“What is matcha powder?” is a popular question from people who might have heard about how beneficial matcha is, but don’t really understand what it exactly is. “Is it an instant tea? Is it the same as green tea? Why can’t I just grind up any tea and call it matcha?” To answer these questions and explain in detail what it really is, we read research papers and talked to our tea farmers in Japan as well as our third generation tea master, Masaaki Sugimoto, at our headquarters in Japan to learn more about what exactly matcha is, clarify some details that others may not have known before, and fully explain what makes it so special.
Matcha (抹茶) is a special type of Japanese green tea. It is made from the same plant as other types of true tea such as green tea, white tea, black tea, oolong tea, and puerh tea; the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not an instant tea. It does not dissolve in water, instead it is a powdered form of tea that becomes suspended when whisked in water. Not just any tea can be ground up to create matcha. Real matcha goes through several stages of special processes which create the unique matcha flavor that is beloved by millions of people around the world.
Besides being ground into a fine powder, one of the most significant steps that makes matcha a unique tea is the long shading period the tea plant undergoes before the leaves are harvested. In general, tea fields reserved for matcha are shaded for 2-3 weeks before the first harvest in early spring. The shading time depends on the seasonal conditions and how well the plant is growing.
Contrary to popular belief, fields reserved for matcha are not necessarily shaded before every flush (new growth) within a year. This is partially to do with the type of matcha produced, which we will get into further detail about when discussing the differences between ceremonial matcha and culinary matcha. The first flush/first harvest is always shaded, the second flush is often shaded, but the third flush is not. Even without shading right before subsequent flushes, the first shading period will still have a significant effect on the growth of the tea leaves later in the year. And with organically grown matcha, the tea fields are actually rotated every year due to the damage that occurs from shading restricting nutrients to the plant.
Did you know? There are two other categories of Japanese shaded teas; gyokuro (玉露) and kabusecha (かぶせ茶). Gyokuro tea is actually created from the same leaves that can be used for matcha and is shaded for the same amount of time. Kabusecha tea is shaded for a shorter period of time, around a week to 10 days.
The long shading period is critical to creating the best matcha flavor because the severe light restriction pushes the leaves to work harder to grow. One of the main effects of this treatment is that it causes the leaves to produce higher quantities of chlorophyll. This is why a mark of high quality matcha powder is a deep, vibrant green color.
Another effect of the long shading periods for gyokuro and matcha is that the leaves contain higher amounts of amino acids such as L-theanine (Ji et al., 2018). This nutrient is a significant part of what gives quality matcha powder it’s signature umami taste. For those who are unfamiliar with what umami tastes like, it is also often described as savory, but in tea especially it’s also described as being a pleasant light sweetness. If your matcha powder is mostly bitter and astringent, it is either stale and old or it was low quality leaves to begin with.
This is also part of why high quality matcha has more nutrients, is therefore considered to be more beneficial, and definitely tastes better than low quality matcha or other powdered teas. In addition to having increased amounts of chlorophyll and L-theanine, shading also increases the levels of tryptophan, caffeine, EGCG, and many antioxidants (Lee et al., 2014).
L-theanine, also often simply called Theanine, is a non-protein amino acid found in Camellia sinensis. L-theanine is initially produced in the plant’s roots and then travels to the leaves through the plant’s vascular system. It is metabolized by sunlight, so shading helps protect it’s availability and shaded teas have higher amounts in their leaves than unshaded teas.
This amino acid is not only what gives matcha it’s famous umami taste, but is also part of why it is renowned for being relaxing without inducing sleepiness. There have been many studies investigating and supporting the relaxing effect of L-theanine especially in conjunction with caffeine. It also has some research evidence suggesting that it has anti-inflammatory properties and is neuroprotective against stress-induced neurological damage (Saeed et al., 2017).
The amount of caffeine in any tea is dependent on more factors than just the type of tea. Caffeine content is affected by the variety of tea plant, what part of the leaf is used, how old the leaves were at the time of harvesting, the stress it is under while growing, the weather, the altitude, it’s processing, etc. However that being said, the Japanese government did a study and determined that there is about 32mg per gram of matcha. According to our own tests on our matcha at Sugimoto Tea, we have around 16 mg/g of caffeine in our Organic Culinary Matcha and 29 mg/g in our Organic Ceremonial Matcha.
