Whether you’re talking about Nobu-esque fusion or a New Orleans gumbo, plenty of the more significant culinary achievements of the last couple hundred years have come to us thanks to culinary cross-pollination. Long after the confluence of events that led to the creation of the bánh mì and the gin and tonic, the Ivan Orkins and Rick Baylesses of the world are continuing this trend.
And now there are the Fortgang brothers. Graham and Max Fortgang, New Yorkers through and through, are peering into the looking glass to tell their own unique story, and it’s all about New York-style matcha. The twenty-something brothers are the owners of Matcha Bar, a rapidly growing business with two cafés in the New York City area. In June, their three-day pop-up matcha bar in Tokyo was a hit, with long lines of Tokyites waiting to see how Brooklyn does Japanese green tea. As the wunderkind brothers are gearing up to release their own line of bottled matcha drinks, MUNCHIES sat down for a chat with them to figure out not only how in the hell two native New Yorkers ended up as matcha ambassadors, but also how their own backgrounds color their teas.
MUNCHIES: So, you guys obviously know a lot about matcha. Growing up here in New York City, how did you end up with this fascination?
Graham Fortgang: Well, it really grew out of necessity. I was going to school and working in music and Max was working in the art world, going to school, and working in cafes to make money. It’s that typical New York hustle. We started to look into alternative energy sources because I have a lot of issues with espresso and coffee. Max decided to make it into a project to find me an alternative to drink.
Max Fortgang: We’d meet in the morning to do our daily routine and try different alternatives and at night, we’d compare notes on how it made us feel. We immediately liked the effects of matcha and started experimenting with different ways to drink it. It got to the point where we were known by people as the guys who were always drinking that weird, green liquid.
Graham: From there, the idea was to open a small space and, worst comes to worst, we’ll sell espresso and sandwiches. We know a lot of people in New York, so we’ll be able to get by and fall back on that. A year later, we’re selling around 80 percent matcha. And like eight percent espresso sales. We think the unique way we found and continue to look at matcha primarily as an energy source is what really sets us apart.
When you decided to open up your first shop in Williamsburg, how did you go about finding a matcha supplier? That must have been pretty crazy to try and work with a farm in Japan with no knowledge or experience.
Graham: Yeah, we were pretty lucky we had the idea for Matcha Bar when we did, because this wouldn’t have been possible in the past. We started by just researching Japanese matcha farms online and those who could connect us to said farms.
Max: We had a lot of concerns initially as to how to communicate with the farmers and how to actually test the product ourselves.
Graham: Before we even reached out to any farmers, we just ordered every grade and type of matcha we could find online and started making charts to map our progress. We spent a lot of time looking at things like smoothness, the umami finish, the color, and how it made us feel.
Max: Obviously, the most critical thing for me was the flavor of the matcha. The matcha had to work well when iced, because that’s the easiest way to get new customers to enjoy matcha.
Graham: After that, we found a translator on Craigslist and just started calling these different farms and asking for samples. We had to think about the matcha we were going to sell, because some of the matcha we were looking at would have to be sold for $8 a cup. That doesn’t work with our plan of matcha being for the people and being an alternative energy source. We ended up going with a more subtle matcha grown in Nishio that we think works best for Western palates.
Max: So while I was still building out the store here in Brooklyn, Graham flew to Japan with a friend of ours who speaks Japanese to visit the farm we decided on.
Graham: The farm we went with was very forward with the fact that they thought we were crazy, but they were pretty excited with the prospect. A year later—when we went back and did the pop-up in Tokyo—that was the point they really understood how serious we were.
I think your non-traditional mindset is really a service to you, because you were never going to be the go-to for traditional matcha. Your approach seems to be a more feasible way to bring matcha to the masses.
Max: Totally. It frees us up to be creative and not be pigeonholed into working on variations of the classics. One of the first matcha drinks I made was a cucumber matcha drink. Most people in the tea world probably wouldn’t think of that. But because I’m not really a part of that world, I can say, “Cucumbers are vegetal. Matcha is vegetal. Why not combine the two?” We clearly aren’t Japanese people who have been studying the art of matcha since we were kids. We got into it for purely functional reasons.
Graham: Like the electric beverage mixer [we use.] That originally came out of a dream I had and we decided to try it. We’re clearly skipping the ceremony, but hopefully we are able to deliver a better product that’s more evenly mixed and frothier.
You’re now planning to get into the bottled matcha tea business. What makes your new bottled matcha teas so much different from others?
Graham: As far as we know, this is the first ceremonial-grade matcha to be bottled. The thing is, there isn’t really a strict ceremonial-grade certification. Some ceremonial-grade matcha has 40 grams of caffeine and some can have as much as 80 grams. The main commonality between most ceremonial grades is just that they are all higher-end matcha that’s meant to be used in tea ceremonies. Even in Japan, most matcha is sold as an ingredient for food, so they aren’t using that high-grade ceremonial matcha in bottled beverages.
Really? I’d have thought that Japan would have loads of high-end bottled matcha.
Graham: From our experiences in Japan, matcha consumption seems to exist on two separate planes. On the low end, you see a matcha latte or a Starbucks matcha drink in every vending machine and on every street corner for 150 yen. And then it exists [not bottled] on the high end if you are at a tea ceremony or you’re at a teahouse. There just really isn’t a middle ground between the two at all.
Do you think this current American matcha surge will have an effect on Japan’s matcha consumption?
Graham: One hundred percent.
Max: That was probably the most exciting part of doing our pop-up store in Toyko. It was really interesting to hear how shocked and amazed some of these larger matcha companies were at our ability to make matcha hip for younger people.
Thanks for speaking with us, guys.