Matcha Tea

All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant of which there are two main varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, also known as Chinese tea, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica or Indian tea. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis can be consumed by steeping the leaf, or in powdered form, called matcha (Fujioka, 2016). The production process of matcha is what makes it unique from standard green tea.

Sencha is a type of green tea grown in the sun and is used as loose leaf green tea. Tencha is also a type of green tea, but is shade-grown; tencha leaves are used to make matcha (Hasegawa, 2016).

Matcha is produced by grinding tencha leaves with a stone mill into a fine green powder (Yamabe, 2009). Even after processing fresh green leaves, chlorophyllase activity remains in green tea (Kohata, 1998). The unique manufacturing process of matcha is what provides its characteristic smell (Baba, 2017).

Due to its health benefits, matcha tea has grown in global popularity and is relatively easy to find. However, because a wide range of matcha quality exists on the market, it’s crucial to purchase from a reputable seller.

Overview.

The first section summarizes the general flavour of matcha tea, preparation and health benefits. The second section outlines my favourite matcha teas and recommendations, while the third section is a more in-depth discussion of the many health benefits of matcha tea. The fourth section is a comprehensive discussion of matcha tea, covering where matcha tea is grown, how it gets produced, what quality grades exist, and which specific factors influence matcha quality. While matcha is produced in both Japan and China, this article will focus almost exclusively on Japanese matcha. The fifth section is a summary of the article’s key points.

Flavour, Preparation, and Health Benefits of Matcha Tea.

Flavour of Matcha. 

Overall, the taste of matcha is complex, rich and astringent. It has a smooth mouth-feel, and the taste falls on a spectrum of creamy and grassy. 

How to Prepare Matcha. 

Matcha can be prepared using the traditional bamboo whisk or a contemporary electric frother. First, place 1-2 teaspoons of matcha in a small bowl or cup. Then pour in 60 ml (2 oz) of water which is at 80°C (176°F); avoid using boiling water as it spoils the taste. Whisk the matcha and water until the mixture is frothy.  

Summary of Health Benefits.

Matcha offers an extensive range of health benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant, detox and weight loss aid. Matcha also improves attention, memory and can help reduce anxiety. Additionally, matcha is good for liver, kidney and heart health.

Tea Recommendations and Personal Thoughts.

Mackenzie Bailey

Founder of The Tea Tribe

After trying many different matcha teas from a variety of brands, a stand-out product for me is Maccha Raven from JagaSilk, a boutique Canadian tea company. Another matcha that is well regarded for its quality is Premium Ceremonial Master’s Blend Matcha by Matcha Kari. 

A Comprehensive Discussion of Matcha.

Where Matcha is Produced.

China. 

China is the world’s largest producer of green tea and a major supplier of matcha. Chinese matcha is generally made in regions known for green tea production, like South of the Yellow River. However, quantity and quality are not the same. Chinese matcha does not follow the same process or meet the same stringent quality standards as Japanese matcha. Therefore, this article has limited its discussion to Japanese matcha. 

Japan.

In Japan, tencha leaves have been used to make matcha for centuries. Matcha was (and is) traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies (Weiss, 2003), but is also consumed informally as well. Today it is common for matcha to be used in many different Japanese foods (Yamabe, 2009).

The green tea used in Japanese matcha is mostly grown in Japan’s four main tea growing regions: Nishio (Aichi), Uji (Kyoto), Kirishima (Kagoshima), and Yame (Fukuoka), which are discussed below.

Nishio, Aichi.

Nishio is a city in Aichi Prefecture in the Chūbu region of Japan. Nishio is Japan’s leading producer of matcha, as Nishio’s soil conditions create a very healthy environment for tea cultivation. Nishio is also known for its organic matcha production, and both organic and conventional matcha from Nishio generally has a natural sweetness and low astringency to it.

Uji, Kyoto. 

Uji is a relatively small town located near Kyoto and is famous for its green tea. While Kozanji Temple in Kyoto is thought to be the original site of tea cultivation in Japan, Uji’s tea grew renowned for its superior quality in the 1100s. The majority of ceremonial grade, stone-milled matcha comes from Uji and sells at a higher price point. Specific plant varietals are used to produce outstanding quality matcha like Gokou, Saemidori, Samidori and Yamanoibuki.

