It is late morning on a moody weekday. Steady rain throughout the night has turned into a sporadic drizzle. It is the perfect day to meet up with friends, old and new, for a cup of tea.
Spouses Anthony and Rachel Verbrick, co-owners of Macha Tea Co., have graciously invited us to have a seat at their table on a day when their global-inspired East Johnson Street tea shop is closed. On assignment, we are about to learn the art of the ancient beverage in the setting of a modern-day tea tasting.
The company is diverse: a tattoo artist, a drummer in a black metal band, a San Francisco transplant, a Japanese American translator of Samurai movies, a creative entrepreneur, a visual artist and this food writer. The colors inside the shop are bright—red and white lanterns hang from an original tin ceiling. The brilliant green color of matcha tea is alive on the walls. The table is set for us near the window beneath a giant wicker and paper lantern chandelier. Atop a red floral tablecloth sit four small ceramic plates filled with varying saturations of green leaves, buds and finely ground fluorescent powder. Next to them are small glass teapots. Porcelain teacups are perched on square wooden saucers and each ceramic dish holds two crunchy Korean almond cookies.
It is clear we are here to pay attention, to appreciate tea as we would a Chardonnay, a single-origin cup of coffee or a craft beer. The tea tasting consists of four teas: a Japanese Sencha, a Vietnamese oolong, a 12-year-old raw pu-erh from China’s Yunnan Province and a Japanese matcha. Floral, grassy and malty are words used to describe a particular tea’s aroma. With every sip, we learn to consider tannin, terroir, shade and sun, taking our time to notice the top notes as well as what sensation comes through as the tea finds the back of the throat. This is familiar language, but have we ever considered such words when drinking a cup of Lipton’s?
Anthony—our guide, a sleight-of-hand trickster, Madison native and enthusiast for Asian culture and botany—keeps his hands in constant motion, always pouring hot water into the pot. He empties it through narrow slats of the hollow wooden tray before him. Other vessels on the tray include a gaiwan, which consists of a lid, cup and saucer, allowing control over brew strength.
“Know your vessel and pair it up with the right tea,” Anthony says.
Electric kettles of water buzz behind him as Anthony explains the tea before us. “Asamushi Okumidori, a higher-grade tea leaf for making Sencha, comes from Kirishima, Kagoshima, Japan,” he says while pouring the tea from a Japanese kyusu pot. We whiff, sip and hold this organic, light, floral and highly caffeinated tea in our mouths while Anthony’s words roll delicately off his tongue. Soon, Rachel serves samplings of her handmade specialties—small bites of smoked salmon onigiri wrapped in nori; mochi, a bite-sized confection of red bean paste, sticky rice and sugar that pairs with matcha tea; and flourless matcha tea cake—all meant to offset the caffeine and provide a little sweetness on the palette. One bite of the light and moist flourless matcha tea cake made with eggs, white chocolate and matcha tea powder and we all fall into a state of quiet bliss, even forgetting about our plant-based brew for a moment.
Specializing in matcha, Japanese greens, oolongs and pu-erhs, Anthony knows the origin of all the tea he sells. “It’s really just a testament to the tea maker and the grower. Usually it’s the farmer that’s doing everything,” he says.
Verbrick credits time spent with his mother as his introduction to tea. Later on, he learned more about tea and found a passion for it.
“Every time we drank tea, things kind of slowed down a little bit. Problems went away. I grew up very poor, so it was like ‘Hey, we’re just enjoying this moment, we’re hanging out together.’”
Verbrick explains that tea is not limited to acting as a soothing remedy for when something ails you. It’s about gathering and feeling perfectly in place—even in as eclectic a group as we are sitting in this morning. We are tea-drinkers conversing with each other, but at times we sip in solitary meditation, feeling very much alive and in the moment. We slow down and notice how we feel with the tea in our bodies: warm, peaceful, flushed and filled with energy. It is different for everybody.
“[Tea is] just time, water, leaf,” Anthony says. “The rest is really up to you.”
There are traditions thousands of years old alive in this tea shop. And while their tea’s deep Asian roots and life-prolonging prophecies might seem culturally untouchable to the average person, Anthony and Rachel manage to make Macha Tea Company hip, casual and welcoming all at once. We are reminded that this is in fact an urban shop while soulful sounds from Anthony’s personal playlist fill the room. The whole purpose of this place is to educate, says Verbrick. On any given afternoon, you’ll most likely find him behind the bar teaching, engaging and pouring tea.
When this special ceremony comes to the final cup, I am feeling energized. No wonder so many studies have insisted that tea helps prolong life. I consider what it must be like to be surrounded by tea like this daily. I ask Verbrick if he drinks it at home, too, or if he gets enough of it at the shop.
“I drink tea all the time. I’m actually 72 years old,” Anthony smiles, with less than a wrinkle on his face.
Clearly, he’s joking. Right?
Kathy Brozyna is a food writer for Madison Magazine and writes “The Chow Down” blog.