A Sommelier Excellence in Kyoto on why he started a matcha sweets brand
Matcha (powdered green tea) is one of Kyoto’s most prized products and culture.
Matcha has been loved in Japan ever since it was brought to the country during the Kamakura Period (1185~1333) over 800 years ago and it is becoming increasingly popular all around the world.
The global market for matcha was estimated at USD $2.75 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to USD $4.28 billion by 2027, making it one of the fastest growing markets in the world.
There are many different types of drinks and foods that use matcha in the market today, but there is one sweets brand that may drastically change your conventional idea of matcha itself.
TREEE’S KYOTO is a sweets brand created and produced by patissier Shinsuke Kimura.
Kimura produces creative sweets using organic Uji matcha and his creations are the ultimate expression of matcha’s deep and unique flavor.
He insists on using only single-origin matcha leaves to create sweets that best exemplifies the features of each matcha variety and cultivation methods. He gathers the best ingredients from around the world and if he cannot find a product that satisfies his needs, he creates it himself from scratch.
Although he is a patissier his focus is not on making the sweets itself, but on making matcha the focus of his creations.
Kimura is also a holder of the sommelier license Sommelier Excellence, a high-level license which is only held by a few hundred people in Japan. He says he utilizes his skills as a sommelier in his approach to creating new sweets.
We spoke to Kimura to find out more about the ultimate matcha sweets that he creates.
The question is not what kind of sweets to make, but rather what kind of sweets will best bring out the qualities of each matcha variety
One of the products that best represent the concept behind TREEE’S KYOTO’s creations is the Matcha Terrarium.
What looks like a ball of moss in a small jar terrarium is in fact a matcha (unbaked) cheesecake made with organic Uji matcha, cream cheese and fresh cream from Hokkaido.
It is served with a spoon that is playfully made to look like a shovel. When you scoop the cheesecake, a rich matcha sauce made from the finest matcha and wasanbon (fine grained Japanese sugar) comes oozing out from its center.
The cheesecake is placed on cocoa crumbles that resemble soil and caramelized walnuts that resemble stones. These ingredients accentuate the flavor and texture of the cheesecake. This product not only surprises us with its playful and unorthodox presentation, but it also maximizes the essence of matcha flavors. When the product launched in 2021, it immediately grasped the attention of the public and became the talk of the town.
Although matcha is commonly made by blending various green tea leaves (known as gougumi), TREEE’S KYOTO insists on using matcha varieties individually.
Just as there are different varieties of coffee such as Mocha and Kilimanjaro, or different wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, TREEE’S KYOTO uses single origin matcha in order to let people experience how each variety has its own unique characteristics.
The biggest difference in TREEE’S KYOTO’s approach compared to conventional matcha sweets is that they look at matcha as the main ingredient and everything else as secondary.
“Usually if someone were to create a cheesecake with matcha, they would think of a cheesecake recipe first and add a few percent of matcha to complete it. In my case, I taste the matcha first and foremost. After I analyze and understand its flavor and features in a three-dimensional way, I think about what secondary ingredients to use with it.”
“Just as a sommelier pairs wine with a dish, I pair the secondary ingredients with a matcha’s unique characteristics. To bring out the perfect harmony, I calculate the balance of flavors in detail and how the flavor will spread in your mouth. I may use cream cheese, white chocolate or whipped cream. Either way, the question is not what kind of sweets I want to make, but rather what kind of sweets will best bring out the flavors and qualities of the very special matcha. My approach to making sweets is fundamentally different from the start.”
Creating ingredients from scratch in order to bring out the true essence of matcha
At times, Kimura will create secondary ingredients from scratch in order to pursue the true essence of matcha.
For example, Kimura developed a white chocolate that he calls “white base” to pair with matcha.
“When I was trying to maximize the presence of matcha, I gathered white chocolate from all over the world and tried matching it with matcha. However, most white chocolates contain emulsifiers and flavoring agents and I could not find anything that allowed me to fully express the delicate flavor of matcha.”
Ultimately, Kimura created his own unsweetened white chocolate.
He developed his original white base, free of emulsifiers, flavorings or sugar, using only powdered milk from Hokkaido and cacao butter.
By combining this white base with matcha, he succeeded in not only maximizing the delicate matcha flavor, but also expressing a more elegant and regal aroma that leaves a long-lasting and lingering aftertaste that only pure matcha and chocolate can achieve.
TREEE’S KYOTO’s unique concept and high quality sweets quickly garnered high acclaim. Just one year after they opened in 2021 their sweets were exhibited at the world renowned Salon du Chocolat chocolate festival.
“I think it was unprecedented for someone like me, who was really unknown at the time, to participate in this festival where the top chocolatiers from around the world gather. I was very happy that the buyers understood my concept and belief in expressing authentic matcha and chocolate.”
The strong influence of learning about the essence of wine
Kimura does not have a long background as a patissier and is completely self taught.
Rather, Kimura’s strength lies in the knowledge and experience he gained through obtaining the Sommelier Excellence license.
In fact, his career was originally in a completely different field from the culinary industry.
“I used to be a musician while attending school in Hokkaido. While I was in school I was offered a position to work in an office in Tokyo and continued my music career there. I expressed myself through music, and eventually I also began producing and creating music for other people. It was around this time that I began to understand the importance of branding.”
Working in the music industry provided many opportunities for him to visit high-end restaurants. It was through these experiences that he encountered delicious wine. He says he was shocked to learn just how good wine can taste.
“I was in my early twenties and had no prior knowledge or experience with wine, but I was surprised to find that carefully selected wines from all over the world had completely different flavors and character, including depth and fullness. It really made me understand the importance of exposing oneself to top quality products and experiencing their essence.”
