last year (2021)’s winner Yuki Matsumoto, who returned for the finalist round.
In this competition, the baristas are required to “free pour” — that is, without the reliance on machinery (no stencils/frothing), making the latte art from the simple act of pouring the steamed milk from pitcher to cup. This means that the competition relies more heavily on the baristas’s technical skills and ability to make the delicate latte art. All competitors receive a specified amount of water as well as this year’s award-winning, top-scoring matcha from Seicha Tsujiki (Uji Shirakawa), winner of the Prime Minister’s Award and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister’s Award in the tencha division.
One neat aspect of this event is that the baristas are free to make matcha however they see fit. There is no need to follow the strict rules from the traditional tea ceremony schools, which makes the process of whisking/making the matcha more accessible (and perhaps, less intimidating) to the competitors as well as the general public.
The Delicacy of Matcha Latte Art
Perhaps, one may think that if a barista can make beautiful espresso latte art, making matcha latte art is a piece of cake. In terms of making a latte however, the two drinks differ with respect to their densities, ability to stay in suspension, foaminess, acidity, oil content and of course color, all of which influence the latte art. It is essential then, for the barista to be aware of how these characteristics influence how the steamed milk will react when poured into the matcha or espresso. In the process of making matcha, one can freely vary the thickness of matcha by how much matcha powder and water is utilized. The higher the powder to water ratio, the thicker the matcha. In the traditional tea ceremony, they even distinguish between a koicha (thick matcha) and usucha (thin matcha). While this ratio is similar to the brew ratio, espresso differs in that it contains oil and crema, the layer of foam which enriches the espresso.
The matcha latte art is judged across four aspects utilizing similar criteria to latte art:
1) The beauty of its appearance
3) The expressiveness of its color
4) Creativity and complexity
The organizers do note that in the future, they would like to include an aspect which includes the taste of the matcha latte itself. While I am no expert with respect to latte competitions (and there are several in the world!), apparently the Japanese matcha latte art competition is pretty unique in that the spectators are able to be as close as possible to the baristas. Real time videos of the latte art being made is also provided on screens. Further, thanks to Japanese baristas who have consistently performed at the top in the International Latte Art championship (e.g., claiming two international victories), this competition is enriched by the participation of top baristas who serve as judges, who are held responsible for scoring the latte art. After the 8 finalists are selected, the competitors face each other in a 1vs. 1 tournament. So that more people can directly experience the excitement of Japanese tea, the spectators at the event help select the champion matcha artist in the final round!
This year's champion was Yuki Ando (whose winning matcha latte art is depicted above) who owns coffee shop Connect Coffee and the semi-champion was barista Jun Sakaguchi. You can take a closer look at their latte art on their instagram accounts: @andyandori and @jun_sakaguchi . Just be careful not to get too sucked in, admiring their extraordinary talents!
The featured image was utilized with permission from the organizers of the Matcha Latte Art Competition (Photo by Junmaru Sayama). Check out more photos from this year’s competition and stay tuned for the next by following their Instagram account...