The Way of Tea - Part 2 - Matcha
Updated: May 18, 2019
Matcha: More Than A Cup of Tea, A Japanese Art
A Very Short History
Matcha or literally “powdered tea” has become a trendy ingredient for lattés, baked goods and even savory meals. It is a variety of green tea that has a long history and is important to the ceremonial life of Zen practitioners. This emerald-colored tea comes in a variety grades for ceremonial and culinary purposes. It is a unique part of the Japanese cultural arts, though its roots go back to the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279,) where pulverized tea was made into bricks for storage. During the Song era in China drinking powdered tea became popular and elaborately glazed tea bowls became popular as well. These bowls, narrow at the bottom with a wide top were shaped to accommodate the bamboo tea whisks. However, the Mongol invasion lead to an end of the development of this art in China.
A medicine is for one disease only, but green tea is a kind of panacea that can prevent and treat all sorts of ailments.
–Eisai, Zen monk
Eisai, a monk, is credited with originally brining powdered tea and Zen Buddhism to Japan from China in 1191. Japanese priests and monks visiting China brought back tea seeds and planted them in their temples gardens and began the Japanese tradition of tea cultivation. The Japanese took this tradition and combined it with their aesthetic sensibilities. Japanese Zen philosophy and the Japanese ideals of Wa (harmony,) Kei (respect,) Sei (purity/cleansing,) and Jaku (tranquility/being reconciled) create an experience which is uniquely Japanese. The Japanese tea ceremony or chadō is also one of the three branches of classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with flower arranging or ikebana, also known as kadō and incense appreciation or kōdō.
The tea leaves selected for matcha come from the top of the camellia sinensis or tea bush. The younger leaves on the top of the bush are most supple and provide a smoother grade of tea. Leaves from the lower branches are more developed and used in lower quality, culinary grades. The younger leaves also contain a high nutrient content.
Like many plants, the tea bush lies dormant in the cold season of October until February. As the days begin to warm and the days become longer again, the tea bush begins to grow again and sprout buds, using the nutrition and minerals from the soil that it stored throughout the winter. For this reason, the spring harvest is considered the best harvest for the tencha (Japanese name for the tea leaves that become matcha.)
During early April, reed screens are placed over the plants to block out 60-75% of the sunlight. The lack of exposure to direct sunlight helps the leaves maintain their bright green color because reducing photosynthesis allows for a sweeter and less bitter flavor. About ten days after this, straw is placed on top of the screens to even further block out light, about 90% of the light is blocked.
The second of May is traditionally the day to best harvest matcha. The best tencha is still gathered by hand by skilled tea-pickers. In some places, mechanization has been employed to speed up the process.
Immediately after it is picked, the tencha is steamed for about 20 seconds to prevent oxidation. Unlike other types of tea, oxidation is not desirable for matcha. Matcha that has oxidized will lose its vibrant green color and become bitter. After this, the raw tencha is cut, filtered to separate the leaves from the veins and twigs and dried again to become a finalized tencha which is then ready to be processed in matcha. At this point, it is dried and aged in cold storage. Matcha is selected for various blends for flavor, color and fragrance. The blended tea becomes a finalized tencha when it is ground by stone to create the very fine, bright green powder.
Matcha and our Health
Since the tencha used to make matcha is from such high-quality plants, it’s the most potent way to get the health benefits from drinking green tea. Along with vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium, matcha is a rich source of the antioxidants called “polyphenols” which have been linked to heart disease prevention, cancer prevention, blood sugar regulation, reduced blood pressure and free radical neutralization, which prevents the effects of aging. One polyphenol called EGCG has been shown to boost metabolism and slow and even stop the growth of cancer cells.
Like all true teas, matcha contains caffeine. In fact, a cup of matcha contains three times as much caffeine as a cup of steeped tea and about the same amount of a cup of brewed coffee. However, the way the caffeine in matcha impacts our brains and bodies in a different manner than it does in other caffeinated beverages due to the natural occurring amino acid in matcha, l-theanine, which induces relaxation and actually increases the quality of sleep. Matcha gives us a boost like coffee but without the coffee jitters. Some experts recommend avoiding matcha before bed, while others say that it should not prevent you having a good night’s sleep.
Since matcha is a powdered form of tea, you are drinking the actual tea leaves when you drink it. This makes it different than other forms of tea which are steeped. For this reason, it is important to do some research about your tea and its quality before drinking it. Most experts recommend looking for Japanese-grown matcha, rather than Chinese. A study conducted by consumerlab.com found that tea grown in China had high levels of lead contamination from the soil and the matcha grown in China had as much as 30 times more than the steeped tea from China. Dr. Michael Greger warned us to stay away from Chinese matcha in our interview with him for Conscious Community Magazine and Podcast last winter. However, there are some tea experts, including tea expert Julie from K’Tizo Tea, who do not think location is as important of grade for assuring the quality of the product.
Zen and the Art of Tea
There is a strong relationship between the careful cultivation of the tencha that becomes matcha and the way matcha is served. While matcha is available and enjoyed in various forms in the West and in Japan, its ceremonial presentation is a type of meditation that is designed to bring people together, as well as teaching being present. There are different variations on the tea ceremony. The one below is the way it was presented at the tea class I attended at T’Ziko Tea in Wheaton, IL on June 15, 2018*. (Images below.)
In Japan, I took part in a tea ceremony. You go into a small room, tea is served, and that's it really, except that everything is done with so much ritual and ceremony that a banal daily event is transformed into a moment of communion with the universe.
–Okakura Kakuzo, writer of The Book of Tea
and promoter of traditional Japanese arts
The tea ceremony first appeared in Japan in a time of war. For this reason, the cups selected do not match and symbolize that though we are different we are one. The same idea applies to the mix of flowers that are chosen to decorate the ceremonial space.
Moving through space is important in the ceremony. Participants are asked to wait in a specified waiting location until the ceremony begins. Then a gong is struck and the honored guest is invited in. Guests do not wear shoes in the ceremonial space and must wash their hands before taking part in the ceremony. When entering the space each guest will bow lower than the elder or instructor, with men bowing with arms at their sides and women with their arms in front.
Sift the matcha with tea strainer.
Add about ½ teaspoon of match into bowl.
Pour about 3 oz. of not-quite boiling (160-180˚F) water into bowl.
Then whisk the tea and water with circular motions with three turns on everything and switching directions. The circular motions symbolize bringing together. Listening to the sound of the whisk is important because it is meant to be a sound mediation calm down and center the mind. Having a high-quality whisk is important to getting a smooth and frothy tea.
Then add more water to taste.
The tea is first served to the honored guests, then others may be served. The tea is traditionally served with sweets.
The formality of the tea ceremony is meant to show respect for all present. It’s an act of hospitality which promotes restoration and healing, not entertainment. The chadō builds up all present and leaves them feeling with inner sense of refreshment for mind, body and soul. The simplicity of the occasion reflects that of all the Zen arts, which embody wabi-sabi, or “peace or quiet fulfillment with intentional simplicity.” Or, as we talked about in the last post the #beautyinthecommon. I certainly found this to be true at the ceremony I attended, and I am looking forward to attending formal training at the Japanese Cultural Center in Chicago, IL* this fall and sharing this art with all of you as part of Perennial Music and Arts’ healing and workshop offerings.
I say let the world go to hell,
but I should always have my tea.
*I have since completed the fall/winter 2018 Japanese tea ceremony course at the Japanese Cultural Center in Chicago, IL, where we studied under Omar Francis Sensei in the Urasenke school.