Matcha for a sweet tooth

Matcha-flavored confectionery is popular not only among Japanese but also foreign tourists, who are believed to be attracted to the deep taste and mild sweetness of the confectionery.

Matcha is finely powdered Japanese green tea and many Japanese associate it with the traditional tea ceremony. However, due to its savory aroma, hint of bitterness and healthy image, it is also an ingredient for various kinds of food today, including Western-style confectionery.

Recently, a 24-year-old tourist from Hong Kong was looking for something to buy among 30 matcha-flavored sweets displayed around the entrance of Glico-Ya Dotombori store in Osaka, an antenna shop of major confectionery manufacturer Ezaki Glico Co.

"They are very Japanese. They aren't too sweet and have a deep taste. Chinese teas don't have that taste. I like it," she said. "I'll buy some for my friends and myself."

Uji matcha-flavored Giant Pocky is one of the most popular items. The product is coated with matcha-flavored green cream. The matcha used for the product is manufactured by longstanding Japanese tea manufacturer Tsujiri in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. The product sells for 1,080 yen (S$12.34).

Confectionery manufacturers have begun to focus on the overseas market. It is also expected the popularity of matcha-flavored products may boost the Japanese green tea market itself.

According to Glico, the lineup of matcha sweets at Glico-Ya has roughly tripled from last year, making the confectionery the store's star items. Last year, its sales increased by a little more than 40 per cent from the previous year.

Such sweets are bought mostly by travelers from neighbouring Asian regions.

Kabaya Foods Corp. in Okayama replaced its strawberry-flavored Quattro biscuit with matcha-flavored biscuit last spring. With sales roughly tripling those of the strawberry version, the company will continue selling the matcha version after this spring. The product sells for 130 yen.

A duty-free shop version of matcha-flavored Kit Kat chocolate of Nestle Japan Ltd. in Kobe also sells well. Its sales in 2013 were 10 times that in 2009, according to the company. A box containing 10 small Kit Kat packs sells for 1,500 yen, excluding tax.

The rapid increase of tourists visiting Japan and the fact that foreign tourists are exempt from consumption tax on food has made matcha sweets even more popular. Itokyuemon, a company manufacturing and selling matcha sweets, in Uji, set up duty-free counters at its main store and two outlets.

"People in neighbouring countries really trust Japanese products. Also, they have their own tea culture, such as pu-er or oolong tea. It's probably one of the reasons why matcha sweets have become so popular," a Glico public relations employee said.

An increasing number of confectionery manufacturers have begun emphasizing overseas expansion.

Matcha-flavored ice cream manufactured by Meiji Co. is popular in China. The company plans to increase the production of ice cream at its factory in Guangzhou as its ice cream sales in China recorded 10 per cent annual growth in the past few years. The matcha ice cream, which also includes condensed milk and sweetened azuki bean paste, sells for about 8 yuan (S$1.74).

In 2012, Nestle began selling Green Tea Latte in capsules exclusively for its coffee machine in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its sales network has also been expanded to Thailand and South Korea.