How it began
An ardent desire to share the authentic taste and aroma of tea leaves
Cuzen founder Eijiro Tsukada has always had a personal and professional passion to pursue delicious tea. Beginning in 2006, he spent over 10 years in the food industry at Suntory, a prominent global company that produces beverages and wellness products. During his stint there, he hoped to bottle tea without losing the best qualities of the beverage. He quickly realized that sterilization requires high temperatures in order to make the tea shelf-stable. This process limits the tea’s taste and aroma—qualities he wasn’t willing to compromise.
Around 2014, as Eijiro san was coming to that realization, consumers in the United States were becoming increasingly interested in matcha. The beverage had been attracting people looking for sustained energy as an alternative to coffee, which always comes with a caffeine crash. Unfortunately, the matcha drinks available at trendy cafes were (and still often are) far from the true taste of matcha. Even to this day, these drinks offer only a fraction of the health and energy benefits that freshly-ground matcha does.
And so, as Eijiro continued his pursuit for delicious tea, he became intrigued by matcha and its benefits. He learned that while other teas retain only 70% of their total available nutrition, all of the health benefits of tencha (the leaves ground to make matcha) are consumed, because they are completely ingested rather than steeped. As Eijiro narrowed his search to matcha and began to sample the spectrum of varieties available, he found freshly-ground matcha was exceptional in flavor and aroma.
Even in the early era of Japanese tea ceremony with Sen-no-Rikyu, it was standard to serve only freshly-ground matcha—matcha in its best form—as an expression of hospitality. Pre-ground matcha became common along with technological advancements, but Eijiro was dedicated to pursuing authentic freshly- ground matcha and wanted to make that available to more people.
First, he decided to venture into the cafe business, and opened Stonemill Matcha, a matcha cafe in San Francisco. Though it became a popular shop where people lined up daily, he had to give up his hope of serving freshly-ground matcha due to operational logistics. Even more, people were not purchasing matcha to make at home. And though Stonemill sold only the highest quality of matcha, it was still only available pre-ground.
Matcha sold in powdered form (pre-ground matcha) is prone to oxidation due to the large surface area of so many fine particles. As the particles are exposed to oxygen, its fragrance and color change quickly. Also, sifting the matcha and then whisking it with a chasen, or a bamboo whisk, isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone.
Eijiro turned to his long-time college friend, Oki Hatta, with the question. It was a challenge Oki, who had grown up around the tea industry, was up for. Oki later became Eijiro’s co-founder.
Oki was born and raised in Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. He noticed his relatives and local friends working in the tea industry had recently slowed down and wanted to see the industry revitalized. This was the start of their new challenge.
The Matcha Maker
Freshly-ground matcha made easily at home
Eijiro and Oki envisioned matcha made easily at home yet ground freshly with a stone mill. And so the machine they set out to develop needed two primary functions. It should be able to grind with a stone mill and should be able to whisk with something like a chasen.
For these challenges, they brought a Silicon Valley engineer onto the team and began to develop a prototype. Typically, matcha ground by a large, heavy stone mill is 5-10 microns in size, and the smaller it is ground, the better the mouthfeel. Metal grinders make particles only as small as 100-200 microns. Such a large particle size was far from the quality of freshly-ground matcha that Eijiro and Oki intended to make. It was challenging to bring convenience and excellence together.
The development team finally decided to use a ceramic mill. A ceramic mill can make an average matcha particle size of 6.1 microns, and can fit into a small device. The team was one step closer to the matcha maker they envisioned.
The next challenge was whisking the matcha. Using the movement of a bamboo whisk as the ideal model, they considered many options. Top priorities were resilience for repetitive, daily use and general convenience. They would have to decide on where the whisking function would be placed and the foam quality it produced. They decided to put the magnetic whisk in the cup, as it is in the current model.
The second passion contributing to the Matcha Maker development was to marry convenience and environmental well-being.