EGCG stands for Epigallocatechin gallate and is a major flavonoid antioxidant in green tea. It is one of the major compounds of interest in tea and health research and is a large part of why tea and in particular green tea is widely considered to be such a healthy beverage (Singh et al., 2011). When tea leaves go through oxidation to become oolong or black teas, EGCG and other catechins are converted to theaflavins and thearubigins, therefore reducing the amount of EGCG remaining in your cup. Green tea undergoes no such oxidative process and as such has the highest amount of EGCG remaining.
After the leaves are grown, the farmers harvest them and begin the initial processing steps. Under the farmer’s care, the raw tea leaves are first steamed, then cooled down, then dried without being rolled like the leaves are for whole leaf teas. Since the tea is intended to be ground up, there is no need to knead the leaves and break the cell walls to allow for a better infusion in water. With matcha, virtually every cell is ultimately broken open and you are consuming the whole leaf. Furthermore rolling the leaves causes a little oxidation to begin in the leaves and changes the color and flavor. In full leaf tea, this can be delicious, but it will be too bitter and unpleasant if rolled leaves are ground into matcha. Ground unrolled leaves have a fresher taste and more vibrant color. Experienced tea people can easily tell if a ground tea was made from rolled leaves based on the appearance and the taste.
Now the leaves are called “Tencha” (碾茶). Next, this tencha will be purchased by tea making companies usually referred to as “Seicha”s (製茶) where they undergo the final production steps to become the finished matcha product. Here the leaves are separated by quality of grade to better control the final quality of the tea. Then these dry leaves are de-stemmed and de-veined.
Finally the tencha is ground into a fine powder. Historically this was done by hand in small stone mills, but in modern times most Seichas use mechanical mills. The higher quality the matcha, the finer the grain. Many English sources incorrectly say that quality matcha particles are as tiny as a single micron. This would be the size of a mitochondria. (For comparison, most plant and animal cells are between 10 and 100 microns large.) Based on tests of our matchas and other companies’, high quality matcha will have an average particle size of around 15 microns large, with many of these particles being even below 5 microns large, but certainly not all.
After grinding, the tea is finished and must be immediately packaged (we use a nitrogen flush) and refrigerated to preserve the quality. Matcha is extremely susceptible to oxidation, so it must be protected from oxygen and heat to keep it from turning brown and bitter. By restricting air flow, replacing the oxygen with nitrogen, and keeping the tea cold, oxidation can be prevented and the tea’s quality and freshness will be preserved.
An easy way to test the quality of the matcha (besides visually appraising the color) is to rub it between your fingers or conduct a smear test on a piece of paper. Ceremonial matcha will be extremely smooth and easily coats the paper almost like an oil pastel. Culinary matcha will be noticeably gritty in between your fingers and creates a patchy smear on the paper.
There is a reason behind the large price difference between ceremonial and culinary grades of matcha. Ceremonial grade matcha is much higher in quality than culinary grade. This is because ceremonial grade leaves are picked at that first flush of the year, and are always shaded for a long period of time before being harvested. Top grade matcha does not include leaves harvested from unshaded flushes.
As mentioned above, the long shading is why high quality matcha (aka ceremonial grade matcha) is a much more vibrant green color when compared to culinary matcha. This also results in the sweeter, mellower, much more pleasant taste of ceremonial matcha as well as the increased nutrients.
Ceremonial matcha is ground much more finely than culinary matcha. This fine grind creates a soft texture when drinking it pure. However this also causes the powder to clump up, making it inconvenient for incorporating into culinary purposes such as making matcha lattes, matcha cookies, matcha cake, or matcha ice cream. Furthermore the flavor of ceremonial matcha is more delicate than that of culinary matcha, so culinary matcha is also preferred when mixing with other foods. Lastly, the fine grinding of ceremonial matcha makes it ideal for creating a thick head of froth when whisking.
Other Japanese loose leaf teas such as sencha, kukicha, hojicha, kabusecha, and even gyokuro, cannot be ground up and declared Matcha. Even though gyokuro is grown in the same way that matcha is, it undergoes a different process post-harvesting. They are first harvested, steamed, rolled, and dried at the tea farmer’s before going off to the Seichas where the leaves are sorted, roasted, and packaged. Remember that rolling the leaves before grinding creates many compounds in the leaves that are desirable in full leaf teas, but create bitterness as a powdered tea.
