I get this question from people alot, “what is matcha?” and mainly because they wonder what keeps me going throughout the day since I’m not a big fan of coffee (no offense to the coffee lovers, I actually love making cold brew coffee for others.) So lets take the time to find out where matcha comes from, and dig into its roots.
Matcha humble beginnings
Matcha is a jade colored powder ground up from the camellia sinensis leaf which we all know have many natural benefits. This shrub is native to Southern China and started off with Emperor Shen Nong who was quite the chinese medicinal master of his time. He introduced the tea plant to his people in 2700 B.C. This guy was definitely a pioneer of medicinal effectiveness of over 300 different varieties of roots, grass, and tea barks. He was also kind of nuts because legend has it he would try each one on himself first and if he was poisoned then he would cleanse and detox his own body by consuming tea leaves.
Tea leaves were certainly used more as medicine then anything else back then. There are still some tribes to this day that eat pickled tea leaves from China, Thailand, and northern Myammar which kind of makes me curious as to how that would taste (I love pickled things.) When the beverage was eventually made it wasn’t like we have today as they would either mix onion or ginger into the mixture to create a more medicinal concoction.
Tea gains popularity
At the dates between 221-65 (The three kingdoms period), tea in general was gaining ground rapidly. One of the main reasons was because of the rise of Buddhism which prohibited the consumption of alcohol. This brought about the higher demand for an alternative beverage.
By mid-eight century there were a plethora of tea shops now blossoming all around. Because of this increase it became normalized as city folk from all around now drank this on the daily as their drink of choice. This was also around the time that Lu Yu from Hubei Province wrote some extremely impressive work on tea, or so I’ve heard. It talked about such things as the best way to drink tea, utensils that were best fit for it, and other stories relating to tea and growing it. When it was published it pretty much became “The Bible” of tea. I have yet to dive into this book but its definitely on my to-read list!
Tea finally arrives in Japan
This is where we get to the good part as this is where the actually matcha process was said to be perfected. It was brought in by Japanese Buddhist monks Saicho, Kukai, and Eichu. This was during the Heian period (794-1185) and used to come in the form of “bricks” in which were warmed up over a flame and then pieces broken off by hand or shaved off with a knife. Then they would use a mortar and grind those shavings into a powder, which then was added to a bowl of hot water and served up.
Emperor saga was passionate about trying to spread tea to other provinces like the Kinki region around Kyoto to grow the plant. He was successful in creating a tea garden in one district in Kyoto and ended up processing that bounty for the physicians attached to that court. This imperial tea however ended up only getting used mostly in rituals by the aristocracy. It has not had much success at this point reaching the common people yet.
Much later, but finally Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism brought back a new seedling from Sung-dynasty China. He introduced a new style of drinking tea which we now know as the matcha style. Eisai was a high promoter of the growth of tea trees and his works Kissa yojoki (Health Benefits of Tea) tied this majestic drink to longevity and its popularity spread after this like wild fire.
What is Tencha and how does it become Matcha?
Tencha is the tea leaf that has been shade grown which is different then other green teas. The reason being, is it slows down the process of photosynthesis and also slows down the growth of the plant. By doing this, it allows the leaves to become a darker shade of green in color and also stimulates the production of amino acids and chlorophyll. Unlike other versions of green tea leaves, matcha is steamed to protect it from oxidation. This process also protects the flavor of matcha and its nutritional content.
After that process is complete, then comes milling of the tencha leaves by using granite stone mills that grind up the leaves into a fine jade like powder. Matcha is now considered in the western world as to be one great “superfood” that you just can’t pass up.