An Expert's Guide To Matcha – Everything You Need To Know About This Japanese Green Tea
Matcha green tea has become all the rage in the past decade. It has become a popular substitute for coffee given its high caffeine content and has even become a popular flavor for lattes, bubble tea, ice cream, and more. Some people love its unique and earthy flavor, while others love its health benefits and caffeine content.
What exactly is matcha though, and why is it so sought-after? What makes this Japanese green tea so special? In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the Japanese superfood matcha so that you can decide for yourself if you want to incorporate it into your daily routine.
What is Matcha?
Matcha is a type of Japanese green tea that is made of premium-quality tea leaves called Tencha leaves. Tencha leaves are grounded into a fine powder, which we know as matcha. Before Tencha leaves can be turned into matcha powder, they must go through a meticulous process of harvesting, steaming, drying, and being picked through.
While matcha tea has become a popular alternative to coffee in the west and a popular flavor for beverages and desserts, matcha is one of the prominent flavors in Japan. It is the tea of choice predominantly used in Japanese tea ceremony, and many people love enjoying it with wagashi for an afternoon snack.
As green tea originates in China so too does matcha powder. In fact, the history of matcha dates all the way back to the 12th century. During this time in China, it was common to enjoy green tea by grounding tea leaves into a powder and using a bamboo whisk to whip the tea in hot water. Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai, who is the founder of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, witnessed this type of practice when he was visiting China and was quite intrigued. Upon his arrival to Japan, he brought with him Chinese tea leaves and the Chinese etiquette of enjoying tea.
Though this way of enjoying tea is not popular in China anymore, it became a huge hit in Japan, especially in Japanese tea ceremony. For centuries, the Japanese have been enjoying matcha in this way and have even developed special tools for making matcha in a traditional way.
Is Matcha the same as green tea?
While matcha is a type of Japanese green tea, which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant (similar to that of other teas,) it is not the same as standard Japanese green tea or what is known as sencha.
Not only are the ways in which matcha and sencha are cultivated completely different, but the way in which both of these teas, (and matcha compared with other green teas for that matter) are brewed is also different.
Consuming matcha vs green tea
As we have learned, the way that matcha is prepared and consumed is different than other kinds of Japanese green tea. Since green tea leaves are steeped, we typically do not absorb as many of the health benefits as they have to offer. However, when drinking matcha, we can absorb more of its health benefits as we can directly consume the tea leaves when drinking it.
In fact, matcha is loaded with antioxidants, polyphenols, and vitamins A, B, C, E, and K which our bodies benefit from more, as we are digesting the tea leaves straight. Matcha also has a lot of unique health benefits that individualize itself from other kinds of green tea, but we’ll get into those a little later in this post.
If you come to Japan, you may come across another powdered tea that resembles matcha called funmatsu ryokucha. Ryokucha, which means green tea in Japanese comes in loose-leaf, teabag, and powdered forms. The powdered version of ryokucha, which is called funmatsu ryokucha looks very similar to matcha, but they are in fact not the same thing. The difference lies in the fact that funmatsu ryokucha is made out of sencha green tea. Funmatsu ryokucha is also not as vibrantly green as matcha.
Funmatsu ryokucha is often served in sushi restaurants and is used to make bottled green tea. It has its own unique flavor, but it is not matcha. Of course, funmatsu ryokucha is also delicious, but it is easy to confuse with matcha due to its similar appearance, so just be aware of this!
How is Matcha powder made?
Matcha powder is made out of Tencha which is one of the highest-quality green teas in Japan. Tencha leaves are grown similarly to Gyokuro leaves since they are grown and covered in shaded areas for 20 days to up to one month before being picked. By using this method, the tea leaves are said to retain their unique flavor, aroma, and bright color. Tencha tea leaves are always picked during the first tea leaf picking season which takes place in early spring, to ensure their premium quality.
Once the tea leaves are picked, they are then steamed, dried, and sorted and any dirty leaves are discarded. Once sorted through, they are then dried again and separated into different categories depending on the purpose.
