As someone who’s been fascinated with tea since growing up in Santa Barbara’s Bel Air Knolls neighborhood, that Lauren Danson founded Mizuba Tea Company feels like destiny. But the fact that she’s focused on matcha — the powdered green tea from Japan that’s wrapped up in history, ceremony, and reverence — came a bit more by chance.
In March 2013, while visiting a friend in Kyoto during her senior year of college at Westmont, Danson decided to hop off the train in Uji. The prime tea-growing region is home to the matcha ceremony, which uses a bamboo whisk and small bowl to infuse the stone-milled tea powder into hot water. She was wowed by the town’s tea-soaked scene, enjoying matcha soft-serve ice cream, buying as much as she could cram in her bag, and sipping an eye-opening cup of tea with a matcha farmer. “I could have met an oolong farmer,” she explains today, laughing about what a different train stop may have meant.
A few months later, after finishing a summer graduate program in publishing at the University of Denver — Danson thought she’d be a journalist or go work for Chronicle Books — she reconnected with the farmer, who wondered if she could sell his tea in the United States. She received her first order in September 2013, and Mizuba Tea was born, becoming one of the earliest matcha-focused companies in North America.
“When I started, I could count on one hand the amount of matcha companies in America, and one was in Canada,” she recalled. Then NPR labeled matcha the top food of the year in 2015, and the market exploded. “It was wild to watch,” said Danson. “I just started seeing matcha companies pop up everywhere. It was intimidating, but I didn’t worry about it too much. I just did what I did and supported my farms.”
Those direct-to-farm connections and Danson’s focus on educating about the rich heritage of the beverage are what set Mizuba apart from the ocean of competitors hopping on the matcha-as-wellness bandwagon. “Yes, matcha is good for you,” said Danson. “But the number one health benefit that I will promise you about matcha is that it will be a beautiful life experience.”
She quickly found that Japanese tea farmers were hungry for export opportunities. “Tea in Japan is exceptionally on the decline,” she said. “People my age there are not interested in tea.”
That goes for consumers, who are increasingly opting for coffee, but also the next generation of tea farmers. “Farming is hard, especially in Japan, where you have a culture that really takes up the mantle to do things and do them excellently,” she said. “You commit your life to making the perfect rice or the perfect tea.”
Over the past two decades, four out of five tea farms in Japan are no longer growing tea, said Danson, even though exports are on the rise. “All the farmers that do exist are looking at exporting,” she said. “That’s why I was asked in the first place.”
Today, Danson works with about eight farms, most of which are organic. She uses her website and packaging to explain what sets each farmer apart, though many are quite shy about having their family showcased. “I do my best to tell their stories based on what they want me to tell everyone,” said Danson. Others, like fifth-generation farmer Kiyoharu Tsuji, internationally known as Tsuji-san, are happy to be “rock stars.”
Though matcha remains the core, Mizuba’s line is expanding deeper into loose leaf teas, even featuring specific cultivars, which is like merlot versus malbec in the wine world. “It’s a huge iceberg,” she explained of exploring the endless tentacles of tea types. “We’re reaching the bottom of the iceberg now.”
Those cultivars were included in the batch of samples she sent me a few months ago, each with a very specific preparation regimen. The Saemidori gyokuro, which is grown in the shade on volcanic soils in Kagoshima, called for five grams to be steeped in 50 mL of 105-degree water for one to two minutes. Her notes suggested a rounded body with baked peach and sweet pea flavors. My tea palate is not quite so refined, but I did note a sweetness and barley-like richness, with hints of dried fruit. The sencha Yabukita, meanwhile, called for six grams in 180 mL of 160-to-175-degree water for one minute to reveal guava, apple, and umami flavors, which are classic for this ancient cultivar.
My package also included Kyô-bancha, which is a large-leaf, low-caffeine tea that I found to be full of kelpy, seaweed-cracker flavors; a pan-roasted Kamairicha, loaded with toasty elements; and more basic tea, such as genmaicha, which is brewed with roasted mochi rice, and tencha, the root of powdered matcha. There were flavored teas, too, such as the sencha with yuzu and the chamomile with houjicha. And, of course, there was also some of Mizuba’s classic matcha in a little tin, which requires a whipping to blend into hot water — a milk frother works just fine if you don’t have the bamboo whisk.
But as detailed as Danson can go, she more often has to pull back the focus to explain the basics, namely that all tea — green, black, oolong, Earl Grey, pu-erh, you name it — comes from the same plant species, Camellia sinensis. “It does still surprise me that most people don’t know that yet,” said Danson, who joked that she sometimes loses her voice while doing customer education. “It’s exciting for me to see the realization that tea is one plant.”
She also has to cut down those trying to ride the matcha wave without actually selling true matcha, as the style is not well regulated. “Matcha will always be powdered green tea,” she explained, “but not all powdered green tea is matcha.”
The business — which now sells to more than 600 wholesale accounts, more than half of which are coffee shops — is a family affair: her mom helps with packaging and distribution; her Portland-based in-laws help with placements up there, including into the five cafés they own; and her husband, who she met while ordering inside The French Press the same year she started Mizuba, has even started his own company, Herald Tea, which sources from China and Taiwan.
Despite the growth, popularizing those family-owned Japanese farms remains Danson’s motivation and mission. “I’m just a conduit for their knowledge,” she said. “I love providing a tool for people if they want to go deeper and understand the flavors of Japanese tea.”