There is an overwhelming amount of disposable, single-use products in modern life, but especially as a result of the food and beverage industry. From plastic bottles to single-use drink pods and capsules, there’s a tendency to prioritize convenience over environmental concerns. We believe both convenience and concern for the environment can co-exist. One inspiration came from traditional tea canisters. By adding a tea canister to the Matcha Maker, it wouldn’t be necessary to use individual capsules that are thrown out daily. Instead, the tea canister on the Matcha Maker can store the leaves throughout many uses, thus keeping the process convenient while limiting the trash to only a small package.
The current Matcha Maker design has a circular opening. Inspired by round, Japanese tea room windows, the vision was to inspire a sense of Zen in the environment that the Matcha Maker is used in.
The vision to make “a Matcha Maker for freshly-ground matcha, made easily by anyone” came to life.
Passion for tea leaves
The secret of the flavor is in the fog.
As we worked on production of the Matcha Maker, we looked for tea leaves that met specific criteria. Since the entire leaf is consumed when drinking matcha, it was important to find 100% organic leaves. Unfortunately, organic tea comprises only a small fraction of the tea produced in Japan. Eijiro visited countless tea producers, searching for the organic tea leaves he envisioned.
As he visited farms, he often heard, “Organic tea is not tasty.” This is because the common method of organic tea farming has a tendency to result in less flavorful leaves. The method involves keeping the environment as similar to nature as possible, without the use of fertilizer. The resulting absence of insects is believed to prove the leaves aren’t worth eating, thus organic must not be tasty. Eijiro wanted to know first hand if this theory was correct, and continued to search for the ideal tea leaves. While he was visiting tea farms, he met one particular tea producer in Kirishima, in Kagoshima prefecture.
Their method of organic farming is to grow strong tea trees by giving them abundant nutrition. Just like supporting children’s growth with nutritious food, tea trees will also grow strong and be less prone to disease when given nutrition. The added nutrients come in the form of organic fertilizers. Unlike their chemical counterparts, organic fertilizers must be broken down by bacteria in the soil. Since the tea plants cannot directly absorb the organic fertilizer, the moisture in the soil is maintained in order to keep the bacteria thriving. Farmers continuously monitor the moisture of the soil, and if it gets dry, they water the plants with groundwater. Since organic farming requires additional labor and cost for organic fertilizer, there are few farmers that use this method. This farm, however, started growing flavorful tea leaves without chemicals before the organic certification process even began in Japan.
Organic tea production requires the intersection of wisdom in the skies, land and people. The blessing of the skies (rain and fog), the geographical advantage of the land and the strength of its people (a spirit of inquiry, ideas and action) are all present at the Kirishima farm Eijiro visited. Using their wisdom and experience, along with the geographical advantages of Kirishima, the farmers are able to produce delicious tea leaves.
With the Matcha Maker, Cuzen Matcha was able to make the ideal tea leaves available to anyone.
After ten years in the Japanese and American tea industries, my vision remains the same. I want to develop a tea that customers want to drink at any time, that is both tasty and supports their daily health. My approach has evolved along with the needs of the market, but from bottled tea to a matcha cafe to Cuzen Matcha, my vision has remained the same.
Not long ago, drinking tea immediately after brewing was the norm. People enjoyed good tea, and as high quality leaves were desired, those leaves were sold and purchased at prices that reflected the quality. Over time, bottled tea slowly became the norm as convenience trumped quality. The demand for tea changed. Color and aroma were exchanged for temperature, versatility and low cost. Tea leaves were selected to meet those qualities. The demand for high quality tea leaves dwindled, prices fell and tea farmers were heavily impacted. The shift has also been a negative one for the environment, adding to plastic production, trash and co2 emissions from transportation.
Cuzen Matcha is re-introducing the simplified tea experience. Incidentally, this will also contribute to a more sustainable world. The Matcha Maker grinds 100% organic leaves for a cup of tea that can be enjoyed in any way. It’s gentle on the environment by reducing plastic trash and co2 emissions. By creating a need for high quality tea once again, we can make tea production more economically sustainable for Japanese tea farmers.
The world I envision is expressed in the character “和,” which encompasses a range of meanings related to tea, including relief, peacefulness, dressing and harmony. By drinking matcha, there is ease, inner peace, seasoning in the metaphorical sense, and the experience of more harmony.
I hope together we can create a harmonious future.