atcha is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea. It is special in two aspects of farming and processing: The green tea plants for matcha are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest, and the stems and veins are removed in processing.
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony centres on the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha. In modern times, matcha also has come to be used to flavour and dye foods such as mochi and soba noodles, green tea ice cream, and a variety of wagashi (Japanese confectionery). Often, the former is referred to as ceremonial-grade matcha, meaning that the matcha powder is good enough for tea ceremony. The latter is referred to as culinary-grade matcha, but there is no standard industry definition or requirements for either. Different matcha manufacturers might provide their own definitions.
Blends of matcha are given poetic names known as chamei(“tea names”) either by the producing plantation, shop, or creator of the blend, or, by the grand master of a particular tea tradition. When a blend is named by the grand master of a tea ceremony lineage, it becomes known as the master’s konomi, or favoured blend.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), tea leaves were steamed and formed into tea bricks for storage and trade. The tea was prepared by roasting and pulverising the tea, and decocting the resulting tea powder in hot water, then adding salt. In the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the method of making powdered tea from steam-prepared dried tea leaves, and preparing the beverage by whipping the tea powder and hot water together in a bowl became popular.Preparation and consumption of powdered tea was formed into a ritual by Chan or Zen Buddhists. The earliest extant Chan monastic code, entitled Chanyuan Qinggui (Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery, 1103), describes in detail the etiquette for tea ceremonies.
A bowl of matcha on a black lacquered tray with a traditional sweet
Zen Buddhism and the Chinese methods of preparing powdered tea were brought to Japan in 1191 by the monk Eisai. Although powdered tea has not been popular in China for some time, now there is a global resurgence in Matcha tea consumption, including in China. In Japan it continued to be an important item at Zen monasteries, and became highly appreciated by others in the upper echelons of society during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.
Matcha is made from shade-grown tea leaves that also are used to make gyokuro. The preparation of matcha starts several weeks before harvest and may last up to 20 days, when the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This slows down growth, stimulates an increase in chlorophyll levels, turns the leaves a darker shade of green, and causes the production of amino acids, in particular theanine. Only the finest tea buds are hand-picked. After harvesting, if the leaves are rolled out before drying as usual, the result will be gyokuro (jade dew) tea. If the leaves are laid out flat to dry, however, they will crumble somewhat and become known as tencha (碾茶). Then, tencha may be de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone-ground to the fine, bright green, talc-like powder known as matcha.
It may take up to one hour to grind 30 grams of matcha.
The flavour of matcha is dominated by its amino acids. The highest grades of matcha have more intense sweetness and deeper flavour than the standard or coarser grades of tea harvested later in the year.
In general, matcha is expensive compared to other forms of tea, although its price depends on its quality. Grades of matcha are defined by many factors.
Location on the tea bush
Where leaves destined for tencha are picked on the tea bush (Camelia Sinensis) is vital.
The very top should have developing leaves that are soft and supple. This gives a finer texture to higher grades of matcha. More-developed leaves are harder, giving lower grades a sandy texture. The better flavour is a result of the plant sending the majority of its nutrients to the growing leaves.
Treatment before processing
Traditionally, tencha leaves are dried outside in the shade and never are exposed to direct sunlight, however, now drying mostly has moved indoors. Quality matcha is vibrantly green also as a result of this treatment.
Without the correct equipment and technique, matcha can become “burnt” and suffer degraded quality. Typically in Japan matcha is stone-ground to a fine powder through the use of specially designed granite stone mills.
Oxidation is also a factor in determining grade. Matcha exposed to oxygen may easily become compromised. Oxidised matcha has a distinctive hay-like smell and a dull brownish-green colour.
A three-piece set for making matcha, including a whisk (chasen), bowl (chawan), and spoon (chashaku)
There are two main ways of preparing matcha: thick (koicha) and thin (usucha).
Prior to use, the matcha often is forced through a sieve in order to break up clumps. There are special sieves available for this purpose, which usually are stainless steel and combine a fine wire mesh sieve and a temporary storage container. A special wooden spatula is used to force the tea through the sieve, or a small, smooth stone may be placed on top of the sieve and the device shaken gently.
If the sieved matcha is to be served at a Japanese Tea Ceremony then it will be placed into a small tea caddy known as a chaki. Otherwise, it can be scooped directly from the sieve into a tea bowl.
A small amount of matcha is placed into the bowl, traditionally using a bamboo scoop called a chashaku, and then a modicum of hot (70–85 °C or 158–185 °F, not boiling,) water is added. The mixture is then whisked to a uniform consistency, using a bamboo whisk known as a chasen. There must be no lumps left in the liquid, and no ground tea should remain on the sides of the bowl. Because matcha may be bitter, it is traditionally served with a small wagashi sweet (intended to be consumed before drinking), and without added milk or sugar. It usually is considered that 40 g of matcha will provide for 20 bowls of usucha or 10 bowls of koicha:
Usucha, or thin tea, is prepared with approximately 1.75 grams (amounting to 1.5 heaping chashaku scoop, or about half a teaspoon) of matcha and approximately 75 ml (2.5 oz) of hot water per serving, which can be whisked to produce froth or not, according to the drinker’s preference (or to the traditions of the particular tea school).Usucha creates a lighter and slightly more bitter tea.
Koicha, or thick tea, requires significantly more matcha (usually about doubling the powder and halving the water): approximately 3.75 grams (amounting to 3 heaping chashaku scoops, or about one teaspoon) of matcha and approximately 40 ml (1.3 oz) of hot water per serving, or as many as six teaspoons to 3/4 cup of water. Because the resulting mixture is significantly thicker (about like liquid honey), blending it requires a slower, stirring motion that does not produce foam. Koicha normally is made with more expensive matcha from older tea trees (exceeding thirty years) and, thus, produces a milder and sweeter tea than usucha; it is served almost exclusively as part of Japanese tea ceremonies.
- Tea bowl (chawan) – large enough to whisk the fine powder tea around 120 millilitres (4.06 fl oz)
- Tea whisk (chasen) – a bamboo whisk with fine bristles to whisk or whip the tea foam
- Tea spoon/scoop (chashaku) – a bamboo spoon to measure the powder tea into the tea bowl
- Tea caddy (natsume) – container for the matcha powder tea
- Tea cloth (chakin) – small cotton cloth for cleaning tea ware during the tea ceremony