What is Matcha?
At its most basic, matcha is tea leaves that have been finely ground into a powder. While the general perception of matcha is of a spritely green powder, other variations and blends do exist. There is a matcha that includes ground shavings of gold leaf. There is even matcha made from black tea, oolong, and even mugwort tea. But the majority of authentic matcha is the ground powder of processed and dried green tea. The methods of producing matcha involve many little steps. First, the plants are shaded for 3-4 weeks before they are finally harvested. The leaves that are produced are not referred to as matcha yet, but tencha instead. The tencha then has the veins, stems, and twigs removed. Matcha is purely the powdered leaf, and the entire leaf is consumed within the water of the resultant beverage. The reason for shading is because tea plants that are provided with a decent layer of cloud coverage produce more chlorophyll, theanine, and caffeine, while also being sweeter than non-shaded bushes. The means of enjoying matcha are not set in stone either. Matcha can be enjoyed with hot water or fixed with milk to be a latte or milk tea as well. Many different culinary treats and confections exist using matcha powder as a garnish or also as a main ingredient. The catalogue of these items is too extensive, from rice cakes to baked goods to even different types of noodles used in soba and ramen.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is one of the most famous examples of tea culture from around the globe. The tradition has antiquated precedents but what many know and recognize today was a tradition that began and developed with the first interactions between Japanese culture and tea culture in the 9th century A.D. The ceremony is known in Japanese as the Chanoyu, Sado, or Chado and is usually translated as the "Way of Tea." The service itself revolves around the preparation, serving, and enjoyment of matcha. The ceremony itself is deeply rooted in Japanese Zen Buddhism and is practiced as a spiritual and meditative experience. Tea is not the only thing enjoyed or emphasized during a tea ceremony. Often flower arrangements and calligraphy will also serve as talking points and areas of spiritual focus and meditative awareness. Space is small and meant to be intimate.
Originally tea houses were large, baroque buildings that emphasized wealth, materialism, status, power, and grandeur. But with the introduction of the more modest and humble Zen Buddhism, the tea house was transformed into little more than a rustic shack. These huts would be built in the style of shed lived in by exiled scholars and bureaucrats or Taoist and Buddhist poets of the Tang and Song eras. Tea houses would often be situated off a beaten path away from more populated or busy areas. The walkways to the tea house would intentionally meander, in an attempt to loosen the approaching guests' preconceived sense of importance and personal grandeur in favour of admiring the artless appearance of rustic nature and contemplate their mortality and emptiness.
Once inside, the doorways to the tea house would be fashioned to be intentionally too small and narrow for samurai and warlords, like Hideyoshi Toyotomi for example, from entering the tea room with their heads held high and girded with swords. The entrance would force all guests, even mighty warlords like Hideyoshi to bow. And disallowing swords or weapons in the tea room created an atmosphere of peace. The tea room is meant to serve as a world of its own, where there are no people of higher or lower status, and individuals are of no threat to one another.
Once inside the ceremony will take place. Everything is standardized and ritualized. The tea master will remark and talk about each of their tea utensils, of which there are also many. Each appliance may have a history and a story or may have been handed down through generations by a historically significant master. As the water is boiled, the matcha is also prepared, scooped, filtered, and measured, each with different specific utensils. Once the matcha is ready to have the water poured in, the master will whisk and whip the mixture with a bamboo whisk until the surface has an almost opaque layer of foam. The tea is often poured into one bowl, or individual bowls for each guest, the bowl is rotated so not to be sipped from the front. The guest will complement the tea master on the tea, and then confectionary treats like rice cakes are enjoyed. The tea ceremony itself can have variations based on many factors, but the season is one of the constant rotating factors that will cause a tea ceremony to have some different steps and practices. The different seasons determine what incense may be used, what flowers will be arranged, what calligraphy will be presented and what colour patterns and motifs will be used for the teaware and décor of the tea room.
The matcha used in tea ceremonies is of a particular ceremonial grade. Any matcha used for retail or purposes like preparing bottled tea for retail exists on one of two other different grade scales. These grades are referred to as premium grade and culinary grade. The quality of ceremonial grade is higher than a culinary and premium class, and so is the price of the tea. Though, there does not seem to be any industry standards or definitions that exist to demarcate these distinctions.
While considered an essential part of Japanese culture, the practice of whisking tea leaves, eventually powdered ground tea leaves into a beverage began in Song dynasty China. During the preceding Tang era of China, tea was packed into bricks which had to be decocted to enjoy. To enjoy the drink more easily and quickly, steamed tea leaves would be dried and ground into a powder, or sometimes even cracked and smashed to bits right in the cup and then whipped and whisked to enjoy. As tea was already closely tied to Buddhism, especially Chan Buddhism, the preparation of matcha became codified and ritualized by Chan monks and adepts.
The origins of Chan's association with tea go back to the semi-mythic founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma. A Buddhist tea origin myth details the patriarch of Chan meditating in a cave for years. However, during his meditation, he fell asleep, and in a righteous fury, tore his eyelids off so he could never fall asleep while meditating again. The lids that fell to the ground sprung up into the first green tea plant. This myth is, of course, fanciful but speaks to the importance of green tea in the context of Chan Buddhism. Just as Chan adepts would drink tea to stave off sleep and fatigue during long meditation sessions or fasts, so too, according to legend, did their founder and patriarch. The association between tea, it's ritualized drinking, and Chan Buddhism all were imported to Japan in the 1100s. The Zen monk Eisai is credited with bringing powdered tea preparation in particular and green tea plants more broadly back to Japan.
