Matcha latte in nature

What is Matcha Tea? A Primer on its History, Grades & Key Questions

Posted by Matcha Alternatives


First published April 2019. Updated and expanded January 2021 

Matcha has recently exploded in popularity in the West, but you might not know very much about it. With all the different matcha and green tea 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 matcha's origins and history? 
    • 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?
    • 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 is the Origin and History of Matcha?

The below is a brief history of matcha - please see the references below for much more detailed accounts if you would like to learn more! (It is fascinating)

Matcha was first grown and produced in China in the 7th century, where it was used as a meditation aid in monastaries [1]. Although tea was already being grown in Japan (with seeds brought from China), at some point in the 1100s, the Zen monk Eisai famously brought tea seeds from China to Japan, and wrote extensively on the subject of tea and well being. At that point monks began to cultivate tea on monastic land on a much larger scale. [2]

Over the next few centuries, temples across Japan began growing matcha, both as a meditation aid and also for its 'healing benefits', with Eisai even penning a book called "Drinking Tea for Health". In the 1300s, however, more land was needed for growing tea and third Shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, opened up new land in the Uji province, near Mount Fuji. [2, 3] This remains the primary area of matcha production for all of Japan, as its climate is ideal, and was the source of the famous (and arduous) annual Tea Jar Procession, delivering the year's matcha harvest from Uji (near Kyoto) to Edo (modern day Tokyo). [2]

Demand for matcha grew for two primary reasons: as a meditation aid within the various different schools of Zen teachings, and as a symbol of wealth and status for the Shogun and nobility. It was only in 1738 that a new processing method was invented, and more than a selected handful of merchants were allowed to produce and sell matcha. [1]

 

What is the history of the Japanese tea ceremony?

The famous Japanese tea ceremony has evolved over centuries, from its Chinese origins during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), to a simple ritual by Buddhist monks in Japan in the 8th century, to a rowdy guessing game of tea types by members of nobility in the following centuries. However, in the 15th century Shogun Yoshimitsu, in addition to expanding planting to Uji, also put a stop to the drinking game aspect of the tea ceremony. [4] The ceremony morphed into a discrete, refined ritual designed to display connoisseurship of tea and teaware, as well as knowledge of etiquette, grace and gentility. [4] 

A century later, the legendary tea master and political advisor Sen no Rikyu further transformed and codified the tea ceremony, firmly linking it to Zen training. The long line of tea masters continues to this day, teaching the Way of Tea and the principles of Harmony, Respect, Purity and Elegance, all of which are embodied in the Japanese tea ceremony. [5]

 

What is the modern day history of matcha?

Since the Uji manufacturing method was invented in 1738, matcha became available to members of the general public, not only the elite. Consumption remained fairly stable over the following 250 years, although at the end of the 20th century traditional green tea began declining in popularity, being viewed as old fashioned. [6]

In 1996, though, the Japanese arm of ice cream company Haagen Daz decided to take a risk and produce something never before seen: Green tea ice cream [8]. The wholesaler they ordered from bought up nearly all available matcha, causing a significant shock to the market. [6, 7] The immense and immediate popularity of this new ice cream flavor triggered a wave of matcha and green tea flavored foods in Japan, which then spread across south east Asia, China, and to Japanese and Asian grocery stores in the USA. [9]

One of our co-founders remembers trying matcha donuts and frappuccinos in Tokyo in 1997 (thank you Mister Donut!), and in subsequent visits seeing matcha becoming endemic on menus, from matcha-flavored hamburger buns at Mos Burger to matcha kit-kats to matcha gin and matcha Pocky. Now, you can get matcha flavored beverages and baked goods everywhere from McDonalds to Dunkin Donuts, across the world. 

The market continues to grow: since 1996, the matcha market has increased by five-fold in the US alone, totaling more than $10 billion. India is a growing market for culinary matcha, and the EU's recent trade deal with Japan has eliminated tariffs on matcha bringing it firmly into the European market as well. [10] Worldwide, just under 57% of matcha is 'Classic' grade, with 'Ceremony' and 'Culinary' grades splitting the remaining ~40% of the market 50/50. [9]

 

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

 Matcha Powder Spoon Cup Matcha Alternatives

 

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).

    The amount of "official" matcha produced and grown is far lower than the amount of "matcha" consumed each year! This means that a huge portion of "matcha" is in fact ground up other green teas, not necessarily from Japan, and not produced with the particular shading methods that are essentials for the antioxidant levels (and bright green color) of true matcha. However, 'matcha' translates to 'ground tea' so it's not technically a lie...

     

    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. The bitterness varies across grades, with the highest Ceremonial grades the least bitter, and culinary grade the most bitter. 

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

    As a side note, powdered leaves, of just about any plant, are going to be bitter. This is why almost all teas and tisanes are steeped, rather than consuming the actual leaf. Moringa is one of the few exceptions, where its powdered leaves aren't bitter and instead have a sweet, spinachy taste.  

     

    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. In addition, the matcha harvest is very short. Usually in April, with each year's matcha harvest coming on the market as early as May and June. There is only one harvest per year, and it's only of the youngest leaves and buds.

    Because matcha is made from delicate young tea leaves, they are easily damaged. Grinding must be done carefully to avoid friction heating the young leaves and damaging their color and antioxidants, which also limits the supply. Add in that Japan's matcha producers are aging without enough young producers joining the industry to help meet market demand, and the extreme shortness of the matcha producing season, and you end up with a lot of demand for not much supply.

    This also results in a lot of non-Japanese matcha entering the market, primarily from China. Sometimes it is sold as Chinese matcha, and sometimes it is mislabeled as Japanese.