For making matcha, the stems and vines are discarded and only the leaves are used. The leaves are then ground up into a very fine powder using a stone mill. Once the matcha powder is made, it is packaged and then distributed to retailers.
Where are tencha leaves grown?
Tencha production takes place in mainly three locations – Uji Kyoto, Nishio Aichi, and Kagoshima. However, Uji matcha has gained quite a reputation and many people travel to Uji just to experience their matcha. Kirishima and Chiran in Kagoshima are also popular places for growing tencha leaves, as these areas have good terrain for growing tea leaves in Japan.
Matcha is also grown in other places such as Wakayama, Mie, and Shizuoka, but these places do not focus their tea leaf production on tencha and may be more famous for cultivating other kinds of green tea like sencha.
Matcha health benefits
Matcha is full of health benefits that have heavily contributed to its growing popularity in recent years. Green tea is well known for being full of antioxidants, polyphenols, and vitamins, but they cannot be digested directly due to the way green tea is consumed. Since matcha powder can be directly consumed due to how it is prepared, the health benefits can also be absorbed into the body much easier.
Matcha is full of catechins, which is a type of antioxidant. Catechins are responsible for giving teas their unique bitterness and astringent flavor. Catechins also have the ability to lower cholesterol and aid in weight loss.
Many people also love matcha for its unique umami, which comes from amino acids, particularly theanine. Theanine has effects on the body like promoting blood circulation and relaxation. Regularly consuming matcha may help you fall asleep faster or relieve restlessness.
Those who are lacking vitamins in their diet may be happy to know that matcha is full of different vitamins. Matcha is high in vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. While all of these vitamins are beneficial for humans, consuming vitamin C from matcha is particularly useful for the skin as it directly boosts collagen production. Therefore, those who are interested in anti-aging should definitely think about regularly incorporating matcha into their diets.
Other studies have also linked regular consumption of matcha to preventing cancer, controlling blood pressure, shrinking body fat, and reducing the risk of heart disease. However, matcha is very high in caffeine which is a stimulant, so it is recommended to limit intake to 2-3 cups per day (assuming that each cup contains around two teaspoons of matcha powder.)
What does Matcha taste like?
The flavor of matcha is synonymous with Japan as how champagne is synonymous with France. Matcha is quite well known for having a bitter yet earthy taste, containing no astringency, and being full of unique umami flavor. It is also famous for its floral aroma. Higher grades of matcha tend to be milder in flavor, and less bitter but more umami, while lower grades of matcha may be a bit more bitter and less floral.
Does Matcha contain caffeine?
One of the reasons why matcha has become so popular in the west is because of its caffeine content. Many people have decided to substitute their morning cup of coffee with matcha because it provides a similar boost of energy.
Every one gram of matcha contains about 32 milligrams of caffeine. One serving of matcha usually contains two teaspoons of matcha powder and is 2oz or 60ml, which equals 64 milligrams of caffeine. If we look at a standard cup of coffee which is 8oz or 240ml, it contains 96 milligrams of caffeine. Therefore, matcha does not contain as much caffeine as coffee, but it still contains a decent amount.
How to make matcha?
Other kinds of Japanese green teas can simply be steeped in hot water, but this same method cannot be applied to matcha. Since matcha is a fine powder, it has a tendency to clump easily and must be whisked into hot water. Matcha also does not fully dissolve in hot water, so particles of matcha will inevitably float to the bottom once prepared.
Matcha is the tea of choice for Japanese tea ceremony and there is a traditional way of making and serving it, but you can also make it at home with the right tools.
Tools for making Matcha
To properly make a cup of matcha at home, you will need a few tools:
- Japanese tea set –This tea set consists of a Chawan (matcha bowl), Chashaku (matcha spoon), and Chasen (matcha whisk)
- Sieve – Matcha powder tends to clump very easily, so using a small sieve is recommended to ensure no lumps in the final product.
While these tools are of course important for enjoying matcha the authentic way, you can make some substitutions if need be. For example, you can replace the chashaku with a mini electric milk frother.
