A quick search for ‘matcha’ or ‘usucha’ on Google images results in what you might expect: vibrant green foam in a beautiful chawan, with bubbles too small to see. While this image of matcha has become the standard, both in the west and in Japan, it is not the only way to make matcha (see koicha) and it is not even the only way to make usucha. Each of the dozens of tea ceremony schools scattered throughout Japan has their own preferences when it comes to usucha’s taste and texture, but one school has become dominant globally, and it is their idea of usucha that has become standardised.
For a while, the Omotesenke school of tea ceremony was the dominant tea school in Japan, and the usucha that they make looks quite different from what you might be used to. Rather than an even layer of thick foam, they prefer to whisk their usucha lightly, with a partial covering of thin foam floating over pools of deep emerald green.
After WWII, with Japan’s explosive economic growth, tea ceremony’s popularity was revived, this time however, led by a different school: Urasenke, who also spearheaded chanoyu’s spread abroad and are by far the largest school outside Japan. Their usucha, which is heavily whisked with a thick layer of fine foam, is perhaps what became the model for what we now think matcha is supposed to look like.
So often I see people who are new to matcha ask ‘how can I make the bubbles smaller?’ or ‘why doesn’t it look like the pictures?’. While I understand the aesthetic appeal of the super foamy usucha (which is why we use it in all of our pictures (๑>ᴗ<๑)) along with the desire to improve one’s whisking technique, no one really seems to question the importance of this foam and how it affects the taste and texture of the tea. In short: does foam make matcha taste better?
So, here I’m conducting a little experiment, comparing four bowls of matcha with varying levels of foam to see what impact it has on both the taste and texture of the tea, and also to find out which style works best with different types of matcha.
- No Foam - thoroughly mixed with as little foam as possible
- Partial Foam - modelled after the Omotesenke style of usucha: a partial covering of thin foam
- Thin Foam - modelled after the Ueda Sōko style of usucha: a thin layer of fine foam
- Thick Foam - modelled after the Urasenke style of usucha: thick layer of dense, fine foam
For each bowl I used 2g of Umezuki, and 60ml of 80°C water.
For consistency, I made four individual bowls of tea, but if you want to try this yourself, I’d recommend starting with a bowl with no foam, tasting it, then whisking it some more, tasting it again, more whisking, etc. This way you don’t end up drinking four usuchas and staying up all night (っ°▿°) .
Bowl 1 - No Foam
Thoroughly mixing the tea without making any foam at all is actually quite difficult, so a good sift is absolutely necessary to avoid any clumping. The resulting bowl has a powerful aroma, unimpeded by any foam. With minimal whisking, the tea retains most of its heat. The tiny matcha particles are actually quite beautiful as they slowly float as they are suspended in water. But don’t watch them for too long: without the foam to hold them in suspension, the tea falls out of suspension much faster. As you drink the bowl, the tea settles, so the final sips end up being a fair bit stronger than the first.
The taste is deep and round but also has a lot of bright, sharp notes. The texture quite thin–thicker than sencha but not nearly as creamy as a more ‘standard’ matcha
Bowl 2 - Partial Foam (Omotesenke-style)
There isn’t a huge difference here in terms of taste or aroma compared to Bowl 1, but I do find the visual appearance quite entrancing. The thin layer of foam that is present definitely adds a little bit to the textural experience, but it isn’t a major difference.
If I were to choose between Bowl 1 and 2, I'd choose Bowl 2 primarily because you will better mix the tea and water together.
Bowl 3 - Thin Foam (Ueda Sōko-style)
For those unfamiliar with the Ueda Sōko school (which is the school that I practise), our usucha is made by holding the chasen from the side so that it is perpendicular to the fingers rather than parallel, and using an outwards flicking motion, rather than the rapid back and forth of Urasenke. The result is a light layer of foam that evenly covers the tea.
