Matcha is a powdered form of green tea that is often used in sweets and drinks. Upon first trying matcha, many find they have a strong distaste for it, comparing the flavor to dirt and lawn clippings. While it may be a refined taste, I have been a fan for several years. There’s nothing quite like the frothy, earthy taste of a hot matcha latte when it gets cold out. However, not all matcha lattes are created equal. I have my own biases when it comes to how it should be prepared. A sin I often witness is powder that comes mixed with copious amounts of sugar. In my humble opinion, a bit of sweetness is necessary to enjoy the drink to its fullest, but it’s quite easy to overdo it. As I have come to learn, this is just one of many mistakes that can be made when preparing matcha. (I am aware of how pretentious this sounds, and it is something I have learned to accept).
Given the stark contrast between different variations of this drink, I knew what I had to do as a self-proclaimed matcha connoisseur. I set out on a quest to find the most delicious matcha in Southeast Portland. For the sake of science and journalistic integrity, each drink will be ordered however they automatically prepare it in each store. If follow up questions are asked, I will default to whole milk with simple syrup. If it comes unsweetened, I will add a bit of simple syrup to make sure this does not affect my review. I selected nine of the shops nearest to Franklin that sell matcha to compare to each other. To accompany me on this journey I have brought three of my dearest friends, two of whom have not yet learned to appreciate the wonders of this heavenly drink. My hope is that this will provide an additional perspective into the quality of each contender.
My first guest is Logan Lebold (12), who, though not yet a matcha convert, has been dragged along to judge the presentation of each drink. To put it in his words, “I’m sure as [expletive] not drinking that.”
The first shop we visited was Common Grounds Coffeehouse. It was $4.00 for an eight ounce drink. It came unsweetened until I added simple syrup. It was bright green on top with a lovely heart motif in a ceramic mug. The first sip was foamy and sweet, and the second sip was milkier with a rich flavor. This is what true matcha should taste like. It was smooth and strong without too much powder. It left rings of powder along the rim as I drank. Often drinks that have this much flavor come with a pool of dark green sludge at the bottom that has settled over time. It might have been the speed at which it was consumed, but I was pleasantly surprised to find no sludge. “[It] sure looks like matcha,” Lebold comments.
Next was The Fresh Pot, which was just a few blocks down the street. Their matcha is $4.50 for eight ounces. It came unsweetened, and as promised I added simple syrup. It came in a disposable cup with a lovely leaf design on top. The light green color should have lowered my expectations to begin with. This matcha was not as flavorful as Common Grounds’, but it still had a decently smooth taste. After these first few sips, though, it mostly tasted like sweet milk. This is fine, but I favor a stronger matcha. At this point Lebold decided to give it a try, despite his misgivings: he said it smelled like nothing and tasted like slightly earthy milk. Once I swirled the cup, mimicking a wine taster, the powder at the bottom mixed in and made the latte somewhat less bland. There was no sludge at the bottom.
The next guest star of my matcha expedition was Carolyn Paxton (12), who describes herself as, “Not a matcha expert by any means but thrilled to be here.” Thankfully Paxton is a sensible person who understands the miracle of matcha.
Together we visited Coava Coffee Roasters, whose matcha was $5.50 for twelve ounces. One thing that stood out was that they defaulted to oat milk instead of whole milk. This came in a mug with charming tulip latte art, and had a very light green color. From beginning to end, it mostly tasted like warm oat milk. It was not super sweet, which I liked. The foam persisted until the last sip rather than disappearing immediately. Overall this matcha was not very strong, but was still enjoyable.
Next we headed over to the Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Belmont. Their matcha was $5.00 for eight ounces. This was the most expensive matcha per ounce. It came without any sweetener, and I could not locate any simple syrup in the shop, so this one had to be judged unsweetened. It came in a disposable cup with no latte art and was a medium green. It tasted more strongly of matcha than Coava’s, which prompted the comment, “We’re not [expletive] around” from Paxton. After a while this latte mostly tasted like milk to me and water to Paxton, potentially due to the lack of sweetener. We both agreed that it had a roasty taste to it. As we got to the bottom, there were speckles of matcha powder but no sludge.
