You’ve seen it on weird health-food blogs. Your sister tried to bake a cake with it and made a mess of your kitchen. You couldn’t help but notice the powdered tea in the shop, but didn’t want ask about it, because you didn’t even know where to start. Regardless of how this unusual tea has surfaced in your life, you must be wondering: What is matcha?
Matcha is powdered green tea. Matcha is to green tea what flour is to wheat. It was traditionally used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but now can be used to replace both breakfast and your morning coffee with an on-the-go, high-caffeine, high-antioxidant power drink. This tea has a longer, and more complicated history than most, and can be prepared in a much broader variety of ways than most. As a result, I thought it may be helpful if we made a guide of everything you could ever want to know about matcha. This, of course is still a little cursory, given the fact that the tea ceremony is one of those things that you can study for your entire life, and still never fully understand, but this should definitely be enough to get you through a normal conversation about it.
Because this post is a little longer, I thought I would give you clear, large, and descriptive headlines. This means that you should be able to skip the parts which you think are boring, without missing out on too much.
You may have heard of matcha extolled as a cancer-preventing, life-extending, detoxifying weight-loss miracle. These claims tend to be a little exaggerated. Here’s what the world does know.
Because matcha involves consuming the whole leaf, matcha has all of the health benefits of green tea, but more so. This means that all of the good things you’ve heard about green tea are also true of matcha, but are just even more pronounced.
The first major health benefit of matcha, which you should notice within a few minutes of starting to drink it, is that it has a lot more caffeine than regular green tea does. The caffeine content of matcha should be about 70 mg/ 8 ounce glass, if it is prepared correctly. Your average cup of coffee, by comparison, should have about 95 mg/ 8 ounce glass. If you’re someone who drinks tea exclusively, this is going to feel like a lot. However, if you drink both tea and coffee, you officially have no excuse for not replacing that first morning cup.
Matcha will “rev up” your metabolism, and help you lose weight. This is not because matcha is a total miracle drug that mysteriously changes your entire physiology until you look like one of those people in the advertisements for it. This is because it has caffeine, but a almost no calories (it has roughly 3 calories per cup, so as with gum, we can’t really say that it has no calories). Black coffee will do the same thing, however, we don’t recommend using black coffee to lose weight, because the acid on an empty stomach can make you sick.
Green tea has antioxidants. Matcha, because it is green tea in which you are consuming the whole leaf, has even more antioxidants. In fact, it has about 10 times as many antioxidants as green tea. This is because, when you drink green tea, 90% of those antioxidants are staying behind in the leaves, and you’re throwing them away.
You may be thinking that you get plenty of antioxidants from all of the other super foods you eat. You put blueberries in your cereal. You love wine and chocolate, and love getting to call them healthy even more. Sometimes, you even eat spinach. Here’s a graph of antioxidant concentrations of different foods, courtesy of matchasource.com:
If you’re confused as to what antioxidants are, or why they’re great, I talk about them at length in this post.
L-Theanine is the reason why monks were able to sit and meditate for hours on end. It is an amino acid found only tea which helps with focus, and has a calming effect, without inducing drowsiness. It does this by shifting the brain away from beta-waves and more to alpha-waves. The effect is very similar to that of meditation itself on the brain, so if you really want to feel ready to take on your day, a few minutes of meditation over a bowl of matcha can be incredibly helpful for making you feel calm and centered.
Matcha tastes very green. It is a little bitter, and vaguely reminiscent of spinach. If you
like green tea, the taste is similar, but if you don’t, it takes some getting used to. I drink it mixed with almond milk, because the almond milk sweetens it and balances out the flavor. Many matcha powders are mixed with sweeteners and condensed milk, to try to mask the grassiness of the flavor.
The quality of matcha can also greatly alter its taste. Matcha is divided into two grades (ceremony grade and culinary grade), though it should be noted that there is no official definition for which is which. Higher-grade matcha tends to be made from newer leaves, and from older trees. Tea plants tend to concentrate caffeine and nutrients in newer leaves, while they are still growing, and so ceremony-grade matcha tends to be slightly more caffeinated. Particularly high-quality matcha comes from trees which are more than 30 years old. These tend to have a sweeter, more mellow flavor, and are reserved almost exclusively for the tea ceremony.
Our matcha is a roughly middle-of-the-pack culinary grade. It is of a nice enough quality to be delicious and healthy, but not so prestigious that it cannot be enjoyed every day. It contains no sweeteners or additives--just ground green tea leaves.
