Zen to the People:
The Macha Macha Tea Parlor in Berlin

Wake up, take a shower, slug some coffee, off to the office, answer emails, meeting, phone calls, writing, second coffee, second meeting, no time, throw on your jacket, run to your interview, frantically dodge passersby, through a small dooryard, pass a Japanese fountain, open the door to the store and: peace. A true oasis appears.

Japanese paper artwork in white nestles up to the cream-colored walls. On the dark Kebony wood counter in the middle of the room are vases with flowering plum branches. Two guests are sitting across from one another with tea bowls in their hands: “Atatakai kangei.” Welcome to Berlin’s first Macha Macha tea parlor.

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Owner Erik Speickschen and his Japanese team greet the visitors with a reserved friendliness. A small corridor takes you from the first room facing the street into a modern version of a Japanese tea parlor. Shoeless, guests step on the soft tatami floor, made of traditionally bound and arranged rice straw mats, and sit down at one of the low small tables — in traditional manner on the knees or on a European-friendly seat cushion. The moss decorating the windowsills smells pleasantly of forest floor. Comfort creeps in. Here at this getaway the daily frenzy recedes, and the journey into the world of tea begins. But which of the 23 tea varieties on offer, with such unknown names as kabusecha morimachi, isa kamairicha and dokudamicha, should I pick? To help me decide, Erik Speickschen gives me both an exhaustive introduction to the various planting and harvesting techniques of tea plants and the fermentation and preparation methods of tea leaves.

The 44-year-old passionately describes kamairicha, how it is roasted in an iron pan, its aroma and the smoky character of kyobancha, which reminds him of the similarly smoky single malt whisky, Lagavulin, in non-alcoholic form, and the highly aromatic shaded tea, kabusecha, whose flavor draws from many viewers a comparison to vegetable broth. The tea’s planting and harvesting times are decisive for its flavor. And its preparation has to be learned and executed with care. Spieckschen starts by pouring the boiling water without tea or tea strainer in the pot. Doing so reduces the temperature by 10 degrees. Next he pours the clear water into a tea bowl, which reduces the temperature by another 10 degrees while warming up the bowl. Only now does the tea come into play. With the tea in the strainer, he hangs it in the pot and pours the water from the bowl, now at the perfect temperature of 70°C, back into the pot. Yes, “tea and Zen have one taste,” as the Japanese proverb goes: he who prepares his drink in such a leisurely manner goes through life more mindfully, taking care of himself and his environment. The Macha Macha tea parlor incorporates this lifestyle in its name: “ma” stands for the Japanese character , which means “true, pure or real,” and “cha” means tea. Macha: “真茶,” the true, pure tea. In this vein, Macha Macha epitomizes Spiekschen’s sustainable commitment to fair trade, organically grown tea, poured in his parlor with joy and spirituality and sold at honest prices.

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And just how different the flavor of green tea can be is fascinating. The aromas of the various varieties are exquisite, and with a good sense of smell you can discern among many nuances. Twenty small canisters with samples of the teas on offer are arranged on the counter, a kind of olfactory “tasting.” From fine hay notes and smoky scents to intense nutty armoas, visitors’ noses get a healthy dose of tea fragrances. Upon opening the genmaicha canister, however, it’s not the odor that’s surprising, it’s the sight of what’s inside: for a short scary second I think I am seeing maggots. But alas, it was only popped rice grains among the tea leaves. This arouses my curiosity, so I decide to try it. Its unique look is reflected in its slightly malty, roasted taste.

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A divine New York-style matcha cheesecake with organic matcha powder and white chocolate has been creeping into my dreams ever since I laid eyes on it. This delectable cake, coconut ice cream and anko cream cheese waffles (spelt sesame waffles with cream cheese and sweetened azuki bean paste) are the only dishes on Macha Macha’s menu and are intended to complement the main attraction: enjoying tea. With a menu made up of 90% tea, I’m wondering how you get the unconventional idea to open a Japanese tea parlor – and to open it in Neukölln between kebab shacks.

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Japan captivated Erik Spieckschen’s imagination as a child. After high school he majored in business in Darmstadt with a minor in Japanese studies. Upon graduating he founded a specialty foods import business and a dot com operation he backed out of after some time to take a trip around the world. On a pilgrimage of 88 temples on the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku, he had an epiphany. Looking for a good cup of green tea Spieckschen encountered all kinds of Starbucks stores and other fast food joints, yet there was no sight of a traditional tea room for miles – in Japan. As traditional tea culture there is declining, Spieckschen had the idea to revive the centuries-old custom himself. Two days later he was sitting in the pilgrims’ hostel having dinner when he told a Japanese pilgrim about his plan. This particular Japanese pilgrim, a retiree, happened to have worked his entire life as a tea merchant and encouraged his fellow German pilgrim’s ambition.

No sooner said than done. Back in Germany, Spieckschen drew up a business plan with the aim of maximizing sensation rather than profit. That the shop had to cover personnel costs, rent and his own finances went without saying. Lucky for him, there is apparently a high demand for this “niche” market. Sales targets have already been reached and the cozy tea oasis has seen many return customers. Even the toilets, in authentic Japanese style, are equipped with a built-in bidet and heatable toilet seat. On the weekends tea workshops and tea ceremonies are on offer, and the store has also been providing tea for events.

imageOwner Erik Speickschen and his Japanese team

My visit to the Macha Macha oasis was a little while back, and I can safely say I have since become a true matcha fan. At home I’ve changed to healthy green tea and feel much more fit and focused. Whether that comes from preparing it or drinking it is anyone’s guess. In any case, the internet assures me that matcha contains buzz-giving caffeine and that with its various antioxidants, catechins, vitamins and minerals it’s the healthiest drink ever. Green tea probably also plays a decisive roll in the fact that the Japanese have lower rates of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer than Europeans and Americans.

Reason enough to head back to the tea parlor! Of course, the matcha cheesecake seals the deal.

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