Next we headed over to Never Coffee. This matcha was $4.00 for eight ounces. There was a tulip design on top of the light-green surface. It came in a disposable cup with simple syrup. Upon first tasting it there was a good amount of flavor and sweetness. As we drank, it left light green foam along the rim. Paxton and I agreed that it was more flavorful than Stumptown or Coava, and had a roasty flavor similar to Stumptown’s. While this was the best matcha of the day so far, it was still pretty milky, and therefore couldn’t compete with the likes of Common Grounds.
The last place I visited with Paxton was Bipartisan Cafe. I should note before we proceed that I have had their matcha before and had a prior opinion. Bipartisan is a staple of the Montavilla neighborhood and I have been going there my entire life. That being said, their matcha is practically undrinkable. As a relatively recent addition to the menu, I can only assume that they haven’t quite found their footing in the matcha department. The drink was $4.00 for eight ounces, with no latte art, a dark green color, and a disposable cup. The first sip was bitter even after adding simple syrup. To put it in Paxton’s words, “It just absorbed it and made it more powerful, and eviler.” We found that this one shared the roasty undertones, but it was so prevalent that it almost tasted burnt. “The aftertaste is like dirt,” Paxton noted. We speculated that maybe the problem was the ratio of matcha powder to milk, but it has yet to be determined. A bit of evidence to support this theory was the significant amount of sludge at the bottom of the cup.
My final guest prefers to remain anonymous, but they are, regrettably, another non-believer. “[Matcha is] gross. It smells like seaweed. It makes me want to cry,” they comment.
Together we headed to Tea Bar on Division. Their matcha is $5.25 for twelve ounces, making it the cheapest matcha per ounce. There was no foam art on the light yellowish green surface. It came in a disposable cup presweetened. “It looks like if I made a latte,” my assistant observed. The first sip was soft and foamy. It tasted vaguely like matcha, but mostly milk. It was not too sweet, but there was also not enough foam on top. As for taste, it wasn’t bitter at all, just bland. The lack of powder or sludge at the bottom called into question: how was this latte even made? We didn’t see any whisking, as per usual in the preparation of matcha. It is yet to be known how Tea Bar has accomplished this. No matter how it was made, their matcha latte was disappointing for a tea-centered store.
Next up is Premium Matcha Cafe Maiko. This is a chain that seems to have recently opened a new location near the intersection of Cesar E. Chavez and Powell Boulevard. I have been looking for an excuse to go here for months: the entire menu is made up of matcha drinks and treats, including matcha ice cream, shaved ice, and cheese tea. They had two options for hot matcha beverages, matcha and matcha latte, so I got the matcha latte. It was $5.90 for twelve ounces, whereas the hot matcha was $4.50. After tasting this, I wonder if I made the wrong choice. There was no latte art, but the drink was dark green with swirls of matcha powder in a disposable cup. My associate pointed out that this was “More of a cool green than [Tea Bar’s].” I was very excited to try it. My first reaction was surprise at just how sweet it was. It left rings of matcha along the rim and it had a slightly bitter aftertaste, so I knew there was a good amount of matcha in there. But regardless, the excessive sweetness distracted from any other defining factors. I do wonder if the hot matcha is less sweet. The latte had no foam on top, so I am not sure what the difference is between the two.
The final contender was Rain OR Shine Coffee House. Full disclosure, this is my go-to for matcha and I am therefore definitely biased. It was $4.50 for eight ounces and a dark green color. Because I showed up near closing time I got it to go, so there was no latte art, but I know that normally they do some lovely work. This latte had a healthy helping of matcha powder. The flavor is fresh and bright. There was some powder at the bottom but no sludge.
In the end, the true value of a cup of matcha is up to each person who consumes it. However, the one matcha that exceeded my standards and stood out the most among the competition was Common Grounds Coffeehouse. It was a beautifully crafted treat from start to finish.