For those who love matcha, Uji is a place worth seeing. Uji’s renowned matcha can be tasted at the Taihō-an Teahouse in a traditional tea ceremony, and purchased from local vendors. Part of what makes Uji unique is the extent to which the town embraces matcha: snacks, ice-cream, sweets, soba noodles, and more all come in matcha flavour. 

Kirishima, Kagoshima. 

Kagoshima is famous for its sencha and kabusecha teas. In recent years, however, Kagoshima has become very important because it has mastered organic production methods and high-quality standards for matcha. Some matcha from Kagoshima is expensive and at a quality that compares to matcha produced in Uji.

Yame, Fukuoka.

Fukuoka has an established history of producing extraordinary green tea, and Yame is the most important area within the Fukuoka region. Tea from Yame is known as Yamecha. While matcha produced in Yame is somewhat lower in quantity, it is still worth discussing. The most common tea varietal, Yabukita, is usually used in making Yame matcha, and the matcha produced from this varietal is sold “as is” or blended with higher grade matcha. In this way, matcha produced from Yame offers tea drinkers a good quality product at a lower price. 

The Production of Matcha.

Like green tea, matcha is produced from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant, however, it is the later growth stages and production processes that make it unique from green tea.

Twenty to thirty days before harvest, farmers cover the tea plants to prevent exposure to sunlight (Weil, 2019). Shielding the plant from exposure to direct sunlight is done to alter the nutrient profile of the plant and increase chlorophyll production, as well as raise the amino acid content of the plant.

The process of covering the tea plant also changes the plant’s colouring, and this is what causes matcha to have a darker green hue (Link, 2017). In response to shading, the plant produces more chlorophyll, amino acids and fewer bitter tannins (Weil, 2019). The plant’s response results in matcha’s intense colour, enriched smell, “umami” flavour notes and less bitter taste.

Farmers harvest the tea leaves when the plant produces three to five new young leaves and carefully avoid picking leaves that are either too big or small. Harvesting leaves for matcha is very time-sensitive; plucking too late (even by a couple of days) produces lower quality matcha, but gathering leaves too early decreases the yield because the leaves are small.

Due to the short time-window for harvesting, most tea leaves get trimmed by machines. Traditional hand-picked teas are considered precious and are produced in small batches. Hand-picked leaves are deemed better in flavour and aroma compared to leaves cut by machines.

The fresh tea leaves are processed once they are harvested. After the tea leaves have been plucked, the stems and veins are removed, minimizing additional fibre (Link, 2017). The fresh leaves are then cleaned, steamed, cooled, dried, cut and sorted, and finally stored before being ground into matcha.

Immediately after harvest, the leaves are steamed for 30 to 40 seconds. Steaming stops enzymes that cause fermentation and influence matcha quality. Then the steamed leaves are quickly cooled by an air blast. This rapid cooling preserves the bright colour and aroma in matcha, both indicators of quality. The air blast itself can blow leaves 20 feet into the air.

During the drying phase, the leaves are distributed on a conveyor belt, so they don’t overlap. Leaves are then placed in a multilevel structure and heated in a carefully controlled process. This drying process takes around twenty minutes, and temperatures remain between 110-180°C (230 - 356°F).

Once dried, the leaves are cut, sorted, and mixed to assure consistent quality and flavour. At this point, the processed tea is called tencha. Tencha then gets stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment until further processing turns it into matcha.

To turn tencha into matcha, the leaves are ground using two round, grooved stones. When grinding was done by hand, it was a time-consuming process; however, today, the grinding stones are powered mechanically.

The leaves are placed in a funnel, which drops them into a narrow space between the two grinding stones, producing a fine powder. The grinding process takes approximately one hour to make 40g (1.41 oz) of matcha.

Matcha uses the entire leaf in the beverage, and that is what differentiates it from green tea in terms of health benefits. Because matcha contains the whole tea leaf, it has a significantly higher concentration of antioxidants than green tea (Link, 2017).