Matcha begins it’s life as green tea. However, at least 20 days before harvesting, shade tarps are pulled over plants which are chosen to become matcha or gyokuro. These shade tarps block the sun, and force the plant to work harder, and produce more chlorophyll. It also greatly reduces the speed at which the plants can grow, meaning that the same number of trees will produce less tea. The increase in chlorophyll makes both matcha and gyokuro a much darker shade of green than other green teas.
When the plants are ready, the leaves are hand-picked. Leaves from near the top of the
plant, which are new and more delicate, can be made into ceremonial-grade matcha, while leaves from lower on the plant become culinary grade. After a quick steaming to prevent the oxidization which would turn them into an oolong or black tea, the leaves are then dried in the shade. Some plantations move the leaves indoors to try them, while others simply shade them with tarps. At this point, if the leaves are rolled, they will become Gyokuro, while if they are allowed to dry flat, they become the brittle tencha. The leaves and veins of tencha are then removed, either by machine or by hand. While tencha can be brewed as a tea on it’s own, that isn’t really what it’s meant for. Tencha is ground into matcha using stones which are usually made of granite.
The traditional way to drink matcha is a complicated ceremony which I’ll try to summarize in a little bit, when I talk about the history of matcha
I personally prefer to mix my matcha into almond milk, though other kinds of milk work, and water is more traditional. The sweetness of the almond milk tends to counteract the grassy flavor of matcha. Half a teaspoon per 8 ounces is a good amount to use at first, though you’ll figure out exactly how strong you like your matcha as time goes on. It helps to sift matcha powder before adding it to whatever you’re adding it to, because static in the tea can cause it to form clumps. Our Darjeeling Tea Strainer is an excellent way to break sift your matcha. Next, you’ll want to mix it. A bamboo whisk called a chasen is the traditional way to do this, though matcha frothers tend to be a little faster. Mix your matcha until it forms a frothy foam at the top, and be sure that you’ve broken up any clumps.
This is America. We love our traditionally prepared teas, with their long and complicated histories. But we also have places to be. A little experimenting on a slow day last week revealed that our French Press tumbler can absolutely be used to make matcha in a way which is quick, easy, clean, and makes entirely too much matcha all at once. Simply scoop your matcha into the bottom of the tumbler, and put the lid on it. Turn it upside down and shake it gently, to let the strainer sift the powder. Then, turn it right-side-up again, add water, milk, almond milk, or whatever you happen to be using, and seal it tightly. Finally, make an absolute fool of yourself by shaking the thing until the matcha is thoroughly mixed into the water.
The Japanese tea ceremony is an elaborate process designed to show hospitality and good will to a guest, and to display the grace and good etiquette of a host. It was heavily
influenced by Zen Buddhism, and can be traced back as early as the 12th century. Matcha, rather than whole leaf teas, tended to be used in Japan at this time, because of difficulties involved with shipping and storing loose-leaf teas. Tea would instead be compressed into “cakes” and “bricks” much like fine Pu-ehrs, and pieces would be broken or ground off of these cakes and bricks in order to be brewed.
How the tea ceremony is properly carried out varies based on the time of year and the level of formality, but will always involve the use of a small bamboo spoon, called a chashuka, a bamboo whisk, called a chasen, and a simple ceramic bowl, called a chawan. Loose matcha should be sifted before use, and our Darjeeling Tea strainer works remarkably well as a sifter screen. A little hot water should be added to the bowl before it is used, to warm it, and should then be poured out. The sifted matcha should then be scooped into the bowl using the chashuka, at a ratio of about half a teaspoon per 8 oz of water you intend to use. Then, you should pour in your water, whic h should be between 165 and 180 degrees (not boiling!), and commence whisking the mixture with the chasen. When the matcha is frothy and a consistent shade of green, it is ready. Traditionally, the bowl should then be presented to a guest who should hold it with two hands, and who should drink it with small, quick sips until it is empty. The chasen is then traditionally thrown out after it’s first use, but because this seems like a bit of a waste, we recommend rinsing it off, and standing it on it’s base to dry.
All of this, is of course, an abbreviated and simplified version of a much more complicated ritual, which traditionally would involve the host and guest entering a designated tea room through different doors, and sitting in order of prestige. While this quick overview of the ceremony leaves out a great deal of the ceremoniousness of it all, it still seems to hold onto the essence of the ceremony, which are the ideas of Wabi (basically, humility and simplicity) and if ichi-go ichi-e, which is the idea that each bowl of matcha will only exist once, and which is closely tied with the Buddhist focus on mindfulness.
While matcha has a very complex and subtle flavor, it can be a little too grassy for many people to enjoy alone. This is why it has been tempered and harnessed by being added to a variety of different recipes. The most notable of these are a variety of pastries, though matcha is used to make green tea ice cream, and has recently been used in more savory dishes.