by Ali Roth
April 29, 2020
Let's Talk About Matcha
Unless you've been living under a rock (no judgement if you are, it sounds cool and quiet) you've heard of matcha. There's a huge range of how it's used, from formal ceremonies dating back 500 years, to lattes, to the latest gastronomical trends in the culinary world.
But what do you know about how and where it's made, the health benefits and which matcha to use for which occasion? Hopefully I can help unravel the mystery and address the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
What is Matcha and Why Should We Care?
Matcha is a kabuseicha (shaded tea) that has been milled into a fine powder and is whisked. Traditional and ceremonial grade matcha comes from Japan, but there are now lower grades being processed all over the place. To know a good matcha, the first sign to look for is a bright, vivid green color. If it has a yellow, brown or dull tint to it, pass. The smell should be fresh, crisp and green, like seaweed and fresh cut grass. The flavors can vary wildly depending on region, cultivar and processing method, but if you know what you want to use it for it will help you determine which matcha you should be buying. We'll get to that later.
To appreciate how this magical tea is made and used, we should first address why people see it as an important element to living a healthy lifestyle. Sure, it tastes great and is fun to make, but it turns out it's also really good for you. Additionally, unlike other teas that are steeped, you take in 100% of all the health properties in the leaf.
Cholorphyll Probably the first thing you'll notice is the intense green color. This is a result of elevated levels of chlorophyll which is manipulated in the growing process (we'll get to that later). Including a healthy dose of chlorophyll in your diet has been shown to improve skin tone and texture, boost energy levels, build blood and help heal wounds. Plus it is an excellent source of easily-absorbed antioxidants.
Vitamins Matcha is loaded with vitamins! Just one gram of the stuff has vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, E, K, and more than 50% of the daily intake of vitamin A carotene. More antioxidant power!
Catechins Matcha has the highest level of catechins than any kind of tea. Catechins have been known to fight cancer and have shown in recent studies to fight the growth and spread of viruses, including the coronavirus.
Caffeine Each serving of matcha has a healthy dose of caffeine, about the same amount as a cup of coffee. But the caffeine high is much easier for your body and mind to process. It gets you just as caffeinated, but lasts much longer, and promotes a creative, focused energy as opposed to a jittery one. Plus it lets you down easy, whereas coffee takes you on a rampage and tosses your body in a ditch as soon as it's done with you.
There's much more to the health benefits of matcha and I encourage you to do some additional research if you're into that sort of thing.
Chanoyu: The Four Pillars
Beyond the physical health, we must also consider the role matcha plays in out mental and spiritual health. Matcha is not only a beverage, but an art form, as practiced in Chanoyu (the Way of Tea). This ancient practice is based not only around making an exceptional bowl of tea, but by utilizing the four pillars in doing so. Wa (harmony), Kei (respect), Sei (purity) and Jaku (tranquility) are utilized in every aspect of the Tea Ceremony. I have been practicing sine 2012 and I still find ways in which these aspects can influence my personal life each time I make tea.
The lifelong practice of Chanoyu is one that may not be for everyone, but the simple act of making a tea with purpose and intention can do wonders to help one's psychological health.
Who's Drinking Matcha?
It seems like nowadays everyone is making matcha, and that's a good thing! It's on the menu at most cafes, restaurants and bakeries are cooking with it, and it's made its way into the fridge of just about every health-conscious human there is.
When it comes to Chanoyu, or Tea Cermony, that's a different story. The formal practice of making tea has largely left the everyday lives of people in Japan, but there are still dedicated students making tea all over the world.
There are three main schools of Chanoyu that are direct descendants of Rikyu. He has three grandsons, and each formed their own tea school. Each one interpreted Rikyu's teachings slightly differently, so there are details of each school that vary, but the main focus is still the same.
Urasenke is the most widely practiced and well-known school. It's trademark is a thick layer of frothed matcha that covers the tea in the bowl. When you think of matcha, this is probably how you view it.
Omotesenke is less common, but still widely practiced. The telltale sign of a bowl of matcha in this school is the "pond", or area of tea soup that can be viewed through a hole in the foam.
Mushanokoji is hardly practiced, even in Japan. Their school leaves half of the tea covered in foam, and half uncovered. It is the most difficult to achieve this (at least for an Omotesenke student like myself).