Matcha Quality Grades.

Matcha is categorized according to three grades: ceremonial, premium and culinary.  

Ceremonial Grade Matcha. 

Ceremonial grade is the highest quality matcha and is used in traditional tea ceremonies. However, it is now more widely available as premium tea retailers are selling ceremonial grade matcha. High quality and steep price points characterize ceremonial grade matcha.

For all but the most refined matcha drinkers, there is minimal difference in taste between ceremonial and premium grade matcha. But for matcha drinkers with a well-trained palette, you will notice that subtle tones of “umami” characterize ceremonial matcha.

Premium Grade Matcha. 

Premium grade matcha is a high-quality grade that uses the top leaves from the tea plant. Premium grade matcha offers tea drinkers a quality product at a high, yet accessible price.

A fresh, subtle flavour characterizes premium grade matcha. It does not have a “grassy taste,” making it an attractive option for new matcha drinkers and for those whose palates do not gravitate to earthy preferences.

Culinary Grade Matcha. 

Culinary grade matcha is the lowest quality and often has a slightly bitter taste. The somewhat astringent taste is due to using leaves harvested lower down on the green tea plant, or slightly later in the season. Culinary grade matcha sells at an affordable price point.

Culinary grade matcha is well suited to baking and smoothies. Frequently, loose leaf tea retailers will use culinary grade matcha as a base in their blended product lines. For example, DavidsTea in Canada offers a range of flavoured matcha teas ranging from blueberry matcha to maple matcha to coconut water matcha. In these products, sweeteners and added flavours mask the comparatively inferior matcha tea quality.

Adding sugar and artificial flavourings to matcha is not inherently bad. However, tea drinkers should be mindful of these additives. Matcha often gets marketed as “healthy,” but based on the sugar concentration and other additives, this may or may not be accurate.

Factors That Influence The Quality of Matcha.

Leaf Location on the Plant. 

The tea bush’s location in the field, and the location of the leaves on the plant when harvested, play a role in matcha quality. Tender leaves at the tip of the plant produce a more delicate texture and are used in the highest quality matcha. Lower-grade matcha uses more developed leaves; the less supple and tender quality of mature leaves are what give lower grade matcha a sandy texture. Some botanists and tea growers suggest that the difference in taste is a result of the plant sending nutrients to the tender growing leaves, rather than the mature leaves.

Age of Tea Plant. 

Historically, higher quality matcha has been produced from the young leaves of older tea plants. While the age of the tea plant still plays a role in matcha product quality, newer cultivars have been developed which reduces the importance of plant age in producing high-quality matcha.

Exposure to Sunlight.

In traditional matcha production, the harvested leaves were dried outside in the shade. Tea farmers and labourers diligently ensured that the leaves were never exposed to direct sunlight during the drying process.

In modern tea production, however, the drying process occurs mostly indoors, which standardizes the drying process and safeguards the tea leaves against direct sun exposure. In addition to covering tea plants before harvesting, this part of the production process also plays a role in giving high-quality matcha its vibrant deep green hue.

Stone Grinding. 

Matcha is usually stone-ground into a fine powder. How the leaves are ground plays an essential role in the quality of the matcha powder produced. Well ground matcha produces a fine, delicate powder which froths nicely; poorly ground matcha may have a sandy texture and doesn’t foam well.

Oxidation.

Oxidation is a factor in determining grade: exposure to oxygen causes quality degradation. A smell similar to hay and a dull greenish-brown colour characterizes oxidized matcha. 

Flavour Differences of Matcha Across Quality Grades.

The taste of matcha varies considerably based on the grade, the temperature of the water used to make matcha, and if you are serving it hot or cold. Overall the taste of matcha is complex, rich and astringent. It has a smooth mouth-feel, and the flavour falls on a spectrum of creamy and grassy.

High-grade matcha tea has a smooth, creamy and slightly sweet taste, while lower grades may have a grassy or bitter taste. Research suggests that the ratio of tea polyphenols to amino acids indicates the quality of matcha tea (Wang, 2019).

Ceremonial Grade Matcha.

