Marvellous Matcha – Vibrant and Nutritious

Cup of matcha tea latte with strawMatcha Tea differs from other teas in that its leaves are ground into a fine powder and dissolved in water, instead of being steeped. Because the whole leaf is consumed, matcha tea provides a more abundant supply of nutrients than other teas, in a silky smooth, bright green infusion, with a delightful mix of savoury and sweet flavours and a fresh, grassy aroma. This unique beverage originated in Japan many centuries ago, but there has been a rise in its popularity in recent years.

Matcha is named from the Japanese words, 'ma' meaning powder, and 'cha' for tea. Like most other teas, matcha is made with leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is thought that tea plants of this variety were brought into Japan from China during the Song Dynasty by a Buddhist monk, who introduced the method of grinding the leaves into a powdered form to be mixed with water. The drinking of matcha tea is still significant as a Buddhist ritual, and it is also the tea used for the 'Japanese tea ceremony', a ritual that has been part of traditional Japanese culture for centuries.

The tea plants used to make matcha tea are cultivated differently to other teas. A few weeks before the leaves are plucked, the tea bushes are covered, either traditionally by a framework of reeds covered with straw, or more often these days with fabric, so they are completely shaded from direct sunlight. This has the effect of increasing chlorophyll levels in the leaves and they become darker in colour. After the leaves are harvested, they are dried, and their stems and veins removed. The remainder of the leaves are then ground with granite stone mills to a fine, green powder. This can be a slow process as care must be taken to ensure the mill stones don't become too warm, as this could compromise the flavour and aroma of the tea. It can take up to an hour to grind just 30 grams of matcha powder.

Matcha tea is graded into three classes. The highest quality matcha, used in Japanese tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples, is called 'Ceremonial Grade'. This matcha is a vibrant green colour and has a more intense flavour and natural sweetness, with notes of umami. 'Premium Grade' matcha is processed from the soft upper leaves of the plant and is still of a high quality. 'Cooking' or 'Culinary Grade' matcha is of a lower quality, being processed from the lower leaves of the plant that can taste rather bitter. Its colour is not as vibrant and, as its name suggests, it is mainly used for culinary purposes.

As with other green teas, matcha contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but the time the leaves spend growing in the shade effectively increases levels of these health-promoting properties. They have higher levels of theanine, an amino acid thought to help reduce stress and promote relaxation. However, matcha tea may also contain higher levels of caffeine, so is good to drink when a boost of energy is needed. Some of the suggested benefits of drinking matcha tea have included reduced LDL cholesterol levels, improved liver and kidney function, promotion of cardiovascular health, and help with weight loss.

How matcha tea is prepared depends on the consistency required. Thin matcha, called 'usucha', is the more usual way for it to be drunk, but it can also be made into a thicker consistency, known as 'koicha', by using at least double the amount of matcha powder and less water. Usucha will have the consistency of a latte, and may taste slightly bitter, particularly when a lower quality matcha is used, whereas koicha is more like liquid honey, with less astringency and a milder, sweeter taste. Although usucha can be made with different grades of matcha, only the highest quality matcha is suitable for koicha. This would normally be made with leaves from tea plants more than 30 years old, whereas usucha is more often made with leaves from plants less than 30 years old. One visible difference between them is that usucha generally has a frothy crema on top, but koicha doesn't.

The traditional utensils used to prepare matcha consist of a small bowl (chawan), a bamboo scoop (chashaku), and a bamboo whisk (chasen). A fine mesh sieve is also useful. The bowl may be first warmed by rinsing round with hot water. To make usucha, one scoop of sieved matcha powder, or about half a teaspoon should be used with approximately 75 ml of water. A small amount of hot, but not boiling water (80ºC (176ºF) maximum) should first be added to the tea and mixed to a smooth paste before gradually adding the rest. The mixture can then be whisked with a zig-zag motion until it becomes smooth with a frothy crema. Usucha can also be whisked in a cup or mug with a handheld milk frother. Alternatively, ingredients can be mixed with a little hot water, then topped up with cold water and ice for a refreshing iced tea, or shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker for a delicious cold-brewed version. Koicha, being a thicker mix, requires a slower, stirring motion when blending. However matcha is made, the amount of matcha powder and water used may be adjusted to personal taste. Matcha tea should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place in order to retain its flavour and bright green appearance.

The vibrant green colour and natural sweetness of matcha make it an interesting ingredient to add to smoothies and desserts, or use in drinks, such as lattes, cocktails, and even beer! If you have never tried matcha before, Tea-direct.co.uk has a great range of matcha teas and blends to explore for a totally different tea drinking experience.