For many, matcha is a trendy new beverage, a healthy and gentle alternative to coffee. but the history, usage, and magic of matcha goes back centuries, to the Song era China and the solemn tea houses and Zen temples of Japan.
But what exactly is matcha in green tea, what are its health benefits and what makes it such a popular type of tea that has persisted for centuries?
While the newest matcha joint may have opened a few years ago in your neighborhood or city, matcha as a beverage began in China’s Song dynasty. In the previous Tang dynasty, tea was steamed and formed into bricks.
These bricks were then boiled to loosen them and be enjoyed as a beverage with hot water. But in the Song era, a new style of tea preparation began. Tea drinkers started to pulverize the dried leaves and break them apart.
They would use brushes or whisks to whip and mix the leaves and the hot water in a bowl to enjoy their tea. This caught on and was even codified in Chinese Chan Buddhist monasteries.
The rules, rituals, and etiquette of enjoying the whisked and powdered tea in bowls developed more and Japanese monks traveled to China to study Chan, which became known as “Zen” in Japan.
One Japanese monk, in particular, Eisai, is credited with both introducing the first green tea plant to Japan as well as the art of enjoying powdered green tea along with it.
As Zen became patronized by the powerful elite, namely the samurai warlords known as daimyo and the even more powerful, shogun, so too did matcha tea rise in stature.
Matcha’s proper etiquette and means of enjoyment became codified in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. the Japanese Tea Ceremony has a level of solemnity, ritual, and atmosphere that is nearly identical to a religious service in other denominations and is deeply tied to Zen spirituality.
From the 14th to the 16th-century various tea masters like Sen no Rikyu added to and developed the philosophy, art, and methods of proper matcha preparation and the etiquette and sophisticated practices for its refined enjoyment.
Tea Ceremony and Utensils
The Japanese Tea ceremony developed from the rituals that grew up around matcha in Chinese Chan and then Japanese Zen monasteries and temples.
The Japanese tea ceremony today is a sublime spiritual and cultural event that is meant to bring the tea master and the tea guests’ attention to the present moment.
Becoming aware of one another, themselves and the transient nature of life as demonstrated by tea. Traditionally, the tea ceremony was a rejection of the more lavish and ornate demonstrations of opulence and power that developed around other types of tea gatherings in Japan that were frequented by the wealthy and powerful elite.
The more humble tea ceremony that has persisted into the modern era often takes place in a small, rustic style shack. the rooms are small, and the doorways are short and narrow. the purpose of the smaller doorways leading into the main tea room in tea ceremony houses was a way to disallow the samurai class from entering girded with swords.
The tea house was developed as a peaceful space, one devoid of violence and strife. In addition to the brewing of matcha and the specific steps to both brewing and drinking the beverage, there are also other aspects of the tea ceremony guests participate in such as enjoying incense, calligraphy scrolls, and flower arrangements.
There are also specific items that are used in a tea ceremony. Because matcha must be whipped and whisked to drink, there are additional utensils required to prepare matcha. the most basic items are as follows.
Tea Bowl or Chawan
Matcha is whisked from a wide basin-like bowl. Earthenware items that show signs of weathered use and damage are traditionally preferred.
There is no teapot used when enjoying matcha because the powder is whisked right in the bowl and consumed completely.
Tea Whisk or Chasen
Perhaps the most important item when enjoying matcha. For those who wish to prepare their matcha at home, doing so without a whisk is very difficult.
A chasen is a bamboo whisk with bristles used for frothing the hot water and powder together in the tea bowl.
Tea Spoon or Chashaku
The bamboo tea scoop is used to measure the amount of matcha powder that will go into the bowl.
High-grade matcha as used in tea ceremonies and temples is very expensive and so using only small amounts is a wise plan.
Tea Caddy or Natsume
The container for the matcha powder. This container can range in different colors, designs, sizes, and levels of elegance and intricateness. Traditionally, the colors and design depend on the season.
Tea Cloth or Chakin
The tea cloth. This serves the practical function of cleaning spills and for wiping the tea bowl during a tea ceremony.
How Matcha Tea Is Made
The methods used to make matcha tea differ from other varieties of green tea. First, matcha is prepared from a variety of green tea called tencha.
Tencha tea leaves are cultivated similarly to other green tea leaves but instead of being rolled to be packaged and brewed whole, tencha leaves are instead sent through a rigorous process of having the twigs, veins and stems all removed.
This results in dry leaves that retain all the health benefits and caffeine of other green tea but can be easily pulverized and stone-ground into matcha powder.
Matcha powder is sorted into three different grades based on the quality of the leaves used. With ceremonial grade being the maximum level of quality and the most expensive and culinary grade being a lower grade used in preparing confections and other goods for a more general mark.
Matcha and Health
Another aspect of matcha that makes it so special is its health benefits. As one is consuming the whole leaf that is dissolved into the hot water, our bodies can enjoy more of the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals found in green tea.
The caffeine level of matcha is also relatively high when compared to other beverages like regular green tea. This is because the leaves used to make matcha are shade-grown, and retain a high dose of their caffeine content.
The L-Theanine in matcha acts to offset most of the negative side effects of caffeine consumption such as anxiety and jitters, too which is why it is often hailed as a good alternative to coffee.
Drink Matcha, Be at Peace
Though matcha is the tea of choice for the solemn and refined Japanese Tea Ceremony, that does not mean one cannot enjoy matcha at home!
With a proper whisk and matcha bowl and of course some fine powder, anyone can whisk up a refreshing and energizing bowl of matcha anytime they like!
Just make sure to be present, aware and at ease when you whisk your tea, and you are sure to have an amazing and rejuvenating beverage!
- l “Matcha.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matcha.
- l “Varieties of Green Tea.” ITOEN ©ITO EN, All Rights Reserved., www.itoen-global.com/allabout_greentea/varieties.html.
- l “What Is Matcha?” Teatulia, www.teatulia.com/tea-varieties-101/what-is-matcha.html.