We’ve prepared the following guide to answer the question: What is Matcha tea? This includes a look at the origins (and rich history) of the beverage, as well as detailed information about the different types and qualities, accessories, rituals and what to consider when buying matcha. We hope you find this guide useful, and please be sure to post comments below if you have any questions of feedback to share with others from the TeaMinded community.
What is Matcha Tea?
Originating from Japan, matcha tea is gaining immense popularity due to its health benefits and great flavor. Even though tea is a word that often brings to mind images of loose leaves steeping in hot water — matcha, on the other hand, is a ground tea leaves that, rather than steeping in hot water, is whisked, which creates an intense version of green tea.
Origins of Matcha Tea
Green tea was first cultivated in China. From there it made its way to Japan in 1191 where it has been cultivated since. The methods of preparing powdered green tea were adopted by the Japanese as it is an essential part of Zen Buddhism. It was during the 14th century that matcha tea started gaining recognition among other echelons of society, especially the upper class.
There was a time when this tea was not readily available and was used only by a select few. Thanks to the efforts of a monk named Eisai, green tea was introduced to the common public and the samurai warriors. The people of China and Japan have known about the health benefits of this beverage for centuries. It’s even been used as a medicine to treat and prevent ailments.
At first, matcha tea was used for medicinal purposes only, but with time its use became more widespread and it became a favorite beverage of the local people. This is what led to the inception of the commonly known Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony involves the gathering of people to enjoy both the making, and drinking, of tea.
What Separates Matcha from Other Tea?
All green teas come from the same source, but the one thing that separates matcha from other teas is the processing method. The method utilized for preparing the leaves for consumption is what really sets it apart. Normal green tea leaves are fried, roasted, sundried or baked after harvesting. These leaves are then rolled a few times to remove moisture before they are packed and shipped to consumers. In order to prepare matcha, the tea farmers utilize a specific way of harvesting. For a number of weeks, typically three, the plants are shielded from the sun (shaded) to promote a naturally sweet flavor before the leaves are picked. Once picked, the leaves are steamed and left to dry. It is often during the month of May when the matcha green tea leaves are hand-picked by the farmers. To prepare the best quality, only the tenderest parts of tea leaves are selected after they have dried. They are then grounded into fine powder, packed and shipped for consumption.
To prevent fermentation the tea leaves are steamed. This is done because if the leaves are allowed to ferment, they lose their original and vibrant green color. Make sure that when buying matcha tea the color of the powder is bright green and not dull or damp green.
Once the tea leaves are picked, they are dried in the shade. After this, they are transferred to airtight tea jars where they are stored for a number of months (typically six). In November, the leaves go through the grinding process. This long and arduous process of making matcha tea is the reason why it is more costly, but it also ensures that it is of the best quality possible. This method of preparing matcha ensures that a huge amount of EGCG remains rather than going to waste (EGCG is a potent antioxidant and is an abundant catechin found in matcha tea).
The rolling and drying process of normal green tea leads to a large amount of EGCG going to waste. Some manufacturers put the green tea leaves through the process of fermentation, something that also changes and negates the power of the tea leaves. The gentle process used to prepare this beverage ensures that more than 90% of the antioxidants remain intact, while the EGCG reaches super-charged levels due to the grinding process. Such positive benefits can only be boasted by matcha tea.
Types, Grades, Quality of Matcha Tea
The higher grade of matcha is usually naturally sweet with a nice smooth finish and almost little to no bitterness. This type of is best consumed with just water, as it is not meant to be used for cooking purposes. The standard of high-quality matcha and low quality can also be discerned by the price. Matcha is one of the more expensive teas as it requires hard labor to cultivate, harvest and manufacture. Moreover, the time period for processing and refining it is quite extensive.