Ceremonial grade matcha tastes decadently creamy, smooth and divine. There is only a hint of grassy notes, and the aftertaste is refreshingly sweet. 

Premium Grade Matcha. 

Premium grade matcha tastes smooth, creamy and pleasantly grassy and feels like you are drinking health. The aftertaste of premium grade matcha has sweet notes, rather than a bitter taste.

Culinary Grade Matcha.

Culinary grade matcha tastes earthy and bitter. After drinking unflavoured, unsweetened culinary grade matcha, two acquaintances of mine described it as “pond water” and like “drinking bitter grass.” Despite its ‘indelicate’ taste, culinary grade matcha is fantastic for smoothies and baking. When added to food, culinary grade matcha provides you with excellent health benefits at an affordable price point.

Regardless of the grade of matcha, how you prepare the tea also influences the taste. The delicate nature of green tea leaves means using boiling water turns the taste bitter, despite the original quality of matcha used. When preparing matcha, use water that is 80°C (176°F) to preserve the quality and taste. Whether the prepared matcha is served hot or cold also influences the taste. Matcha served hot will taste more astringent and full-bodied, while serving matcha cold offers a smoother, slightly sweeter taste. 

Health Benefits of Matcha.

There is no debate: matcha is excellent for you. The following summary of matcha’s health benefits draws on many published scientific articles. 

Powerful Antioxidant and Detox. 

Many health benefits of matcha are due to the high concentration of antioxidants; compared to loose leaf green tea, matcha has 137 times more antioxidants.

One of the unique properties of matcha tea is that it is rich in phytochemicals, with a high concentration of a potent class of antioxidants called catechins (Phongnarisorn, 2018). One of the many polyphenols contained in matcha is epigallocatechin-3 gallate (EGCG), which is a particularly potent antioxidant (Kavanagh, 2001). EGCG and other catechins offset the effects of free radicals caused by pollution, UV rays, radiation, and chemicals, all of which can lead to cell damage. Given the high level of antioxidants in matcha, daily consumption can help maintain health.

Drinking matcha involves consuming the entire tea leaf in powdered form and therefore has more health benefits than drinking loose leaf green tea (Weiss, 2003)(Yamabe, 2009). A single matcha serving is usually between 2-4 grams, and two grams of matcha contains 210 mg catechins, and roughly 60% of that is EGCG. By comparison, matcha has four times the catechins of regular green tea. Milling in the powdering process of matcha, along with the addition of hot water and stirring, increases the average extracted concentration of EGCG by more than three times, compared with leaf tea (Fujioka, 2016).

In addition to the antioxidants, matcha has high levels of chlorophyll, vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamin C, selenium, chromium, zinc and magnesium.

Chlorophyll is what gives plants their green colouring, including matcha and green tea. Limiting a plant’s sunlight exposure to a low level is effective at increasing the chlorophyll content in those plants (Ferreira, 2016); shade-grown matcha is substantially richer in chlorophyll than other green teas.

Many people consume chlorophyll for health benefits as it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, and antimicrobial properties (Ferreira, 2016). Chlorophyll has been shown to inhibit tumour growth, protect healthy gene expression and may prevent cancer by reducing carcinogen bioavailability (Mcquistan, 2012). Chlorophyll’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity is promising for medically treating inflammation and related diseases (Subramoniam, 2011).

Chlorophyll is also a potent detoxifier, helping to eliminate heavy metals from the body. One study found that when chlorophyll was combined with potassium iodide, it reduced lead accumulation and prevented lead poisoning (Xie, 2017).  

Anticancer.

Matcha has significant anticancer properties, mainly due to the high concentration of antioxidants, specifically EGCG (Bonuccelli, 2018). Several studies show that EGCG in matcha has chemopreventive effects; it helps prevent cancerous growth and multiplication (Kavanagh, 2001)(Hazgui, 2008), and can kill cancer cells (Siddiqui, 2007). Research also shows matcha has a dose-dependent relationship on inhibiting tumour growth (Sato, 1999). When combined with vitamin C, matcha can suppress the multiplication of cancer cells up to 73% (Wei, 2003).

Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) measures antioxidant capabilities, and the ORAC value of matcha tea is 1,348 units per gram (or serving), one of the highest in superfoods. Matcha tea is over ten times more potent than a cup of brewed green tea (Weil, 2019).

Weight Loss.

Studies have shown that drinking matcha tea facilitates weight loss by improving fat burning and increasing metabolism. Research suggests that green tea extract can increase fat burning up to 17% during exercise (Venables, 2008). Much of the research examining the relationship between weight-loss and green tea uses green tea extract; few studies involve matcha tea specifically. However, green tea extract is more similar to matcha than leaf green tea because of the concentration of healthy compounds.

Matcha’s combination of EGCG and caffeine makes it unique; both EGCG and caffeine increase fat burning from exercise (Willems, 2018) and cause a 24-hour increase in energy expenditure (Bérubé-Parent, 2005). The combination of EGCG and caffeine positively impacts weight loss and weight maintenance (Hursel, 2009).

Beyond improving weight loss, matcha has three other weight-related benefits. First, the EGCG and polyphenols contained in matcha help inhibit the body’s digestion of starch (Zhang, 2017). Second, research shows green tea extract improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (Venables, 2008), and matcha is likely to do the same. Finally, where high lipid and glucose levels are a result of dietary choices, matcha plays a vital role in the suppression of both (Xu, 2016).

Anxiety and Attention. 

Matcha is referred to as “mood-and-brain food” (Dietz, 2017); it has caffeine, L-theanine, and EGCG, all of which positively affect mood and cognitive performance (Monobe, 2019)(Dietz, 2017). Studies have shown that green tea can increase relaxation, mental clarity, cognitive function (Dietz, 2017), and reduce the progression of cognitive dysfunction (Ide, 2014).

Caffeine benefits memory (Sherman, 2016) and improves cognitive performance (Duinen, 2005). It is associated with faster reaction time, sustained concentration, and faster encoding of new information (Smith, 2012). L-theanine has a significant effect on the general state of mental alertness and attention (Nobre, 2008). While L-theanine is in all tea, matcha has up to five times more of this amino acid than black and green teas (Chalait, 2019).

Some research suggests that L-theanine helps with learning (Klimesch, 2012) by boosting activity in the alpha frequency band brainwave (Unno, 2018), which helps with information filtering, interconnecting, and long term memory. L-theanine’s ability to boost activity in the alpha frequency band relaxes the mind without inducing drowsiness and produces a stress-reducing effect (Unno, 2018).

Research also shows L-theanine lowers our psychological and physiological stress response (Monobe, 2019). In a double-blind trial, participants who drank matcha had significantly lower anxiety than those who consumed the placebo (Unno, 2018). Drinking matcha, regardless of the quality, is suggested to reduce anxiety behaviours from psychological and physiological stress (Monobe, 2019). What this means for tea-drinkers is that matcha tea is a fantastic option when you are studying, faced with pressing work tasks or dealing with stress. 

Liver, Kidney and Heart Health.

Matcha suppresses the accumulation of proteins known to cause complications in conditions like diabetes, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease. Matcha does this by decreasing triglycerides, total cholesterol and glucose in the liver, as well as providing antioxidant activities.

Green tea intake decreases the risk of liver disease (Yin, 2015), liver damage (Yamabe, 2009), as well as enzymes associated with causing liver damage (Askari, 2016). Additionally, the EGCG in matcha helps protect against kidney failure and damage (Yamabe, 2009). Finally, matcha helps prevent heart disease and strokes. Cholesterol is a contributing factor in heart disease; matcha lowers triglycerides (Xu, 2016) and can significantly lower bad cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) without affecting good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) (Zheng, 2011). 

Traditional Utensils Used in Preparing Matcha. 

The conventional preparation of matcha involves four tools: caddy, scoop, whisk and bowl.  

Caddy (Natsume or Chaire).

A tea caddy is a small lidded container used to hold matcha in the tea making procedure. The caddy is a crucial element of the Japanese tea ceremony, but many modern tea drinkers do not own or use one. Outside of Japan, possessing a tea caddy can be seen as a sign of knowledge and status among serious tea drinkers. Possession illustrates knowledge of the culture, history and procedures embedded in preparing and drinking matcha.  

