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” come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Many teas are produced from this plant, their differences due to the processing of the leaves.
But leaves for matcha are subject to specific growing conditions: namely, shade. The plant is protected from the sun, and light is carefully controlled, leading to a unique production of plant chemicals (caffeine, antioxidants, flavonoids, etc) which contribute to its unique flavor.
Grades of matcha: What are they?
There are several grades of matcha. It is graded based on criteria such as:
- Color (how bright a green is it?)
- Texture (how smooth and even is the powder?)
- Fineness (how fine are the leaf particles?)
- Oxygen/Sunlight exposure (how long was it shaded before harvesting?)
- Stemmed vs. De-stemmed
- Pre-grinding preparation of leaves
- Grinding process
Japanese producers sort their matcha by three main grades:
- Ceremony or ceremonial grade (spring or first harvest): Made using just the bud and first leaf, the finest grade of matcha. The smoothest / least bitter grade of matcha with the highest levels of L-theanine, the main amino acid in tea. Around $3 per cup.
- Premium / In-Between grade: Exactly as the name suggests – 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. Around $2.30 per cup.
- Basic / culinary / cooking grade (summer or second harvest): 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. Around $1.20 per cup, as more teaspoons are needed to achieve the same texture as Ceremony grade. Note: this is what is being served at Starbucks, McDonalds and your local coffee shop.
Photo courtesy of Snixy Kitchen: https://www.snixykitchen.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-matcha. Left to right: Ceremonial grade, premium grade, culinary grade
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, making it sweeter and creamier.
The leaves (known as tencha) are harvested in the spring as these will have a higher nutrient content. Any leaves harvested later are considered inferior. The 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), resulting in a smooth, fine powder that is vibrant green.
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: ‘matcha’ is Japanese for “ground/powdered tea”, so technically any tea leaves that have been ground up could be called matcha!)
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, are not shade grown, nor are they de-stemmed and de-veined prior to grinding, making Chinese matcha less vibrant, more bitter, sandy in texture, and 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).
What does matcha taste like?
Descriptions vary from sweet, creamy and full-bodied to vegetal, wheat-grass-like and bitter. This partly has to do with preparation, but in the end Matcha really is an acquired taste. Perhaps this bitterness is why Matcha lattes and desserts are so popular, but adding cream and sugar counteract its health benefits.
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 as a latte alternative to espresso due to its incredible green color and the general interest in Japanese culture.
However, in order to regularly drink matcha, most of us end up adding milk and sweeteners into the tea, or mixing it into 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 stirred into cake frosting or in a Starbucks latte, with a couple of hundred calories! A tiny serving also doesn't stand a chance of delivering any of the desired health benefits...
Good news for non-Matcha fans!
So, you want something with matcha’s health benefits but 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. Its not at all bitter and instead has sweet undertones with a warming aftertaste.
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Further matcha reading & references
Specifically about the matcha market and industry:
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.