What is Matcha?
Matcha is a special type of powdered tea from Japan. Despite its recent increase in popularity, it was actually the original method of tea consumption in Japan. Unlike most teas which are infused into water, matcha powder is mixed directly into water. Because of this, matcha is incredibly unique in the world of tea. It has a powerful flavor, and plenty of health benefits.
To begin our journey, we will head to Kozanji temple in Kyoto, the original site of tea cultivation in Japan.
Japanese monks would often travel to China to learn about Buddhism from the Chinese monks. In addition to bringing back knowledge and insight, they often brought tea as well. In China, tea was considered a medicinal beverage and it was consumed to improve one’s physical and mental health. At the time, Chinese teas were consumed in powdered form. They would compress tea leaves into bricks and then grind them up when they were ready to use them. This grinding method became an early version of matcha tea, and was the first way that tea was consumed in Japan.
Tea was used by the monks to enhance their concentration during meditation. Just like with coffee, tea contains caffeine which can energize the mind through long periods of study and concentration. Unlike coffee, tea also contains an amino acid called l-theanine, which induces a more calming effect on the brain. The result is a calm alert feeling that is perfect for meditation. In fact, drinking tea can boost the alpha brainwave activity, the same activity stimulated during meditation. This can lead to creativity, relaxation and reflection.
In 1191, a monk by the name Eisai brought back tea seeds from China and planted them on the grounds here at Kozanji temple. It was here that the Japanese monks began cultivating tea of their own. And so the consumption of Japanese tea began, starting with the monks, and later on branching out to every strata of Japanese society. The samurai saw it as a way to improve their concentration on the battlefield, and the upper classes used it to showcase their status and sophistication.
Alongside the development of the tea ceremony, the tea itself began to undergo improvements as well. Research and experimentation on tea started to yield even better results. Perhaps the most important innovation for matcha was the discovery of shading. Matcha isn’t made from just any tea leaves, these leaves are shaded prior to harvest to improve their sweet and savory flavor. In Japan, it was common for tea farmers to cover the plants to protect them from the cold, but they found that this actually improved the flavor and color of the tea. We now know that this is because when the tea plant is cut off from sunlight, it produces more chlorophyll and theanine. Theanine is what is responsible for the sweet and savory flavor Japanese green tea is known for. After the tea plants are shaded, the farmers then select only the top leaves to be used in the matcha. The top leaves and buds of the tea plant are the youngest, and therefore contain the highest concentration of nutrients. The older, more mature tea leaves are thicker and slightly more bitter. This careful shading and selection of the tea leaves, is what separates high quality from low quality matcha. The high quality matcha has a beautiful jade green color, a smooth flavor and is loaded with nutrients. The low quality matcha has a much more unappealing color, a more bitter flavor and less nutrients. This low quality matcha is often sold as “culinary grade” matcha and is used in desserts all around the world. These matcha desserts are quite common in Japan and are made by mixing low quality matcha with cream and sugar to disguise the bitter taste.
High quality, ceremonial grade matcha is naturally sweet and smooth, meaning that it can be mixed with water and drunk plain. Within ceremonial grade matcha, you can also have first and second harvest. First harvest is an even higher quality matcha, made from the fresh tea leaves picked in the springtime. The tea plant is typically harvested between early Spring and mid fall, so during the winter, the tea plant has a long recovery period, where it can absorb nutrients from the ground, and store them in its leaves. These more nutrient dense leaves are then picked in the early spring, so the first harvest is far more flavorful than later harvests
After the leaves are picked, they are processed in a similar way to most Japanese green teas. The leaves are steamed to prevent oxidation. If this step is skipped, the tea would oxidize and turn into a black tea. The steaming process locks in the flavor and is the main reason why green teas retain these strong vegetable notes. After the tea leaves are steamed they are then dried and then they have their stems removed. After the stems are removed, the tea leaves are referred to as “tencha” (left) and they are only one step away from becoming matcha. The leaves finally need to be ground into a fine powder so that they can be mixed into water directly. This is done in a special type of mill (right).
It takes a full size matcha mill to produce the perfect matcha powder. This grinding process takes about an hour just to produce 50 grams of precious ceremonial grade matcha.
Once the matcha powder is created, it can then be whisked into water using the chasen or tea whisk. This process aerates the matcha, and gives it a creamy texture and a smooth finish. Matcha is not only enjoyed in the tea ceremony, but now it is easier than ever to prepare this special drink in your very own home!