Kimura’s experience with wine had a huge influence on him and drew his interest towards the culinary industry. So much so that he switched career paths.
While utilizing his background experience in the music industry, he worked extensively in his new field, including branding and operation of several French restaurants, dining cafes and shops in Tokyo.
Discovering the commonalities of matcha and wine as a sommelier
Kimura first came to Kyoto after getting an offer from a restaurant owner to open a restaurant there.
“I was not familiar with Kyoto at all, and the dialect and culture are very different here. I was excited to give myself a new challenge and it felt like moving to a foreign country.”
After he succeeded in the launch of his first restaurant he opened a second shop, a Japanese tea cafe. Here, he met a Uji tea master and started to learn more about the world of matcha.
“In Kyoto all the matcha sweets were so delicious, including the soft-serve matcha ice cream sold at souvenir shops. I felt that the quality level of tea here was overwhelmingly high.”
Through his shop, he was able to meet with tea producers and experienced another surprise when he tasted gyokuro tea.
“I had never tasted tea like that before. It had such a concentrated flavor, like a soup stock, and had a deep lingering aftertaste. The sensation was similar to when I first tasted Grand Vin.”
The impact of this experience naturally led him to become more interested in tea, as he had in wine. It was as if fate had intertwined. Kimura says he felt the desire to “pursue my deepest desire in life and explore something that is unique to me.” In 2018, he decided to start his own business.
“Although matcha comes in the form of powdered tea, before it is processed it is a tea tree (chanoki) that is raised by tea farmers and the harvested tea leaves are blended by tea masters. There are over 100 varieties of tea trees. They are all unique in their color, aroma, astringency, flavor and each tree is grown differently according to the style of its producers. The same can be said with wine.”
“I believed that my background skills in analyzing wine as a sommelier, which allows me to pick up flavors and scents that an untrained palate cannot, would give me an advantage in creating unique sweets with matcha. Matcha, chocolate and wine are all a kind of shikohin and I wanted to provide people with the ultimate experience of enjoying the flavors of these products.”
Entertainment that allows one to experience the essence of matcha
Kimura continued to develop various matcha products for established tea shops and Michelin starred restaurants before opening his original brand for matcha sweets TREEE’S
KYOTO in 2021.
One aspect that led to the launch of TREEE’S KYOTO was the major changes in society that was brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Kyoto is a major tourist destination so it was greatly impacted by the pandemic in various ways. My matcha sweets business also took a hit and it gave me the opportunity to really think about what I wanted to achieve and what products I truly desired to make.”
“My desire was to create new ways of enjoying the allure of matcha sweets using all five of my senses that I developed as a sommelier. I wanted to make the ultimate matcha dessert that is both unique and exciting, filled with strengths and features that are unique to me. The impact of the pandemic strengthened this desire in me.”
Kimura’s passion for Kyoto’s matcha was also a powerful driving force.
“There are various matcha production regions throughout Japan, but my experience of encountering Uji matcha in Kyoto and the impact of being so moved by its flavor and lingering taste was very important to me. Such a wonderful culinary experience should not be limited to Japan, but should be shared with the world. That is why I decided to create matcha sweets that reflect my passion.”
The brand name TREEES expresses the tea tree, grape tree, cacao tree and the kanji character for tree (木) in Kimura’s name (木村). The three Es stand for Enjoy, Entertainment, and Essence.
“Because of my background in the music industry, there is always a part of me that wants to entertain and excite people. I want my products to have an aspect of entertainment while also providing the flavors that capture the essence of matcha. I design my products in a way that allows people to enjoy that range.”
Collaborating with top of the line matcha producers to make a one and only global brand
Led by their online sales, TREEE’S KYOTO continues to garner attention from consumers. Kimura is also expanding his business network through matcha.
“I want to explore the world of matcha more deeply so I often travel to visit tea farmers and learn from them. When I go to the fields, it inspires me as a creator and it gives me fresh ideas. It also strengthens my desire to create something new, using a different approach as before.”
In 2023, Kimura launched a new brand of high-end matcha sweets called Tsurii Kyoto, based on the concept “Matcha sweets to remember.”
Through a collaboration with Tsukiji, a tencha and matcha manufacturer with an impressive track record including receiving the Prime Minister’s Award, they have created one of a kind premium sweets that allow consumers to experience the highest grade matcha such as Asahi and Samindori.
“If Uji matcha is to be described in wine terms, it would be finesse. It is a word that embodies respect for the elegant and delicate flavor of wine. I was utterly impressed by Uji matcha’s refined flavor, which comes from a traditional cultivation method that has continued since the Edo Period (1603-1867). It took a lot of determination on my part to use this superb matcha, which costs several hundred dollars (usd) per kilogram, as an ingredient for making sweets. However, it gave me an opportunity to challenge myself in expressing the very best of matcha in a new way through sweets.”
“Of course, experiencing matcha through a traditional tea ceremony is wonderful in itself, but experiencing matcha through sweets allows people of all ages, from children to the elderly, to enjoy it more casually. It is my mission to provide people with the same blissful experience one would experience with a cup of matcha in a tea ceremony, through sweets.”
As matcha continues to grow in popularity, Kimura not only aims to grow in Japan but also plans to expand globally.
“I remain determined to create a one of a kind brand and I hope to spread the wonderful experience of matcha and matcha sweets to the world. Just as people travel to France to experience French culture through wine, I hope people from around the world travel to Japan and Kyoto to experience authentic matcha and matcha sweets. While respecting tradition but thinking outside the box, I will continue to develop my own style and methods to evolve the matcha experience according to modern desires.”
Kimura speaks calmly with a warm smile on his face as he presents his products to us, but in his eyes you can see his passion for matcha and his strong determination to take on the world.