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What is Matcha? A Matcha Primer

Posted by Stephany Morgan


Matcha has recently exploded in popularity in the west, but you might not know very much about it. With all the different matcha products out there, the different grades, and the wildly dubious health claims, it can be hard to cut through the noise and find out the truth.

In this article, I'm going to answer all the questions you might have about matcha, its benefits, and what to watch out for when buying it. We're going to tackle:

  • What is matcha?
  • What¬†are the grades of matcha? What do they mean? Which grade is the best?
  • How is matcha grown and prepared?
  • How much matcha does Japan produce? What about Chinese matcha?
  • What does matcha taste like?
  • Where¬†should I buy matcha?
  • Why is matcha so expensive?
  • Why is matcha so popular?
  • How many antioxidants are in matcha?
  • How much caffeine¬†is in matcha?
  • What¬†should I drink if I don't like matcha?

Ready for a matcha deep dive? Let's go!

What is Matcha?

Matcha is green tea that has been ground into a fine powder and blended into hot water, rather than steeped. Japan is famous for producing matcha, but China is also a producer. 

You may be surprised to know that all "true" teas (black tea, green tea, etc.) come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Many teas are produced from this plant, and their differences due to the processing of the leaves.

Tea leaves intended for making matcha, known as tencha, are subject to specific growing conditions: namely, shade.

With tencha, the tea plant is protected from the sun, and light is carefully controlled, leading to a unique production of plant chemicals (caffeine, antioxidants, flavonoids, etc). All of this contributes to matcha's unique flavor.

 

Matcha Latte Matcha Alternatives

What Are the Grades of Matcha? Which Grade Is the Best?

Matcha gets assigned to different grades based on:

  • Color (how bright a green is it?)
  • Texture (how smooth and even is the powder?)
  • Fineness (how fine are the leaf particles?)
  • Density
  • Oxygen/Sunlight exposure (how long was it shaded before harvesting?)
  • Stemmed vs. De-stemmed
  • Pre-grinding preparation of leaves
  • Grinding process

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Japanese producers sort their matcha green tea into three main grades:

1. Ceremony or Ceremonial Grade Matcha (spring or first harvest)

Made using just the bud and first leaf, ceremonial grade is the finest grade of matcha. It's also the smoothest/least bitter grade of matcha, with the highest levels of L-theanine, the main amino acid in tea.

Ceremonial grade matcha is, of course, the most expensive - it will typically cost you about $3 per cup.

2. Premium or In-Between Grade Matcha

Exactly as the name suggests, this is the matcha powder that isn’t fine enough to be classed as ceremonial grade, but isn’t coarse or bitter enough to be sold as cooking grade.

It typically costs around $2.30 per cup.

3. Basic, Culinary, or Cooking Grade Matcha (summer or second harvest)

Culinary grade matcha is made using older leaves further down the stem. The older and larger the leaf, the darker and more bitter the matcha will be, and the lower the grade.

This matcha costs around $1.20 per cup, as more teaspoons are needed to achieve the same texture as ceremony grade.

Culinary grade matcha is what you'll find in your matcha latte at Starbucks, McDonalds and your local coffee shop. Because it's so bitter, these places typically add lots of sweetener to make it taste nice.

When it comes to culinary vs ceremonial grade matcha, there's no contest. If you want to drink matcha without resorting to sweeteners to mask the bitterness, chances are you'll need at least premium grade to avoid a nasty taste.

 

    Grades of matcha

    Photo courtesy of Snixy Kitchen: https://www.snixykitchen.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-matcha. Left to right: Ceremonial grade, premium grade, culinary grade

    How is Matcha Grown and Prepared?

    To get the bright green color, high caffeine and higher antioxidant levels than a typical Japanese green tea, matcha leaves are deprived of some sunlight, resulting in higher chlorophyll content and more L-theanine. This makes it sweeter and creamier than regular green tea.

    As mentioned above, before the leaves are ground into matcha, they're known as tencha. Tencha leaves are harvested in the spring, as these will have a higher nutrient content. Any leaves harvested later than that are considered inferior.

    The tencha leaves are steamed, air dried, and then destemmed and deveined prior to grinding (which takes place as close to distribution as possible to avoid staleness). This grinding results in a smooth, fine, vibrant green powder.

