When I was younger, I was perplexed by the term green tea. In my limited childhood experience, every cup of green tea I had ever brewed was a typical greenish-yellow. I thought it should have been called yellow tea. So imagine my surprise when I had my first cup of Matcha, a vibrant emerald tea. It is truly green tea.
From where does this green powder come? The first Matcha-style tea came from China during the Song Dynasty. Tea leaves were picked and then withered with steam before being dried and pressed into a brick. In order to brew the tea, one would break off and pulverize the tea and then whisk it into hot water. Zen monks adopted the beverage and the whisking method of preparation, turning it into a form of spiritual practice. It is said that the monks would drink the tea to keep them focused and alert during long sessions of meditation. During the late twelfth century, a Zen monk by the name of Myoan Eisai brought the powdered tea and its preparation to Japan, where it has flourished as an art form.
The particular kind of tea leaves used to produce Matcha are the same as the leaves that become Gyokuro. These shade-grown leaves have more chlorophyll, theanine and other antioxidants than standard tea leaves. In fact, Matcha has the highest amount of antioxidants of all teas, measuring in around 1,300 ORAC units per serving! Once the leaves are dried, they are ground to a fine powder by specially made stone mills. The milling process is a constant series of stop and go. If the stones heat up from the friction, the tea will lose its flavor. It takes nearly an hour to produce a single ounce of Matcha.
Today, most Matcha is grown in Japan, where it is more popular as a beverage. The tea has such a strong cultural significance that the Japanese have developed an entire ritual around its preparation. This is known as Chanoyu, which literally translates to “hot water”. This practice involves a number of specialized tools, which can be a little intimidating to a beginner. The best way to learn is by experiencing the ceremony for yourself, studying side by side with someone who is familiar with the practice. However, a quick internet search will bring up videos of the ceremony.
Before even heating the water, one should understand the purpose behind the Chanoyu ceremony. Chanoyu is the ultimate expression of hospitality. Every aspect of it is designed to ensure a pleasant experience for both the guest and the host. This is conceptualized in the four principles of Chanoyu: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, which are often displayed on a hanging scroll in the tea room. Watching the ceremony, you will see the hostess ritually clean each of the tea implements in front of the guests, both proving and ensuring that not a single speck of dust will contaminate the tea. After preparing the tea, the first cup is always offered to the first guest, who will thank the host for the tea and apologize to the other guests for accepting the first cup. When everyone has had their fill, the first guest will inform the hostess that she may clean the tea implements. At this time, the guests may ask to examine the various tea implements, inquiring which artist made them and if they have a history. Some tools are centuries old and were used in especially historic tea parties.
The three most basic tools used in Chanoyu are the chawan (a ceramic bowl), the chasen (a bamboo whisk), and the chashaku (a small bamboo whisk). The chashaku is used to measure out the proper quantity of Matcha powder into the chawan. Unlike a typical teacup, the chawan is more of a bowl, which is considerably larger than necessary to hold a cup of tea. This allows the host to mix the tea in the chawan without splashing or spilling. During the preparation, the Matcha and hot water are whisked together, drawing an “M” shape with the chasen.
For everyday Matcha, I don’t bother with the rituals and theater. Instead, I use a small electric milk-frothing whisk (I bought mine at Ikea). I start with a ¼ teaspoon of Matcha powder, then add just a little water to make a paste, breaking up clumps with a spoon. Then I add a cup of hot water (175 F) and whisk it together with the electric whisk for at least 30 seconds until a pale froth appears on top. If you find that the tea is too weak, add another ¼ teaspoon of Matcha and whisk again. I vary between weaker and stronger tea depending on my mood. Drink with sweets and contemplate harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.