Back in August, news hit the World Wide Web that Drake had invested in MatchaBar, a brand of ceremonial-grade matcha tea drinks with a few cafes in New York and Los Angeles.
The company was started by brothers Max and Graham Fortgang five years ago when they decided to start importing better matcha—not the shitty culinary-grade stuff you might have had in a blended coffee-bar drink, but the fancy stuff, with actual health benefits and deep, rich flavours—into the US. The search for high-quality matcha led them to southern Japan.
Super lush Kagoshima sits at the southernmost tip of Japan just a ninety-minute flight from Tokyo. The mountainous prefecture is broken up with valleys of bright yellow-green grids of farmland, and it makes some of the best matcha in Japan. Kagoshima’s edge in the matcha game comes from its climate and from the region’s active volcanoes that creates its mineral-rich soil.
I watch the Fortgang brothers stand behind Kenta Ikeda as he prepares for a matcha tasting in his Kagoshima office. Ikeda is a 10th-grade Chashi, which is sort of like a master blender of tea—but there are only about 13 other people out there who have reached the same baller level in the 65 years the certification has been around.
Ikeda was born to do this job, as in he was literally born in the 70-year-old tea shop his family owns in town. He thinks growing up smelling the roasting tea aromas may have helped him develop his expert nose and palate.
We follow Ikeda’s lead and sip spoonfuls of matcha from each lined up bowl on the tasting table. The teas are arranged by grade ranging from premium to less so, offering a side by side comparison of flavour, colour, and texture. The differences are obvious, which is something the MatchaBar team tries to convey to their customers around the globe.
“We constantly have to tell people that not all matcha is matcha, really,” Max tells me. “It's a hard thing to explain. That sentence is a weird one, but not all matcha is on the same level. Just like wine you can get anything from Two Buck Chuck to spending immense fortunes on bottles of wine. Matcha's the same way.”
In the same way a cognac blender mixes eau de vies from different distilleries to make a consistent final product, Ikeda combines teas from different farms to create MatchaBar’s propriety tea blend that gets sold and served stateside either plain or in concoctions like iced matcha lattes.
Ikeda explains that matcha is so historical and traditional that Japanese people forget about it or think it’s stuffy. The Fortgangs’ interpretation (which they call “Brooklyn-style matcha”) has gone over well in Japan; the brothers have hosted three pop-ups in Tokyo that draw long lines of fans young and old. Japanese farmers are also enthusiastic about the modern matcha movement. With the growing interest in the tea in the United States, farmers in Kagoshima are investing in the future of matcha, shifting their focus away from primarily producing sencha green tea. The verdant, misty hillsides are becoming increasingly populated with new matcha processing factories.
If the Fortgangs have their way, that industry growth will continue. They’re hoping to create a lifestyle brand that helps them “spread a message of better energy.” Graham Fortgang explains, “Better energy isn't just about matcha because it's better for you. It’s about putting better energy out into the world, not being a piece of shit, being a good person, which the world can use a lot of.”
They seem to be on the right track, with three cafes, their bottles in stores across America, and a regular presence at mega millennial events like Coachella. There’s also the support of one Mr. Aubrey Drake Graham.
“This is when the real challenge starts, because we have one of the world's greatest entertainers to make proud,” Graham says.
The next step to making Papa Drake proud will be by tackling a canned matcha energy drink to rival Red Bull’s. The company is developing both sweetened and unsweetened sparkling beverages with 120 milligrams of caffeine (Red Bull has 80).
"Seven ingredients, all natural,” Graham describes it. “We hope that you'll be able to walk into a 7-Eleven and you can put down the Red Bull and grab a matcha. Same format, same look, same feel but using matcha as a source of energy.”
Back in Tokyo at a MatchaBar pop-up, I watch the brothers pose with customers who have braved the wind and rain in the name of Instagram-worthy lattes and matcha-dusted Brooklyn Ribbon Fries. One person took the train three hours to get to the event. Another repeat customer brought the MatchaBar team a cheesecake. As their most famous investor might say, what a time to be alive.