What Is Matcha?
The history and facts
HISTORY OF MATCHA
Green tea descends from the original tea plant Camellia Sinensis which comes from Southern China. Essentially green tea is a form of tea that has a low level of processing which gives it very high levels of nutrients.
The father of Zen Buddhism and Japanese tea culture, Myouan Eisai, first brought green tea to Japan from China in the late 12th century. Eisai first planted the tea seeds on the border of the Fuluoka and Saga prefectures and it was Eisai who spread the message of drinking green tea for good health.
A monk from the Kousanji temple in Kyoto was given some of these original seeds and planted them near his temple in the Uji region, home of the finest Matcha green tea in the world today. The region was perfect for growing green tea, with it’s nutrient rich soil, warm days and cool nights and misty climate.
It was growers in this region that developed sencha green tea, by growing green tea under shade to promote it’s nutritional development. This was then steam dried into tencha and then stone ground into powder, creating Matcha. This enabled you to consume 100% of the green tea’s goodness. Those Japanese monks developed the concept of the tea ceremony, by drinking Matcha before meditation. The Matcha tea enabled them to concentrate and clear their mind, achieving the highest levels of Zen.
In turn when Shogun warriors took on Zen Buddhist principals, they too used Matcha as part of their rituals, and found that it increased their energy and alertness in battle. It is said that Eisai first gave Matcha to the Minamoto no Santomo Shogun, known for his heavy drinking, to aid his hangover. Straight after drinking the Matcha, the Shogun’s hangover was gone and felt refreshed!
Matcha for many years was reserved for the Shoguns and nobility of Japan, however this was to change in the 18th century when the Uji processing method was invented, a much more efficient process, leading to Matcha becoming more available to the Japanese masses and becoming the popular drink it is today.
WHAT MAKES AUTHENTIC MATCHA?
Where it's grown
Though originating in China hundreds of years ago, the best authentic ceremonial Matcha is grown in the Kyoto, Shizuoka and Aichi Prefectures and the Kyushu region of southern Japan. This is due to a couple of reasons. Firstly, the regions where it is grown have very iron rich soil, sloping hills and ideal temperatures. Secondly, the process of growing and producing Matcha in Japan has been developed and tweaked for over 800 years there. Other Asian countries produce similar "matcha" powders but to their taste, methods and regulations. In Japan tea is shade grown and once cultivated it is steamed and then air dried, keeping the young tea leaves nutrients in tact, then stone ground into Matcha powder. The Japanese are very proud of their Matcha, as we discovered when trying various samples from Japan and asking what the difference was between their tea and the ones from places like China and Thailand. We were politely informed that we were insane to compare Japanese Matcha to any other powdered tea being made outside Japan. There is no substitute for, nor any contender to, Japanese Matcha.
How it's cultivated
In mid April of each year, green tea bushes are covered with a screen made from reed to shade them from sunlight. 10 days or so later, growers will cover that screen with straw to shade the bushes further. This process lets the young tea leaves grow quite thin and wide to capture what light is available. This process increases the amount of chlorophyll in the tea leaves, giving them a bright green colour that is familiar with quality Matcha.
In May, the tea leaves are picked by hand. The leaves at the top of the plant, the youngest, freshest and brightest, are picked for the highest grade teas. The lower, older leaves, which are a darker green, are picked for lower grades, such as cooking grade Matcha. They are then brought straight to a processing facility, where they are steamed to prevent fermentation. The moisture from steaming is shaken off, the leaves are then cooled. Once cooled they go into a brick oven (Hoiro) where the moisture is dried out. The dried leaves, known as Tencha, are stored in wooded boxes and refrigerated.
The Tencha leaves have their stalks and veins removed, then sifted, cut and dried again. The Tencha is then put through another process to remove older leaves and the rest of the stalks and veins. Then finally it is ground by stone mills into Matcha powder. And this is just a brief breakdown of the process!
MATCHA FACTS AND FICTIONS
- FACT: only 2% of Matcha is exported to outside Japan. This is significant to how Matcha is priced and why Matcha has been called Japan's "best kept secret". The Japanese generally don't like to export Matcha to foreign markets as they mainly produce it for their own consumption.
- FICTION: Matcha is just powdered green tea. Matcha does literally translate as "powdered tea", but not all powdered teas are what we know as the Matcha that offers so many benefits. What makes an authentic Matcha product can get a little confusing. Japan itself produces an abundance of green tea powder products, and not all can be called authentic Matcha. Generally Matcha is made from ground green tea grown and produced as explained in the previous section. It is made from Tencha, which is where the teas are laid out to dry, which is different to other quality Japanese green tea leaves such as Gyokuro and Sencha. Other tea powders will not have been grown and processed the same way and do not have the high level of nutrients that Matcha has. Cheaper powders from China, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea don't come anywhere close to the quality of Japanese Matcha. You can tell this by the taste, consistency, aroma and above all, the colour. We have seen some murky dark horrid green powders going around, and some that are not even green! The growing practices are very strict in Japan as apposed to those in China and Thailand, where mass factory produced green tea powder full of chemicals is pumped out for the new worldwide demand for Matcha.
- FACT: 1 cup of Matcha is the equivalent of 10 cups of regular green tea . There are many crazy boasts about Matcha out there, and sometimes it does seem like Matcha is too good to be true. This where Matcha gets grouped with fad health products such as Apricot kernels and Raspberry ketone tablets. The health benefits of quality green tea are well documented (see Matcha Benefits ), the main reasons Matcha is so great is how it is grown and produced, plus the fact it is a powder. When you consume Matcha powder, whether it be as tea, shake, tall drink, cookie or cake, you consume 100% of the leaf. This is different to brewing tea leaves, where you extract some of the goodness from the leaf into water. With Matcha you are creating a drink from concentrate and absorbing all the nutrients it possesses when you consume it. It's basically the same as eating raw vegetables as opposed to drinking the water you boiled your vegetables in!
- FICTION: organic Matcha costs more. Matcha is cheaper than non-organic by a significant margin. In the UK and the west Organic products cost more than non-organic products, so immediately when we see "organic Matcha" we believe that it should cost more. In Japan however, the highest quality ceremonial grade Matcha can only be produced due to the use of many different pesticides and fertilisers. On average they will use around 18 different pesticides to combat the various creatures that attack the tea plants. These pesticides and their distribution costs money.
- FICTION: the best ceremonial grade Matcha has a sweet and subtle taste and is luminous green . The highest grade of organic and non-organic both contain the same amount of nutrients, they are equally as good for you as the other, the difference is price, taste and colour. Organic Matcha is still bright green but not quite as luminous green as non-organic which is almost looks radioactive! Organic Matcha also tastes like green tea with more depth of flavour, bold, earthy flavours, with a long refreshing aftertaste. Non-organic, however, does not even taste like green tea. It is sweet and very mild in flavour, but still maintains it's own depth and long aftertaste. What you need to be aware of is that due to the many chemicals and pesticides used in making authentic non-organic Matcha means that it is near impossible to import it into the EU as the trace levels exceed their regulations. Japan's trace level allowance is slightly more than EU, even if it is by fractions of a mg. Therefore some brands claiming they have authentic non-organic top ceremonial grade are not quite telling the whole truth about their product. Brilliant Green Company are fully transparent about the products we sell and will always pursue to provide you with the best new products and information available to us.