Another way you can determine the quality of this tea is sight. Matcha should be of a vibrant green color, similar to that of Japanese jade green. Lower grades can be sighted as brownish/yellowish. High quality gains its jade green color due to the presence of natural chlorophyll that gives it a green glow. Ingredient grade is made with leaves that are older and are also exposed to sunlight for some time. High quality matcha can also be determined by its smell as it gives off a pungent but sweet vegetal smell. This smell comes from the high amounts of amino acids, namely L-Theanine. This high level of amino acids is due to the tea plants being grown in the shade. If the green tea leaves are left in open air, they lose amino acids as they are converted into catechins.
High quality matcha has a natural sweet taste as the amino acids are preserved due to being grown in the shade. High quality also has a silky and fine feel to it, almost like baby powder. When the tea is prepared and whisked, it will leave a frothy layer on the top — whereas lower quality matcha will have less of a frothy layer, and instead it will give off large air bubbles.
Matcha tea comes in three different grades
- Thick or Ceremonial
- Ingredient or Culinary
All three are considered premium quality Matcha.
Thin matcha, also known as usucha, requires adding more water and less tea. This grade has the highest percentage of amino acids. This adds complexity to the aroma and taste of the prepared tea.
The thick matcha, also known as koicha, is made using more tea and less water. In order to make koicha, only the tenderest and youngest leaves are used to prepare the tea. This matcha is of the highest quality and often used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Culinary grade matcha, also known as ingredient grade, is made from the leaves that lie below the plant’s top leaf and the bud set. These leaves found in the lower parts of the tea plant are less delicate and older than the rest. When grounding these leaves into powder form, the stems are not removed (as they are with premium grade). Culinary grade, as the name suggests, is excellent for making drinks and ice cream, as well as cooking sweet and savory recipes. Its bolder and less complex taste makes it the perfect ingredient grade matcha.
Health Benefits of Matcha Tea
Matcha tea’s health benefits have made it an important ingredient in a lot of health food products. Energy bars, frozen yogurts, lattes and cereals have started incorporating matcha as a healthy ingredient. Matcha has been found to have at least three times more anti-oxidants and EGCG than other teas and fruits like blueberries and pomegranates.
The biggest reason why this tea has these health benefits is due to the fact that it consists of the whole leaf, unlike other teas where only the steeped water is ingested from the tea bags. Other teas are brewed from the leaves and only the water that remains is consumed, the remaining tea is thrown away.
However in the case of matcha, its preparation consists of stone grounded tea leaves, providing you the most powerful minerals, amino acids, vitamins and antioxidants. This also gives matcha tea higher levels of catechins and chlorophyll. In comparison, it’s been reported that roughly ten cups of green tea equal one cup of matcha tea with regards to health benefits.
Other health benefits of Matcha tea include:
- High in Antioxidants
- High in EGCG and Catechin
- Calms the Mind
- Boosts Memory and Concentration
- Boosts Memory and Concentration
- Increases Energy Levels and Endurance
- Detoxifies the Body
- Burns Calories
- Strengthens the Immune System
- Lowers Bad Cholesterol and Raises Good Cholesterol
- Helps in Fighting Cancer and Alzheimer’s
Matcha is likely one of the reasons why Japanese people live long and healthy lives. The one place where the people live the longest is Okinawa, Japan. The people there consume this tea on a regular basis as it is the most popular green tea. As the word of mouth about matcha’s health benefits spreads, health and fitness gurus throughout the world have started to incorporate the green tea in the diets of their athletes and clients. With more and more studies being conducted, the positive health benefits of matcha just keep pouring in from all corners of the world. No wonder matcha is quickly becoming one of the most popular green teas.
What to Consider When Buying Matcha Tea
It is better not to buy open tea from any local store. Chances are the quality of that matcha will not be similar to the premium quality levels. When buying matcha, go for the purest organic variety possible. Pure organic matcha contains all the health benefits mentioned above, whereas buying processed matcha won’t be as beneficial as it loses its premium grade quality.
When buying matcha, the most important aspects to consider are:
- The location where the tea plants are grown and picked
- The pre-grinding process
- Calms the Mind
- The method of grinding
- The oxygen exposure time
The location from where the tea plant is grown is essential to its quality. The upper part of the tea bush needs to be supple and soft to ensure fine texture with high quality. The matcha tea powder made from these leaves has the best flavor. Unlike other teas, pure premium grade green leaves are left to dry in the shade rather than in the sun. All efforts are made to ensure that the leaves are not exposed to direct sunlight.