    The grinding methods are slow and small-scale using traditional millstones, as mechanizing matcha production is widely considered in Japan to ruin the tea.

    Fun fact: the word "matcha" comes from the Japanese phrase "ma cha," meaning "powdered tea." Technically, this means that any tea leaves that have been ground up could be called matcha!

    Japanese Tea Gardens

    How Much Matcha Does Japan Produce? What About Chinese Matcha?

    Because of the growing demand in the US for matcha, tencha production (the official measurement of matcha production) increased from 564 tons in 2003 to a whopping 1,163 tons in 2013.

    China also produces “matcha," though it is generally considered to be of lower quality. Although powdered tea originated in China, the methods were refined in Japan.

    Chinese tea leaves are pan fried, and are not shade grown; nor are they de-stemmed and de-veined prior to grinding. This makes Chinese matcha:

    • Less vibrant
    • More bitter
    • Sandy in texture
    • Less likely to froth like higher-quality Japanese matchas

    There is a growing push within Japan for increased mechanization to boost production, pushed by demand for cheap cooking/culinary grade matcha.

    Starbucks and McDonalds introduced matcha drinks a few years ago, and matcha producers in Japan were sold out overnight (and the Chinese matcha market was given a significant boost).

     

    Tea Leaf Production

    What Does Matcha Taste Like?

    Descriptions of matcha's taste vary from sweet, creamy and full-bodied to vegetal, wheat-grass-like and bitter.

    This variance partly has to do with preparation, but for most people, matcha is something of an acquired taste. Perhaps this bitterness is why matcha lattes and desserts are so popular, but adding cream and sugar counteracts its health benefits.

    Where Should I Buy Matcha?

    Because the antioxidants in matcha can degrade quite quickly, especially if it's not stored properly, it's best to buy matcha direct from the source: straight from Japan.

    The more times matcha is packaged and repackaged (from enormous wholesale bags to smaller and smaller bags), the more its antioxidant levels decrease. It will also lose any sweetness it had, and the bitterness will increase.

    The matcha harvest is usually in April, with each year's matcha harvest coming on the market as early as May and June. So if you are going to spend the money on matcha, shop directly with a Japanese matcha shop and get it shipped straight to you.

    Why Is Matcha So Expensive?

    The answer to this one is simple: supply and demand.

    Thanks to the explosion of demand for matcha in the west, Japanese matcha producers can hardly keep up. This means, of course, that they have to charge insanely high prices for this tea - even for bitter culinary grade matcha.

    To be clear, matcha's price tag is due to lack of supply - not because it has particularly high antioxidant levels compared to other superfoods. For a similar tea that is way cheaper with much higher antioxidants, try the adaptogenic tea moringa.

    If you're disgruntled by matcha's popularity ruining your chances of getting some good, cheap matcha, your next question might be:

    Why is Matcha So Popular?

    Matcha’s popularity in the west is attributed to the relationship between the rise of chronic disease and matcha’s notable health benefits.

    Matcha is often consumed to help with weight loss, concentration, blood glucose level moderation (though only for starchy foods), and reducing inflammation. 

    Beyond its health benefits, it became a classy drink offered by cafes in the west as a latte alternative to espresso, due to its fun green color and a general interest in Japanese culture.

    Learn more about the Health Benefits of Green Tea here

     

    However, in order to regularly drink matcha, most of us end up adding milk and sweeteners to the tea, or mixing it into cake batter or ice cream. You can still taste the distinctive dustiness of matcha, but the bitterness is masked.

    However, it's no longer a health food when it's a teaspoon of matcha stirred into cake frosting, or in a Starbucks latte with a couple of hundred added calories!

    A tiny serving of matcha also doesn't stand a chance of delivering any of the desired health benefits.

    Matcha Latte Pouring Matcha Alternatives

     

    How Much Caffeine Is in Matcha?

    Since tencha is grown in the shade, it tricks the plant into producing more caffeine than normal. This, combined with the fact that matcha tea contains the actual ground-up leaf and not just an infusion, means that matcha contains a significant caffeine hit.