Despite now being known as a Japanese tea, the earliest forms of powdered tea originated in China around the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At this time, tea leaves were steamed and pressed into cakes for storage and transportation. When someone wanted to consume them, pieces were broken off, ground into a fine powder, and mixed with water and salt to form a tea broth. Sometimes extra things such as fruits and flowers were added as well. One of the earliest books detailing the preparation and consumption of tea, The Classic of Tea, was written during this time around 760 by Lu Yu.
Several Japanese Buddhist monks studied at Chinese Buddhist monasteries at this time and brought tea back with them to Heian era Japan. Emperor Saga (809- 823) was known to be a fan of tea and it was popular among monks and courtesans during his reign, but it declined in popularity after his passing and took many more years before the seeds of modern Japanese tea culture took root.
Several hundred years later tea had continued to grow in popularity and sophistication in China. Around 1191 during the Kamakura period, a monk named Eisai (1141–1215) returned from a trip to China to introduce Rinzai Zen Buddhism to Japan and brought with him tea seeds (or seedlings, it is not exactly clear) and matcha. He had experienced the powdered tea at monasteries in China which helped the monks meditate and wanted to bring it back to Japan.
Further helping to reintroduce tea to Japan, Eisai wrote a book on the health benefits of tea and mulberries called the Kissa Yojoki (喫茶養生記). Despite being a Buddhist monk and having experienced tea at Buddhist monasteries, Eisai propagated tea for its medicinal qualities instead of the spiritual attributes that many valued it for in the Tang Dynasty and in the Heian period. With the help of his writings, his political connections, and having established two tea fields where he taught people how to produce the powdered tea, Eisai is credited as the person who started Japan’s tea industry and improved the drink’s popularity throughout the upper echelons of the country.
As the years passed after Eisai reintroduced powdered tea to Japan, matcha declined in popularity in China in the Yuan Dynasty largely due to a major change in the ruling ethnic group who preferred other forms of tea, but continued to flourish in Japan as it was appreciated by many Japanese emperors, shoguns, priests, and merchants and became a status symbol in society. At this time the Japanese tea ceremony was a very flashy affair with fancy Chinese teaware, fur rugs, expensive incense, and other lavish decorations used to show off the hosts’ wealth. The wabi-sabi aesthetic most commonly associated with Japanese Tea Ceremony today was developed piece by piece first by Renga poets and priests as a rejection of the lavish Chinese-focused aesthetic that preceded it. Eventually this aesthetic was adopted by tea practitioners and it was developed into what has become the modern Japanese Tea Ceremony by Sen no Rikyu who lived from 1522 to 1591.
“Tea is not but this. First you make the water boil, then infuse the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know.” – Sen no Rikyu
You do not need to learn all the intricacies of Japanese Tea Ceremony in order to brew matcha. Technically you do not even need to have a tea bowl (Chawan 茶碗) or a tea whisk (Chasen 茶筅) or a tea scoop (Chashaku 茶杓) to brew matcha. However they can all be very helpful as these tools were designed to improve your brewing experience and our instructions are written assuming that you have these tools.
If you are brewing matcha to drink on its own, you should always use ceremonial grade matcha. As thoroughly illustrated above, ceremonial grade matcha will provide you with an immensely improved drinking experience due to both the quality of the leaves used and the much finer powder particle size. Ceremonial Matcha should be smooth, creamy, umami-rich, with a tolerable and possibly even pleasant bitterness accompanied by a light sweetness. Culinary matcha will be noticeably more bitter, astringent, and likely gritty when consumed on its own as it’s harsher flavor is best when used in conjunction with strong other flavors such as sugar, milk, and flour.
Before you brew matcha, you should either have something sweet ready to eat with your matcha, or ensure that you’ve eaten something beforehand. Some people find that if they drink matcha on an empty stomach that they experience an unpleasant stomach ache. This is fairly common with drinking all kinds of tea on an empty stomach and is easily fixed by making sure to eat at least an hour or two before drinking tea.
Now enjoy your matcha!
If you want to study more about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Japanese tea history, and Japanese tea ceremony related philosophy, you can search for a local Urasenke teacher, read Tea in Japan, or read Wind in the Pines. Another great classic introductory book on Japanese tea culture is The Book of Tea.
Oscar Brekell, a Japanese Tea Instructor from Sweden now living in Japan, also has a new book out about Japanese tea that is both in English and in Japanese called The Book of Japanese Tea. This could be helpful for those of you who want to study Japanese in a fun way.