Scoop (Chashaku).

Ordinarily carved from bamboo, tea scoops are used to scoop matcha powder from the tea caddy into the tea bowl. Many modern matcha drinkers in North America may not use a tea caddy, but using a traditional tea scoop differentiates refined tea drinkers from the masses.  

Whisk (Chasen).

A tea whisk, often made out of a single piece of bamboo, is used for mixing the powdered matcha tea and hot water. Frequent use causes wear-and-tear on the bamboo whisk, so matcha tea drinkers should replace whisks when visible breakage occurs. In traditional Japanese culture, each formal tea ceremony uses a new whisk.

Bowl (Chawan).

Tea bowls come in a wide range of sizes and styles. They can be classified by their country of origin, potter, and shape, and even the tea and season they are intended for. Bowls are often named by their creators, owners, or tea masters, giving them a unique lineage, and a hint of soul. The most prized bowls are hand created; some are over centuries-old and are often heirlooms.

While the value of matcha tea increases the closer it gets to the smooth, creamy perfection, the Japanese culture embraces imperfection in tea bowls. Irregularities are valued and often featured prominently as the front of the bowl when being presented.

Traditional Matcha Preparation Method. 

Historically, matcha is made one of two ways: thick (koicha) or thin (usucha).

In Japan, tea ceremonies customarily use thick matcha (koicha). Thick matcha uses double the amount of matcha powder compared to thin tea and has a consistency similar to honey. Producing koicha requires the person preparing the tea to use a slower stirring motion for a longer time. Once prepared, one bowl of koicha is shared among many guests.

Traditionally, when making koicha, only the highest quality matcha is used. To ensure a milder, sweeter taste, leaves harvested from mature tea plants are used, and typically from plants over thirty years old.

Thin (usucha) matcha is also made from high-quality green tea, and is prepared with a higher ratio of water to matcha powder. Traditionally, all participants in the Japanese tea ceremony drink from the same bowl, at different points on the bowl’s rim.

Alternative Ways of Consuming Matcha. 

Some people find matcha has a grassy taste which they dislike, or enjoy only in controlled amounts. People who fall into this category, but still want the health benefits of matcha, can drink matcha lattes, add matcha to smoothies, baked goods, or overnight-oats.

Even when included in baked goods, matcha still provides many health benefits (Unno, 2019). However, using matcha in baking doesn’t offer the same level of health benefits as uncooked matcha. Baking decreases the catechin content of matcha by up to 19% (Phongnarisorn, 2018). Adding matcha to smoothies or your overnight oats retains the full health benefits.

Additionally, matcha’s cognitive performance benefits were better when the matcha was consumed as a drink, rather than in processed food, such as a bar (Dietz, 2017). One study found milk was ideal for delivering matcha’s healthy polyphenolic compounds (Bhagat, 2019); dairy proteins protected matcha’s antioxidant enzyme activity inside the stomach’s unstable environment. When matcha is combined with milk, it can reduce skin roughness and wrinkles (Bhagat, 2019).  

Summary.

Both matcha and loose-leaf green tea come from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant. Matcha undergoes a unique production process: shade-grown and stone-ground.

Matcha is produced in both China and Japan. Regardless of country of origin, matcha is categorized into different grades, each with a unique taste. Culinary grade is the lowest quality of matcha; it’s appropriate for smoothies and baking. Premium and ceremonial grade matcha are both excellent for drinking. Ceremonial grade matcha is smoother, sweeter and less grassy than it’s premium grade counterpart; it is also more expensive.

Matcha has rich traditional roots that inform the utensils, procedure and history of the drink. Modern tea drinkers have found alternative ways to prepare and consume matcha which fits their lifestyles.

Matcha has a higher concentration of health-promoting compounds than loose leaf green tea. Matcha is a powerful antioxidant, detox and weight loss aid. It also improves attention and memory and reduces anxiety. Additionally, matcha is good for liver, kidney and heart health.

In the comments below, please share your favourite matcha?