Matcha is everywhere these days, especially Instagram, where people snap pics of beautiful green matcha lattes. The green tea powder is having a big moment, but it’s actually been around for thousands of years. The meaning has also changed significantly, and as a result, the quality.
“Matcha” is a Japanese word that translates into “tea powder.” “Cha” means “tea,” while “ma” means powder. Legend has it the first seeds of the green tea plant came to Japan from China through a Zen monk named Eisai. He planted them in Kyoto, by a temple, and introduced the Zen philosophy. He was the first person to prepare tea powder by grinding the leaves. True matcha can only be made with three species of green tea – Yabukita, Asatsuyu, and Gyokuro.
When those green tea bushes sprout, they are covered by a screen for over 20 days. The best leaves and stems are then shredded, steamed, cooled, and baked. The leaves are separated from the stems, so any sand and bacteria are removed. At last, the tea is dried and ground with a natural stone mill. The finer the grain, the better. The best powder has extremely-fine grains with a diameter of only 2-20 micrometers.
Zen and matcha became inseparable through the Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony is about embracing the ideals of Zen, which focuses on the present and finding beauty in the everyday. Drinking the tea made sense, because it has a stimulating effect on the mind without leaving a jittery effect. A person can be both alert and calm.
When matcha was first being made, it was a rare commodity. Only very small quantities were made at a time, and only the upper class could drink in. In the mid 1700’s, Sohen Nagatani invented a new process – uji – and matcha became much more available to everyone. It is named after the same region where Eisai brought the first green tea plants, and is where the majority of Japanese tea is still produced.
The matcha boom in the United States can be traced back to 2014, where Google search results for “matcha” skyrocketed, and sales exceeded $10 billion. Specialty matcha cafes started opening across the country, and chefs began using the powder as flavoring for everything from cakes to noodles to chocolate.
Most Americans are drinking matcha incorrectly. Places like Starbucks pour in tons of milk and sugar, which essentially destroys the natural flavor. Matcha is supposed to have a bitter, creamy, and almost seaweed-like flavor. It should also never be served in a cup. Matcha must be in a bowl, so the fragrant steam envelops you as you drink. To make the tea, the matcha powder is whisked into hot water for only 1-2 minutes. You have to drink it quickly, before the powder settles back to the bottom.
Matcha was never intended to be served like coffee and grabbed on the go in a plastic cup. There’s a reason the tea was chosen as the tea for the famous Japanese tea ceremony. It takes concentration to heat the water just enough (too hot, and the tea is too bitter), whisk it just right, and then drink it quickly. One must be completely present in the moment.
Interested in learning more about tea? Click here to read about the different types.