For this reason, the leaves are mostly dried indoors. Even though the drying process can be done outdoors, the risk of rain ruining the tea leaves is too high. This leaves the leaves in a fine green color. If the tea leaves are not properly grounded, they will be of a poor quality as they will appear dark and burnt. This is why matcha leaves are stone grounded at a slow pace to avoid heating due to the constant friction between the stones.
In Japan, the tea manufacturing plants are equipped with granite stone mills in order to grind the tea leaves into fine powder. Once the grinding process has been completed, the matcha tea powder is immediately packed and shipped. This immediate packing reduces the oxygen exposure time, ensuring premium quality.
When purchasing matcha tea make sure that the brand/company you are buying from follows the abovementioned process. This ensures that you are buying the highest quality tea.
Utensils Used to Make and Drink Matcha Tea
The Japanese have been enjoying this variety of tea both medicinally and spiritually for almost 1,000 years. The utensils used by the people back then are still being used as they have become a part of the matcha tea drinking culture and the traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Traditional accessories include
- Bamboo Scoop
- Whisk & Whisk Holder
- Hand Strainer
- Strainer Can
- Matcha Bowls
The Bamboo Scoop: This simple utensil is used to scoop or pick up the tea powder from its airtight container into the matcha bowl. Nowadays these bamboo scoops are made to measure almost one gram of tea powder. In Japanese tea ceremonies, two bamboo scoops are used instead of one.
The Whisk & Whisk Holder: As the name suggests, the whisk is used for whisking the tea. This utensil is perfect for creating the foamy layer at the top of the tea, just like a latte. These whisks are made from the bamboo tree and are an essential part of whisking matcha tea in the traditional Japanese way. At first look, the whisk’s center prongs will be intertwined while the outer ones will be curled. The first thing to do after buying a new whisk is to soak the whisk in hot boiling water for a few of minutes. This helps in removing any aroma of the bamboo and also unravels the whisk’s prongs. The whisk holder’s purpose is simple, to hold the whisk when it is not in use. This way the whisk will dry evenly and also maintain the whisk’s shape.
The Hand Strainer: When making matcha tea, the hand strainer is used to ensure that the tea powder does not clump. Its purpose is to smoothen and evenly mix the powder in the water to make the perfect matcha green tea. Every time you make a bowl of matcha, you should use a strainer to sift the tea.
The Natsume: Typically used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the natsume is used as a tea caddy, to hold the tea powder after it has been sifted.
Matcha Strainer: Can The Matcha strainer-can houses the natsume and the hand strainer. The sifter is placed in the top portion of the can while the sifted matcha is kept at the bottom. As a rule of thumb, it is best to sift a week’s worth of sifted tea powder in the can. All the while the can can be stored in the fridge. After filling the can with a week’s worth of sifted matcha, store the rest in the freezer whilst using this for your drinking pleasure.
Matcha Bowls: The traditional matcha bowls are used for drinking matcha green tea. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Traditional Japanese matcha bowls come in three shapes and are meant to be used during different seasons
- Deep bowl with narrow mouth
- Normal shaped bowl
The shallow bowl has a wide mouth and is used during summer. Their wide mouth allows the matcha to cool quickly during the summer heat. Deep bowls with narrow mouths are used during winter seasons. The narrow mouth helps retain the heat during the cold winters as the small surface allows less heat to escape. The normal shaped bowl is a general bowl and can be used throughout the year. They are typically used during autumn and spring seasons as traditionally the winter and summer seasons have specific matcha bowls.
Hopefully this Matcha Tea Guide provides you with useful information. Matcha is a wonderful tea for so many reasons — great taste, stress-reducing, metabolism-enhancing, cholesterol-lowering, immune system boosting, and cancer-fighting (just to name a few).