I have recently fell in love with the powdered Japanese green tea called Matcha 抹茶 during my recent trip to Japan. It was during a visit to a samurai’s house in Kanazawa, where I was served an exquisite bowl of matcha while it was pouring outside. The aroma, the microfoam, the delicate flavours and the ceremonial preparation and serving all made that bowl of matcha a beautiful, touching moment.
What is Matcha 抹茶?
Matcha is a form of very finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. The tea plants are grown in the shade so that they are higher in theanine and less bitter than plants that are grown in the sun. Leaves that are destined for matcha have their stems removed, while leaves that are intact undergo another process to produce the premium and highly valued king of green tea, the Gyokuro 玉露.
Matcha is the continuation of an ancient way of preparing and drinking green tea that dates back to the Tang Dynasty in China (AD.618–907). The whole method of whisking tea powder and hot water in a bowl grew popular in the Song Dynasty (AD.960–1279). It was the Buddhist Monk Eisai or “Yōsai Zenji” 栄西禅師 who brought the art of matcha from China to Japan, together with Zen Buddhism in the Year 1191.
What are the different grades of Matcha 抹茶?
You will find on a lot of bullshit English-language websites selling “Kama Matcha” Ceremonial grade, “Gotcha Matcha” Premium grade and “Dakota Matcha” Culinary grade Matchas. Please note that none of these terminologies nor notions exists in Japan.
As rightly pointed out by Yuki of matcha-tea.com , there were only “ceremonial” matcha (meaning “very expensive and reserved for special occasions”) and the rest.
The very expensive matcha refers to the young leaves from the top of the tea plants, finely grounded at very low temperature using stone mills. The price comes from this more arduous process that produces only 40-50g of matcha powder per hour in one stone mill. The powder is also very fine at 2-20 micrometres.
The everyday matcha originates from the lower leaves, that are slightly coarser, less delicate in taste and aroma and more astringent, and are ground by machine at low temperature. This process produces 1kg of matcha per hour which is less fine at about 50-100 micrometres.
The last but not least is the “green tea powder” which is actually not matcha but often marketed as such. They tend to come from China and South Korea. This are normal green tea leaves (not those grown under the shade) ground by high-speed machines at high temperature that produce 10-20kg of powder per hour per machine. This ranges between 75-180 micrometres.
The best matcha comes from Uji 宇治, an ancient city between Kyoto and Nara.
Otherwise, here is a list of places in Japan where you can sip and buy the best “ceremonial” matcha.
How do you prepare Matcha 抹茶?
You need the following utensils:
- A bamboo scoop, Chashaku 茶杓
- A bamboo whisk with a hundred whiskers, Chasen 茶筅
- A ceramic tea bowl, Chawan 茶碗
Optional items are:
- Chakin 茶巾 on which you prepare your tea in case you spill.
- Fukin 布巾is a hemp cloth you use to wipe the tea bowl before serving it to your guest.
For all sort of utensils used in the Japanese tea ceremony, consult this list.
There are two ways to prepare matcha:
Thick: Koicha 濃茶
Mix 3.75g of matcha (2.5 bamboo scoops or 1 heap teaspoon) and 40ml of warm water at 80 degree celsius. Whisk slowly without creating any bubbles for 1 minute so as to blend the matcha well with the warm water. This preparation allows for the full experience of the matcha powder, which may be too heavy for non-Japanese. This is also mostly exclusively done at formal tea ceremonies.
Whisked: Usucha 薄茶
Warm up your tea bowl and whisk with some warm water. Leave for 1 minute. Discard water and wipe the bowl very dry. Place 1.5 bamboo scoops or 0.5 heap teaspoonful of matcha in the bowl. Then pour 60ml of warm water not exceeding 75 degree celsius into the bowl. Using the whisk, in a rapid back and forth motion mix the matcha for 40 seconds. In the last 20-30 seconds, lift it up slightly and in an M motion, whisk it to foam microfoam on the surface. Serve immediately.
Here’s a video of how I do it:
Here are the instructions by a tea producer in Uji on how to prepare different types of Japanese tea.
How do you drink Matcha 抹茶?
You need to first take a first bite of sweet cakes before taking your first sip of matcha from your Chawan.
Traditionally, Japanese confectioneries called Wagashi 和菓子such as Mochi 餅 provide the right consistency and sweetness for the perfect degustation of that exquisite wonder of drinks – the Matcha 抹茶.