In our Intro to Koicha guide, we introduced this richer form of matcha and presented a quick and easy method for making it in a way that is ideal for koicha beginners. Here, we'll take a deeper dive into koicha's place in chanoyu and give you a more advanced way to prepare it.
Koicha in Chanoyu
While you may associate a Japanese tea ceremony with a classic bowl of foamy usucha it is koicha, rather than usucha, that is the highlight of a full chaji (茶事 - formal tea gathering). The highest grades of tea are reserved for making koicha, and are presented in the tea room in elegant ceramic vessels called chaire (茶入) kept in a decorative silk brocade pouch or shifuku (仕覆). In fact, some schools of chanoyu don’t even call usucha tea, reserving the term ocha (お茶 - tea) exclusively for koicha.
The koicha temae, or the preparation of koicha, is the central moment of a tea gathering, where the atmosphere is at its most serene. The charcoal in the stove has come to the perfect temperature, the gentle sweetness of wagashi lingers on the guests’ palettes, and all are silent as the host pours all of their being into one bowl of tea. This bowl of tea contains enough koicha for all the guests to have three mouthfuls of tea, with each guest wiping the rim of the bowl after they drink from it before passing it to the next guest.
Compared to the usucha temae, there are generally a few main differences. In the tokonoma (床の間 - alcove), the hanging scroll is replaced with a simple flower arrangement. In terms of utensils, the matcha is presented in a ceramic chaire rather than a lacquer natsume. Additionally, the chawan will be plainer and humbler, without any paintings or decorations that distract from the tea. When presented to the guests, the chawan is offered with a dashibukusa/shikibukusa (出帛紗/敷帛紗), an ornate silk cloth used to protect the bowl.
How to Make Koicha - Chanoyu Method
Koicha ni wa yu kagen atsuku fuku wa nao awa naki yoni katamari mo naku
When making koicha, ensure that the water is hot and that there is no foam and no lumps.
This centuries old poem lays down the three main aspects of a well-made bowl of koicha:
- It is hot
- There is no foam
- There are no lumps
Each point requires a different parameter to be performed well:
- The water is hot enough and the host does not take too long to knead the tea
- The ratio of tea to water is not too low that foam forms
- The tea is properly sifted and well-kneaded
As always, the main challenge when kneading koicha is achieving this smooth and thick consistency without taking so long that the tea gets cold. The following method, employed in one form or another by many chanoyu schools, tackles this issue by using two additions of water:
- The first addition is used to make a thicker paste where you can take some time to smooth out the clumps, which accounts for point 3.
- The second is used to perfect the consistency and heat the tea up, accounting for points 1 and 2.
Compared to our intro recipe, the ratio here is a bit higher at 4g/30ml, producing a thicker, stronger koicha, but you can adjust this to your preference. It’s generally best to add the least amount of water as possible as at first, as this makes it easier to control the temperature and final consistency with the second addition, as there is more water to work with.
Here is what you’ll need to knead (pun intended) up a rich bowl of koicha, chanoyu-style:
- Chawan - an undecorated, humble bowl is preferred, with a smooth interior
- Chakin (or other cloth)
- Matcha sifter or pre-sifted matcha
- Chasen - preferably of the Ōaraho style
- Hot water
- Scale (optional with experience)
- And of course, your best matcha (Kiku-no-Sono is great as koicha)
Step 1: Boil your water.
That’s right, boil it. When the small amount of hot water hits the huge amount of matcha, it will cool quickly. On top of that, by the time you’re done kneading out the lumps from the first addition of water, the tea will have cooled and you’ll want to heat it up. You can use lower temperatures, but it’s much easier to let a hot bowl of tea cool a little than to drink a cold bowl of koicha.
Step 2: Pour around 100ml of hot water into the bowl and let the chasen's prongs soak for around 30 seconds in the water, swishing it around to dislodge any dust.
This serves the dual function of warming up the bowl and softening the bamboo of the whisk, making it more flexible and durable. It also cleans the whisk and allows you to inspect the tines for any broken pieces. This is especially important when making koicha as the kneading motion is much rougher on the tines of the chasen than the whisking motion for usucha, making them more likely to break. For this reason, koicha is often prepared using special koicha chasen, such as the chūaraho and ōaraho styles, which have fewer, thicker, tougher tines. For a single serving of koicha, a standard 64 tine kazuho or shin kazuho should be fine, but the 80, 100, and 120 prong styles are better kept strictly for usucha.
Step 3: Empty the bowl and wipe it dry.
This is where your chakin comes in handy. First, wipe the bottom inside of the bowl, then wipe all the way around the rim, especially where you poured out the water. Make sure to dry it completely as any remaining drops of water will create clumps in the matcha later, and no one wants clumpy matcha.