    There is also the issue of faux matcha produced in Japan: The amount of officially produced tencha (the leaves used to make matcha) is far smaller than the amount of matcha exported from Japan, which in turn is far smaller than the amount of 'Japanese' matcha available globally. [6] One trick is to grind fall harvest tea leaves, called akiten, which has not been shaded but is otherwise treated like tencha. Then there is mogo, which is summer or fall harvest and not treated like tencha either, being ground with industrial grinders instead. [6]

    The Japanese Tea Sommelier blog describes the challenge of faux matcha quite well:

    But even leaving aside these delicate and subtle questions, akiten, moga, and tencha ground using grinders, should be excluded from the term “matcha”. And in fact, in reality, the tea professionals do not view them as “matcha”, and [they sell] under the name of “culinary matcha” 料理用抹茶 or 加工用抹茶 “industrial matcha”.

    But when these products come in milk drinks,...pastries and even [in] so-called speciality shops abroad, these products lose their adjectives, and become “matcha”. We understand the problem that would arise if all “matcha” flavor milk drinks and pastries should be renamed simply “green tea”. The effect would be even worse for those who sell their “Uji Matcha pastrie”[sic], the souvenir industry in Uji and Kyôto would take a shot!

    ...So the media are talking of “matcha boom or trend”, but we understand that it would be more correct to speak of [a] boom [of] green tea powder flavored products. And with the wide spreading of powder or low rank matcha sold under the name of “matcha” or even worse “Matcha from Uji”, there is a significant risk to the brand image of the region, and by extension the Japanese tea in general. Finally on this issue, a very easy to understand figures is that manually picked matcha is only 3% of teas sold as “matcha”.

    Quoted from Kyôto, Uji, the land of Yamashiro, an history of tea in Japan, Japanese Tea Sommelier Blog

    But prices are high no matter what, as customers already expect eye-watering prices, and the consumer assumes that if it's green and powdered, it must be high in antioxidants. 

     

    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 are the best alternatives to Matcha?

    So, you want something with matcha’s health benefits but you're not a fan of the taste? Or perhaps you love matcha, but want something caffeine free? Or maybe you're just looking to try something different that's also high in antioxidants?

    Good news: there are plenty of matcha alternatives out there! It all depends what you're looking for. We've written two in-depth pieces about the best substitutes for matcha, but here's a summary!

     

    Best matcha substitutes for...

    • Concentration and focus: Green tea is fantastic for this, with antioxidants that help with sustained focus
    • A morning caffeine hit: Yerba mate has more caffeine than matcha, and almost the same level as coffee
    • Loads of antioxidants: Honeybush has 95% more antioxidants than matcha and is around 1/3 the price. Tulsi holy basil has 84% more antioxidants, and is also less than half the cost. Both are caffeine free too!
    • Relaxation: Rooibos and chamomile both have antioxidants that aid relaxation and feelings of calm. Both are caffeine free
    • Weight loss: Green tea and moringa are both great options to included in a balanced diet to aid healthy weight loss 
    • Cooking, nutrients, and ceremony: Moringa is a green leaf powder, that can be used as an exact substitute for matcha, in your chawan for a beautiful tea ceremony, or in your cooking for extra flavor and added nutrients

     

    Get all the details on the above in:

    Best Substitutes for Matcha Tea ... for Concentration, Caffeine & Antioxidants (Part 1)

    Best Matcha Tea Substitutes for ... Relaxation, Weight Loss & Cooking (Part 2)

     

    Here are three of our personal favorite matcha alternatives:

    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

    Learn more about why we are called MatchaAlternatives on our About page

     

    Mountain Matcha Tea Matcha Alternatives

     

     
    Matcha Alternatives Superior Organic Moringa Tea Powder
     Superior Organic Moringa Tea Powder
    This 100% vegan complete protein (a rarity in the plant world!) is ideal for your resolutions of weight loss. Moringa works well in a smoothie,  latte, cereal, and baking, so get in your daily antioxidants. 

    Overtones of black plum and a mildy woody nose. Like a tannic green tea, with an incredibly sweet aftertaste.
    The liquor turns pink if you add lemon juice!
    Matcha Alternatives Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate
    Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate
    Imagine a coffee-like roasted taste, without the bitterness or inevitable crash. This caffeinated tea will give you the focus you need to reach your goals.
    ~
     
     
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    Disclaimer
     

    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. This information is for educational purposes only. 

     

    Matcha References

    To learn more about matcha, there are many many many fantastic books each with their own special angle or focus, going much more in-depth than we are able to here. Our advice is therefore to support your local bookshop, by searching on https://bookshop.org/ and diving in!

    Below are the sources we used for the above piece, as well as a few selected resources for learning more about matcha's history: 

    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/

     

    Matcha history & Tea ceremony references

    [1] https://www.gotmatcha.com/a-brief-history-of-matcha/

    [2] https://www.killgreen.io/main/matcha-introduction

    [3] https://www.uedasokochanoyu.com/references/practical-wisdom/matcha/

    [4] https://www.ancient.eu/Japanese_Tea_Ceremony/

    [5] Sen XV Soshitsu, The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

    [6] https://japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/kyoto-uji-the-land-of-yamashiro-an-history-of-tea-in-japan/ 

    [7] https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/matcha.ht

    [8] https://matcha-jp.com/en/8235 HAAGEN

    [9] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/matcha-tea-market

    [10] https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/matcha-market

     

    Read more about the Japanese tea ceremony and matcha's history:

    https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2096.html

    https://www.hibiki-an.com/contents.php/cnID/17

    https://www.chalait.com/pages/history-of-matcha

    https://phys.org/news/2019-08-global-matcha-craze-japan-tea.html

    https://www.matchaful.com/pages/the-history-of-matcha

     

    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

    https://www.gminsights.com/industry-analysis/matcha-market

    https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/4622262/global-matcha-market-growth-trends-and

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