Nicole Wong • December 20, 2018

What is Matcha?

educationgreen teajapanmatcha

This is our first in a series of blog posts all about matcha: its origin, history, how-tos, and more.

intro to matcha history

Matcha, the bright, near-neon Japanese powdered tea now ubiquitous in cafes, restaurants, and grocery stores, has skyrocketed to the mainstream. Popularized as a powerhouse health supplement, we’re happy to see matcha is beginning to be appreciated for its taste and tradition. Though matcha does blend well into lattes, candy, and even soba noodles, let’s take a look at this unique tea and its place in tea history.

Where Did Matcha Come From?

Matcha’s origins began in Chinese tea traditions over 1,000 years ago. During the Song Dynasty, dried tea leaves were ground into a fine powder, whisked, and sipped. This was the next step in tea’s evolution from the previous Tang Dynasty, where the trend of the time was  compressing tea into bricks, chipping off pieces to brew into a boil. Through Buddhist monks and cultural ambassadors, tea was a cultural exchange between China and Japan as early as the 9th century. However, this particular tea would earn its own distinctive traditions in in the 12th century, credited to a singular monk, Eisai, who would establish mo cha (“ground tea”) as matcha, marking its birthplace in Hizen Province (now modern-day Saga and Nagasaki) and beginning the earliest stage  of landmark Japanese tea tradition.

In the 16th century, chanoyu, “the way of tea,” would establish itself as a formalized ritual of simplicity, a meditative ceremony of hospitality and austerity. Though still practiced today, it is rarer to find chanoyu in pure tradition. Modernity has sadly divorced the ceremony from its original intents of ritualized art and pragmatism, making it a summarized, simplified transaction for tourism. It may not have a place in a fast-paced society, but it still has inherent ceremonial aspects that can be incorporated into daily drinking.

matcha, matcha latte, cafe

Left: a matcha bowl and whisk, chawan and chasen. Right: A barista prepares a matcha latte, one of the most prevalent ways matcha is enjoyed today. (Photos: Daniel Mendoza, Spirit Tea)

Matcha Today

With the above preface, modern matcha in its most basic definition translates to “fine powdered tea.” Specifically, even at its lowest grade (a future post going into that later), genuine matcha must be 1) made from tea leaves shade-grown for several weeks before harvesting, 2) after harvesting (tencha), must be de-stemmed and de-veined, 3) milled to a smooth, silky powder, and 4) sourced from Japan. Preferably, matcha should come from Kyoto and Fukuoka prefectures, regions with the longest history of matcha production.  

Due to the high international demand for matcha, countries like China or Taiwan have began introducing a version of “matcha” that misleads the market.  Countries outside of Japan can only approximate the processing methods and quality standards Japan enforces, which usually results in a cheaper product in taste and texture.

Matcha can seem intimidating to the unaccustomed palate. If you don’t know where to start, we’d recommend trying out our house matcha, the Kodemari. Perfect for serving lattes or neat, this exceptional matcha is an excellent introduction.