Properly making matcha
Pour hot water into the chawan and lightly whisk the tips of the chasen in the hot water. This will soften the bamboo tines of the chasen, in turn making it easier to whisk the matcha. After the chasen tines have become a bit more flexible, discard the water and dry the chawan. Now you’re ready to make matcha.
Place a sieve over the chawan, and add a few heaping rounded scoops of matcha into the sieve using the chashaku. Make sure that there are no lumps in the matcha powder. Now you want to pour hot water into a teacup and let it cool to 80-85ºC (around 185ºF). You don’t want to pour straight boiling water into the matcha because it will alter its flavor.
Once the water has cooled to the right temperature, add a few tablespoons of it into the matcha and whisk it using the chasen. Keep whisking it until the matcha powder has completely dissolved into the hot water. Now, add in an additional 70 ml of hot water for usucha (thin matcha) or 40 ml for koicha (thick matcha). If you’re new to matcha, it is recommended to start with making the usucha version, as koicha has a thicker texture and is quite bitter.
You want to whisk the water into the matcha by flicking your wrist back in forth rather than using a side-to-side motion. Keep whisking the matcha until the texture becomes a bit thicker and many bubbles begin forming on the surface. Once the matcha has reached its ideal consistency, draw a circle with the whisk and lift it from the center. This will give the matcha a slightly fluffy texture in the center, an iconic trait for freshly prepared matcha.
How to enjoy matcha?
Enjoy your cup of matcha tea with traditional Japanese sweets known as wagashi. The bitterness and earthy flavors of the tea work perfectly with these traditional sweets. Matcha also pairs well with western sweets like macarons, chocolate, chiffon cake, and fruit tarts. Have fun pairing matcha with your favorite sweets!
Additionally, matcha flavors desserts and drinks quite nicely. Of course, matcha lattes and matcha bubble milk tea can be found outside of Japan, but recently, matcha cookies, cheesecakes, ice cream, and even brownies have become popular! When it comes to drinks, matcha lemonade, and even matcha beer have been popping up in and outside of Japan. Try adding matcha to your next culinary creation and you might be pleasantly surprised with the result!
If you want to try snacks that are matcha flavored, you can find many matcha-flavored snacks like matcha-flavored pocky, cookies, chocolates, and more. If you’re looking for some insanely yummy matcha-flavored Japanese snacks, check out our lineup here.
Ceremonial vs Culinary Matcha
Outside of Japan, it is common to see matcha labeled as either ‘ceremonial grade matcha’ or ‘culinary grade matcha’. However, these types of classifications do not exist in Japan. In fact, if you ask a Japanese person about the differences between ceremonial grade and culinary grade matcha, they probably will have no idea what you’re talking about.
The idea of ceremonial and culinary grade matcha is that ceremonial grade is meant for drinking while culinary grade is meant for cooking or baking with. Yes, it is true that not all matcha powder is created equal, but Japanese people tend to look at different factors when a matcha powder is deemed to be drinkable or used in cuisine.
When determining the use of matcha powder, Japanese people tend to look at factors such as color, taste, texture, etc. Instead of just looking for buzzwords like ceremonial or culinary, the way in which matcha powder is categorized is based on a spectrum. Does the matcha pair particularly well with sweets? Does it have a bright green color? Is the flavor robust? There are many Japanese people who may not even have specific criteria when purchasing matcha and will just choose whatever is available in the supermarket.
One thing to be aware of is matcha powders mixed with additional ingredients like milk powder or sugar with an intended use for making matcha lattes. These types of matcha powder will definitely not have as strong of a matcha flavor, and they will also have added ingredients that you may not be looking for.
Where to buy matcha?
Matcha powder can of course be purchased anywhere in Japan and has even been popping up in grocery stores overseas in recent years. If you’re visiting Japan, it may also be worth checking out some famous Japanese matcha shops like Ippodo tea, Tsujirihei, Nakamura Tokichi, or Itoh Kyuemon.
If you don’t live near a grocery store that sells matcha powder, you can of course purchase it online. If you want to experience high-quality matcha straight from Japan, then check out our collection of authentic matcha powder on Japanese Taste.
Are you a matcha lover? How do you like to enjoy matcha? Let us know in the comments below!