Matcha, An Overview
The popularity of matcha has been steadily rising during the last few years and today Matcha is the most consumed Japanese green tea outside of Japan. In fact sales of matcha in the US have increased a staggering five-fold in 25 years! It is pretty easy to find information about matcha on the internet, but although abundant, the information is often incomplete. We have put together this comprehensive guide that will help answer some of the most common questions we receive from our customers: What is matcha? How is it grown and produced? How do I identify high quality matcha? How I can make the perfect bowl of matcha?
Matcha (抹茶 in Japanese) is a green tea that has undergone intentional shading and is then stone milled into a fine powder. Matcha is unique to Japan although it's origins lie in China. Matcha maintains it's unique place in the canon of Japanese teas for many reasons, but the most obvious is that the powdered leaf is whisked into a suspended state (with a fine foam on top) and then drank directly from a bowl. Therefore the entire leaf is consumed. Currently, high grade matcha is produced exclusively in Japan with the highest grades coming from Uji just south of Kyoto, Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture, and Nishio in Aichi prefecture. The lesser known areas that have begun producing Matcha are Shizuoka and Kagoshima prefectures.
The origins of Matcha (A quick history)
When tea was first drank in China, it was considered a medicine - not a drink. And like most other herbs, the tea was ground by hand, likely in a mortar, until it was in a crude, powder like state. The dried leaf was then combined with water and consumed. The notable benefits of the ground tea were increased energy, awareness and a sense of focused calm. The story most widely told is that these benefits found an audience with Chinese Buddhist monks who committed themselves to long hours of meditation, often overnight. The tea leaves helped them focus and kept their minds and bodies energized. Japanese monks who traveled to China in the years between 800-900AD came into contact with tea for the first time. In 1191, the first record of tea seeds being brought to Japan was recorded - the credit going to Eisai, a Japanese monk and missionary. Eisai's tea seed were first planted throughout Kyushu in the south of Japan but they quickly made their way to Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time.
After being cultivated for a time in the north of Kyoto, it was decided the Uji, south of Kyoto, proved the most hospitable region for producing tea. And with that, the lore of Uji Matcha was born. Matcha quality continued to develop in Japan as it is the main component of Chado, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. As Chado grew in popularity, the desire for higher quality matcha spurred the creation of more sophisticated methods of cultivation - culminating with today's advanced techniques in creating delicious matcha.
How Matcha Is Produced
Before matcha is whisked in your bowl, it has to be carefully grown and processed. In actuality, a farmer doesn't grow matcha, they grow Tencha, the raw leaf material that is milled to create matcha. Tencha is is produced from a select group of tea cultivars. In the Uji area Samidori, Uji Hikari, and Asahi are popular while in Fukuoka it is common to see Okumidori, Tsuyu Hikari and Saemidori. A tea tree needs roughly four to five years between being planted as a seedling and being harvested for tencha - this high investment of time is one reason Matcha demands a higher price.
The tea plants are carefully pruned and fertilized from the fall to mid spring, and once new leaves begin to grown, the plants are shaded for a period of between 25-40 days under Tana coverings. The plants are grown unpruned so the leaves can grow towards the little bit of light available beneath the Tana. While synthetic nylon is most commonly used for shading tencha, the highest grades are still shaded by traditional Honzu method where rice straw is spread over rattan covers to naturally shade the plants. After shading, the leaves are handpicked and quickly steamed before undergoing a unique combination of cooling and drying. Once the tencha is deveined and the leaves and stems separated, the tea is ready for milling,
Matcha - From Field to Factory
Tencha growing before covering
Asahi Tencha beneath the "Tana"
Honzu covering being applied
Baskets for harvesting beneath the shade
Harvesting tencha by hand
Freshly harvested leaf
Matcha - from Factory to your bowl
Steaming the tea leaf
Cooling the leaf with air
The leaf is dried on conveyor belts inside a brick oven
Tencha prior to destemming and deveining
Tencha top loaded into a mill
Stone mills grindning tencha into matcha
Tools for a perfect Matcha
1. Chawan - a tea bowl is an essential item. A chawan, or tea bowl, serves as the vessel for both preparing and drinking your Matcha. Chawan are at the heart of the tea ceremony and for good reason - they're beautiful and richly rewarding to use. Find a bowl that speaks to you and use it regularly.
2. Chasen - this hand carved bamboo whisk is a must for achieving level 10 foam. Wire whisks, forks, spoons - trust me - they don't work. Get one!
3. Chasen Naoshi - The chasen naoshi is a stand for drying your whisk and allowing it to keep its shape. This little fella will at minimum double the life your chasen.
4. Chashaku - A bamboo scoop perfectly calibrated at .5g per scoop. 3-4 scoops and you've got the perfect amount of Matcha.
5. Furui - Matcha is so finely ground that it tends to clump due to static charge. Running the matcha through furui sifter will ensure a perfectly smooth, clump free matcha.
Making Perfect Matcha
1. Bring your water to a full boil and then pour 65g into a small cup to cool slightly
2. Scoop 1.5 - 2.g of matcha into a strainer over your tea bowl and strain
3. Once the water cools to around 170-180°F (77-82°C), add it to the matcha powder
4. Gently knead the matcha into the water and then whisk in a vigorous "Z" pattern until a foam appears
5. Lift your whisk to the surface of the foam and continue gently whisking to create a micro foam. Support your bowl from the bottom, raise to your lips and enjoy
Follow These Tips When Buying Matcha
1. Your matcha should list Japan as the country of origin. And even better, a region, town, and grower. But most basically, your matcha should come from Japan. In no uncertain terms, true matcha comes from Japan. Other countries that produce “matcha” are providing you with powdered green tea of uncertain quality. Japan follows accepted guidelines for its growing, manufacturing and milling - and the combination of expertise, old world know-how and modern technology make Japan to only source for acceptable matcha. Origins inside Japan can be: Uji, Fukuoka (Yame), Aichi (Nishio) and more recently Kagoshima and Shizuoka (often for organic).
2. Good matcha has a best by date. Drinking expensive, refined matcha means nothing if the product is not fresh. Matcha is not like wine and does not benefit from age or vintage. Once the leaf is ground, it should be consumed as quickly as possible. Reputable sellers will list the best by date - generally on the bottom of the can or printed on the bag. If it is not there, there is no way to know when the matcha was produced or best to drink by.
3. The best matcha will be packed in a small tin or foil bag (often in a tin) and include an oxygen absorber inside. Again, these may seem like small things but with matcha so finely ground the surface area of the leaf is exposed to air and within a matter of days it can degrade in flavor.
4. Matcha should be refrigerated prior to sale. This is obviously hard to know when buying over the internet but you can always ask the company. If you see matcha being refrigerated at a tea shop, that is a tell tale sign that the retailer understands the importance of taking care of the product. Case in point, even the smallest local tea shops in japan invest in refrigerating their tea.
Recap: Tea should be from Japan, have a best by date, come in a can or foil lined bag and the best matcha will have oxygen absorbers inside and be kept refrigerated.
Ready To Start Making Matcha?
All photos by Zach Mangan
All words and photos © Kettl Tea, Inc / Do not use without permission