Matcha (pronounced “MA-cha” 抹茶) has been one of the biggest trends in worldwide beverage culture for the past year. Most food and drink trends have very short life spans; that is not the case for matcha tea, which looks to be one of the biggest drink phenomena of the decade. Consider that a recent Instagram search found almost two million entries for matcha-everything: shakes, smoothies, facial masks, muffins, bath soaks, ice creams and breads. And that’s just a partial sampling of the list.
So What Is Matcha
Matcha is a powdered form of steamed and dried green tea leaves that tastes like a grassier, creamier and brighter version of the regular green tea.
So you can say that matcha is asuperior form of green tea. While green tea can grow across the globe and doesn’t require special care, matcha must be grown in the shade for about three weeks before it’s harvested. The tea trees are covered in cloth to protect the leaves from light during the several week period before harvest. This process forces the plant to produce more chlorophyll, increases the production of amino acids and gives the leaves a very dark, rich shade of green.
Only the finest tea buds are handpicked and they are laid flat to dry (if they were rolled, they would become “Gyokuru” tea). The stems and veins are removed in processing, and the leaves are finely ground into powder which then known as “tencha”.
Where Does Matcha Come From
The short answer: Japan. Buddhist monks created the tea over 800 years ago as a mediation drink and the tea is nowadays considered Japan’s finest and most precious variety of tea.
Tea provided the monks immediate energy and a mental focus that enhanced their meditations. The first tea farms were established around monasteries in the Uji region. Uji is vital to matcha history and is famous as the eventual birthplace of matcha tea.
Matcha is matchless: only a few farmers today possess the complex knowledge to produce this tea. According to the 8th century Zen priest Eisai, who introduced the tea to Japan, the powder is “the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete”.
The Tea Ceremony
There is so much sophistication and grace in the presentation of matcha.
The ceremony (in Japanese “cha-no-yu”, which literally means hot water for tea) is much more than an elaborate way to prepare matcha. It is a quiet interlude during which the host and guests strive for spiritual refreshment and harmony with nature. The ceremony can be practiced at home or in a tea house.
The essence of the matcha tea ceremony comprises of four main principles:
- harmony – with other people and with nature
- respect – of others
- purity – of the mind and the senses
- tranquility – piece of mind and appreciation of nature’s abundance
The host and his/her guests seek to establish and maintain an atmosphere of perfect harmony during a tea ceremony.
There are two kinds of tea ceremony, formal and informal. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is the informal kind, known as “wa-bi-cha”, that is the more highly esteemed. The term “wabi” describes beauty that is ” “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. To tea connoisseurs these beauties—wabi—are embodied probably most fully in the ceramic ware of chanoyu.
Finally, chanoyu is a unique Japanese art. There is nothing else like it in the world. As a result Westerners and other non-Japanese in recent years have shown a considerable interest in and appreciation of chanoyu. The leading tea schools have branches in countries throughout the world. Although the number of non-Japanese who seriously practice chanoyu is very small, appreciation of its arts, including room construction, ceramic ware, lacquer ware, flower arranging, and calligraphy, are widely admired and have been the subjects of countless exhibitions throughout the world. The ceremony remains today alive and rather well both inside and outside Japan.