Here the effects of the foam become noticeable: the aroma is more subdued and the taste has become softened, with the sharp and bright notes becoming somewhat mellowed. The foam also helps the tea stay suspended for longer.
For coffee lovers, the texture is somewhat similar to that of a flat white or latte, though not quite as silky. The lightness and softness of the foam is present, but it’s not too dry and it’s not so voluminous that it fills your mouth.
Bowl 4 - Thick Foam (Urasenke-style)
Now, I might have gone a little overboard, but for me, this method produces A LOT of foam. As you can see in the next section, the bowl was around 50% foam by volume. This thick layer of foam acts as a sort of cap, keeping the aroma of the tea locked away. This bowl was certainly the least aromatic of the four.
Again, for the coffee enthusiasts, the thick layer of foam is reminiscent of the pillowy-est of classic dry cappuccinos. Light, airy, and dry, the sheer volume of this foam fills your mouth as you take the first sip.
The mellowing effect that began in bowl 3 is even more noticeable here, with the top end of the taste significantly softened, and the flavour somewhat weaker overall.
Repeating the experiment in a glass bowl allows us to easily see how much foam each method creates, and with some measurements and quick maths, we can calculate the volumetric foam-to-liquid ratio:
Bowl 1: 1% foam | 99% liquid | 1:99 ratio
Bowl 2: ~ 5% foam | 95% liquid | 1:19 ratio
Bowl 3: ~25% foam | 75% liquid | 1:3 ratio
Bowl 4: ~50% foam | 50% liquid | 1:2 ratio
While the way you make your tea is entirely down to your personal preferences, there are some interesting key points to note here that can help you decide how to approach whisking different matchas:
Less foam = stronger taste and aroma
This means you can use less matcha per bowl of less-foamy usucha to achieve a similar level of strength as a super foamy bowl. If you’re a big fan of the hit aroma that comes when hot water meets matcha and you’d want more of that, consider using less foam so you can get more of that aroma as you drink the bowl. Some matchas are more aromatic than others, so can tailor it to your tastes
Foam = mellowing of bright notes and bitterness
In addition to decreasing the overall strength, foam can help round off bitterness or excessively bright notes. This is especially useful for cheaper matcha which tends to have more bitterness. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that matcha that has received Urasenke konomi (meaning that it is a favourite of either the Iemoto [head of the school] or another high-ranking member) tends to have a little more bitterness than matcha favoured by other schools. Perhaps this has something to do with how foamy their usucha is.
The flipside is that the mellowing effect of foam could potentially mask some desirable flavours, so it is worth experimenting with foam levels, especially on higher grades of matcha that have more complex and nuanced flavours and aromas. If you're doing side-by-side comparisons of multiple matchas, the ability to produce foam is a variable, so it might be worth trying them all without foam, to get a more transparent taste profile.
Foam = texture
This may seem obvious, but it is worth noting. If you’re not a fan of super dry, airy, foamy drinks, such as dry cappuccinos, egg foam on cocktails, beers with thick heads, etc., then you may want to use little to no foam in your matcha. If you love this texture, then by all means, whisk away!
If you decide that you want a lot of fine foam on your matcha, and you’re still struggling to achieve this, here are a few tips:
- Use a chasen. Shaking, milk frothers, whisks, etc., all work to incorporate a lot of air into the tea, but don’t do a fantastic job of breaking this foam down into smaller bubbles. While a super fine-tined, flexible Japanese chasen is ideal, even a stiff Chinese chasen of at least 64 tines can still do the trick
- Use quick, snappy, back and forth strokes. Urasenke teaists hold the chasen so that it is parallel with the fingers and becomes an extension of the hand. From here, the wrist does all the work, rapidly snapping back and forth. It may take some practice to build up the wrist strength.
- For more on how to make Urasenke-style usucha, you can read our guide and watch our video
I definitely recommend trying this experiment for yourself to see how you like your matcha. Let us know what you discover!