    Generally, matcha can contain up to 70mg of caffeine per teaspoon of powder. Since you use about a teaspoon of powder to make a cup of matcha tea, this is a pretty good rule of thumb for how much caffeine you can expect in one drink.

    By comparison, coffee contains about 95mg of caffeine per cup. This means that matcha can be a decent alternative to coffee when it comes to a caffeine hit.

    However, matcha is by no means the most caffeinated tea. Yerba mate, an herbal tea from South America, contains a whopping 90mg of caffeine per cup - so if you're looking for a caffeinated alternative to coffee, yerba mate could be the tea for you.

    To learn more about yerba mate and its benefits, check out our spotlight post.

    If you want to learn more about caffeine in coffee and tea in general, check out our post on the subject.

    How Many Antioxidants Are in Matcha?

    Matcha is considered a superfood. Why, in general, are certain foodstuffs considered superfoods? The high antioxidant contents!

    Given that we're an antioxidant tea shop, this is where our blog can add real value. Matcha does have a good level of antioxidants, but you might be surprised to know there are many other teas with a higher ORAC score.

    ORAC is a measurement of how many antioxidants a food contains. The higher the ORAC number, the more antioxidants it has. To learn more about ORAC and how it's measured, check out our post about it.

    ORAC scores seem to make antioxidant levels pretty objective, right? Unfortunately, the matcha industry as a whole does a very bad thing. Many matcha sellers reference a single, poorly-conducted study which misleadingly suggests that matcha tea has 137x the ORAC capacity of green tea.

    We have a whole blog post debunking this myth, which you can read here.

    In reality, matcha has about 3x the antioxidants of green tea, but there are other teas that contain even more.

    For a handy chart comparing the antioxidant levels of the main types of true and herbal teas, read our post about ORAC scores. Spoiler alert: matcha is actually toward the bottom end of the scale!

    What Should I Drink if I Don't Like Matcha?

    So, you want something with matcha’s health benefits but you're not a fan of the taste? Good news: there are plenty of matcha alternatives out there! Here are three of my favorites:

    Purple tea and Yerba Mate are two caffeinated teas chock-full of antioxidants but lacking the bitterness of matcha. Purple tea is an antioxidant-rich type of green tea, quite rare and quite delicious. Yerba mate has nearly the same caffeine as a cup of coffee and is smooth and rich.

    Moringa tea powder is a caffeine-free yet energizing alternative that also comes in a powder nearly identical to Matcha. It's not at all bitter, and instead has sweet undertones with a warming aftertaste. 

    Read More About Matcha, Moringa & Green Tea

      The Dark Truth About Matcha Tea
    Busting the Matcha Myth: Does matcha really have 137 times
    more antioxidants (EGCG) than green tea?
    Moringa: The Energizing, Caffeine-Free Matcha Alternative
    Japanese and Chinese Green Teas: A Brief Introduction
    For more information about purple tea, mate, rooibos and all of our other alternatives and substitutes for matcha, have a look at About Our Teas and of course our other blog posts. 

     

    Mountain Matcha Tea Matcha Alternatives

    If you enjoyed this piece, subscribe to the MA Blog so you never miss another! It's all about tea, alternatives to matcha, antioxidants and smashing the pseudo-science myths peddled by the wellness industry. Also, don’t worry we hate spam as much as you do: we won't send any marketing emails. Any new teas or occasional offers are simply included in the regular "latest blog" notifications :-)

     

    Matcha References

    https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/2/11/8006039/everything-you-need-to-know-about-matcha

    https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/matcha-market
    https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1242/moringa
    https://specialtyteaalliance.org/world-of-tea/matcha-quality/

    https://matcha-tea.com/matcha/comparing-the-different-grades-of-matcha-tea

     

    https://blog.aicr.org/2012/11/19/can-green-tea-help-lower-blood-sugar-new-study/

     

    Specifically about the matcha market and industry:

    https://www.jetro.go.jp/en/trends/foods/ingredients/greentea.html

    https://www.businessinsider.com/the-japanese-would-never-use-this-popular-superfood-knockoff-why-2016-4

    https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/fad-diets/staying-away-from-fad-diets

    A note from the Herbalist...

    All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.

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