Step 4: Add 4g of matcha into the bowl.
The traditional measure for a single serving of koicha is 1 monme which is 3.75g, though we usually round up to 4g. Depending on your chashaku and if you’re serving multiple guests from the same bowl, portion out 4g for each guest and add another 2-3g ‘for the bowl’. This extra tea ensures that the last guest gets a decent amount of tea as some is sure to stick to the sides of the bowl (and you can use this leftover matcha, called the cha-no-ato to make a quick usucha).
While you can either sift the tea directly into the bowl, which we recommend for beginners, matcha maniacs probably drink enough tea a day that it is worth pre-sifting a whole 20-50g using a sifter can.
This tea can then be used directly from the sifter can, or transferred using a mizuya chashaku to a natsume for usucha or a chaire for koicha.
When adding the tea to the chawan, try your best to keep it nice and tidy in the centre of the bowl to make it easier to evenly wet the tea. This is easier when scooping pre-sifted tea into the chawan, rather than sifting directly in.
Step 5: Add the hot water
Carefully add 15ml of hot water, trying to wet as much of the tea as possible. Pouring the water around the side of where the tea sits in the bowl can help saturate it evenly. Avoid splashing the water as much as possible as this will send matcha everywhere and make it harder to incorporate it all into the paste.
It’s better to err on the side of less water here, as it’s much easier to add more if needed. Additionally, using less water here means you can have more control over temperature and consistency with the second addition of water.
Step 6: Begin to knead
Rather than the rapid whisking of usucha, koicha requires a slower kneading motion that takes some practice getting used to.
At this stage it is important to make sure no dry tea touches the inner tines of the whisk as matcha is prone to forming a large, hard clump here, which will throw off the final texture of the koicha and make it harder to knead.
Begin to knead the tea in a motion resembling the letter J, pulling the chasen towards you while applying gentle but firm pressure to the bottom and sides of the bowl. This motion uses the outer tines to knead the tea against the right side of the bowl in order to break up any clumps. Once the portion of the tea you are kneading is nice and smooth, incorporate more of the tea from the left side of the bowl using the whisk to bring it over and repeat the kneading motion.
Repeat until the entire mass of tea is smooth and glossy. This will take some time, so allow yourself to enjoy the repetitive, meditative motions and the intense aroma of matcha and be fully present in the moment. After all, that’s what koicha is all about. If you can’t fully knead out all of the clumps because it is too dry, add a little bit of water, around 5ml at a time, until you are able to.
Step 7: Add the remaining ~15ml of hot water
Lay the chasen in the bowl so that the tines are in the koicha and the handle is resting on the rim of the bowl. Carefully add the remaining water by pouring it through the whisk’s tines in order to dislodge as much tea from them as possible.
Step 8: Even out the texture
The freshly added hot water will sit atop the thick tea paste, so here you’ll use the chasen to even out the consistency. Beginning at the middle of the bowl and spiraling outward, stir the tea paste and water together in a circular motion until they reach an even consistency, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to get all of the tea that is stuck there.
The goal is to create the consistency of a thin syrup: not watery, but not so thick that it would take five minutes for the first drop to reach your lips when you try and drink it. Unlike with the first addition, don’t take too long to even the tea out or else it will cool down again.
A total ratio of 4g/30ml makes a good consistency, but feel free to raise or lower that ratio to find the texture that works for you.
Step 9: Enjoy
Take the chawan with two hands: the right hand holding it with a thumb on the rim and the fingers on the side, with the left hand supporting underneath the foot of the bowl. Raise the bowl to your eye level and bow slightly, acknowledging all of the work that has gone into this one bowl of tea.
Turn the bowl ¼ revolution clockwise and rehold it so that your right hand is cupping the side of the bowl, with your thumb in the front, and take a sip, letting the aroma of the hot tea engulf you.
Savour each sip to enjoy the tea’s power and appreciate all of its complexities. (However, note that the longer you take to drink it, the more it will cool and thicken, making it harder to drink).
If you’re sharing one bowl of koicha between friends, be sure to wipe the rim with a cloth or paper before handing them the bowl.
Step 10: Bonus usucha
As always, if there is a good amount of tea stuck to the bowl after you’ve drank as much as you can, you can add about 40-50ml of hot water and whisk up a quick usucha so as not to waste the precious tea.
If you don’t get it perfect on the first try, don’t worry! This method is more complicated than our beginner’s one, but it allows you much more control. While we presented measurements, each tea and each person’s taste is different, so feel free to adjust these parameters to make the tea that feels right. With practice, you’ll be able to make it entirely by feel.
Like last time, I’ll leave you with this saying known among tea ceremony practitioners:
Koicha ikkanme neru koto
To understand koicha, one must make one kan’s (3.75kg) worth.