Types of Matcha
Each school has different styles of matcha that they use, as determined by the head of that school. But to keep it simple, we will break down the types of matcha into three categories:
Ceremonial Grade Matcha
comprises two camps: thick tea and thin tea. Usucha (thin tea)
is the most commonly made and easy to find. It is very vegetal but smooth and usually has a little bitterness to it. Koicha (thick tea)
is a higher grade and extra smooth. Koicha is about the texture of wet paint, and because of the higher amount of tea needed, must be the least bitter. All Koicha can be used to make Usucha, but Usucha cannot be used to make Koicha.
Ceremonial grade matcha is usually picked by hand and is stone-ground very slowly, so the speed doesn't heat up the tea and spoil it.
Culinary Grade Matcha
is used in most instances where ingredients are added to the matcha. Smoothies, lattes, cakes, sauces, etc... usually utilize this food-grade type of matcha. Culinary matcha is picked and processed by machine and is most commonly ground in a giant tumbler that rotates with ceramic balls inside which pulverize the matcha at a much faster rate than stone-grinding. The result is a bit less refined and usually has a bitter note to it. The bitterness is actually a good thing when mixing matcha; if the tea is too smooth, the flavor will get drowned out. But if the tea is bitter, the bitterness gets cancelled out and the flavor of the tea remains.
How to Make Matcha
Making matcha can be simple and straight forward, or can be an in depth process that requires you to question your place on this earth and how you interact with all of nature and humanity. So I'm going to find a middle ground, and go though the steps you need to take to make an excellent bowl of tea as close to the traditional way as possible, but without the lifetime of devotion.
You will need:
Chawan (tea bowl, or a medium sized bowl)
Matcha (freshly sifted before each use)
Chakin (tea towel, or a folded paper towel)
Chashaku (tea scoop, or small spoon)
Chasen (bamboo whisk)
Hishaku (water scoop, or ladle)
Hot water (ideally about 170F)
- Place the chawan with its front facing you. Pour or scoop a little hot water into the chawan. Pick up the chasen and gently whisk the water. This will help to not only warm the bowl, but will relax the bristles on the whisk and make it less susceptible to breaking and staining.
- Rotate the bowl so that the water heats all the way up the sides of the bowl. You want to warm the whole bowl until you can feel it's warmth on your hands, holding the bowl. Dump the water out.
- Take the chakin or folded paper towel and dry the bowl. You want the bowl to be warm and completely dry, as any water will cause the matcha to clump.
- Scoop matcha into the bowl. Usually we do two mounded scoops with the chashaku for each 3-4 oz. of water. That equates to roughly 2 grams or 1 teaspoon.
- Pour about 4 oz. of water onto the tea. Hold the bowl steady with one hand and whisk in back-and-forth-motions with the chasen. Do not push it against the bottom as it will cause the whisk to break. You can speed up and whisk longer to achieve more foam, or go slower for less. Typically you want to make 40 strokes.
- Hold the bowl in both hands and rotate the chawan clockwise twice, so that the 3:00 mark is now facing you. It's important to not drink out of the front of the bowl or put your mouth there as it is a sign of disrespect to the artist who crafted the chawan.
- Drink up! It's widely practiced to slurp your last sip.
How is Matcha Produced?
Matcha goes through a special process of shading, which changes the way the leaves grow. In the
weeks before being picked, the bushes are covered with a shade, which restricts the light and causes the leaves to grow wider and thinner to absorb the limited light. This creates a higher level of cholorphyll and the leaves become a very dark green. It also reduces the tannins, thus making the tea smoother to drink. If this wasn't done the resulting tea would be nearly undrinkable because it would be so bitter. It is then picked, withered, steamed, dried, and sorted to remove the veins and stems. The resulting "tencha" is finally stone-ground into a fine powder that dissolves easily. Once the leaves are ground, the tea will only stay fresh for a few months, so tencha is stored whole and then ground right before being packaged to give it the longest life.
Matcha: A Brief History
Matcha as we know it comes from Japan, and was first cultivated in Uji. (It's roots come from China, but after a monk brought the tea seeds to Japan in the 12th century, Japan fine-tuned the process while in China it died off for the most part). At first, matcha was limited to the nobility class and not largely consumed by or available to the general population. All that changed in the mid-1500's with Sen no Rikyu. He took the essence of the tea practice and distilled it down to the basics, making it accessible to everyone. The ceremony was no longer about who had the most expensive teaware or tea room, but focused on only needing the tools necessary to make a bowl of tea with clear intentions and purity of heart.