In Japan, Chan became known as "Zen," and the tea rituals and ceremonies grew and developed over time. The tea tradition developed alongside Zen's development into a genuinely Japanese religious expression. But Zen and tea culture evolved into the cultural monoliths and hallmarks of Japanese culture in the 14th to 16th centuries. This is because Zen became the chosen religion of many powerful and influential samurai, daimyo, and even various shotguns. With this backing by the warrior class, which had become the de facto ruling class, Zen and tea were lifted to the upper echelons of Japanese society. Even one of Japan's unifying shoguns, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was known for being the patron of the influential tea master Sen no Rikyu. Today, green tea and matcha preparation equipment are still mainstays at many Zen temples.
The leaves used to make matcha are also used to make another excellent tea, gyokuro. To perfect matcha, shading is essential. Shading the plants slows down their growth, increases chlorophyll levels, and transmutes the leaves into a darker shade of green. More amino acids are produced, including theanine, the amino acid that gives tea its calming effect. The leaves are then stripped of their twigs and veins, so only the softest parts that will crumble and be ground easily into dust remain. The method in which the leaves are ground is using a mill-stone. This process is time-intensive because the stone mustn't get too hot, or the aroma of the matcha will be changed. It takes about one whole hour to grind 30 mg of powdered green tea properly.
Matcha's flavour is determined mainly by its amino acids. The highest matcha grades are intensely sweet and have a deep and rich flavour, much more than lower classes that will be harvested later in the tea harvesting season. There are three primary matcha grades.
The ceremonial grade is the highest of matcha grades. This is the matcha that is used during tea ceremonies and in Buddhist temple tea activities. It is ground on a granite stone mill and goes for a price of 100-140 $ USD for 100 grams. Ceremonial matcha is known to possess tones of umami flavour.
Premium grade is produced from leaves from the top of the tea bush. The top leaves produce higher quality and more desirable tea and premium grade matcha reflects this. Premium grade sells for 50-80% USD for 100 grams of matcha. Premium is noted to have a fresh flavour.
Food/culinary grade is the lowest grade and also the cheapest of matcha grades. Culinary matcha sells for 15-40$ USD for 100 grams. The culinary class usually has a bitter flavour because it uses tea leaves from lower on the bush.
Some variables help to determine the grade of matcha. The placement of the leaves on the bush is a significant factor. High leaves produce sweeter tea, while lower leaves, conversely produce more bitter brew. The more top quality leaves are also softer and more comfortable to grind while lower leaves are sturdier and make for a sandy grind. As for the drying process, the leaves are dried in the shade, and increasingly indoors. Being drained out of direct sunlight contributes to the tea having a brilliant green colour. Matcha is also stone-ground, if not ground by a grinding stone, it can be burnt and suffer from reduced quality as a result. Matcha is incredibly sensitive to oxidation, and if exposed to too much oxygen can turn brown and take on an unpleasant hay-like smell and less palatable taste
The traditional preparation of matcha usually refers to the tea ceremony mode of development. First, the matcha is filtered through a sieve to break up the clumps of powder. A wooden utensil serves the purposes of packing the matcha through the sieve or strainer. Next, 2-4 grams of matcha is scooped into the tea bowl using a bamboo scoop. 60-80 millilitres of hot water is poured into the pan, and the mixture is whisked and whipped with a bamboo whisk. The surface of the bowl is whisked until covered with an even layer of almost thick froth and all the lumps and clusters of matcha are thoroughly dispersed. The matcha is served alongside a sweet jam to balance the often bitter taste of the tea.
Basic Matcha Teaware
Unique teaware is mandatory for the proper preparation of matcha. While other teas can be prepared and enjoyed with little more than a teapot, the drink, a cup, and some hot water, matcha requires a few more accoutrements.
Tea bowl or chawan is the traditional receptacle for the tea to be whisked. The designs can vary, but often earthenware with a rustic design or with imperfections are prized.
Tea whisk or chasen, this item is one of the most important as it helps actually to whisk, whip, froth and break the clumps of the tea. It is a bamboo stem with a series of small bamboo spokes.
A teaspoon or chashaku is a bamboo scoop that serves the purpose of measuring and serving the matcha into the chawan.
Tea caddy or natsume is the particular container for the matcha tea.
Tea cloth or chakin is a small cotton cloth that is used to tidy up the tea area after the ceremony.
The health benefits of matcha are akin to other forms of green tea, but there are some amplified effects due to consuming the entirety of the leaves rather than just the brewed liquor of the leaves. To start, the caffeine of matcha is at a much higher concentration than standard leaf green tea. The theanine levels are also higher. Theanine is the amino acid that gives drink, and matcha, in particular, its de-stressing and calming abilities. Matcha also possesses the catechin epigallocatechin gallate. Studies have shown that this catechin has some possible minor cancer-preventing properties and can assist in weight loss.