Green Tea Matcha – History and Production Techniques
Green Tea Matcha is the only well known and comparatively widely consumed form of powdered green tea and it is closely associated with Japan. The word itself, Matcha, translates as “rubbed tea” or “ground tea”. Semantics aside, both the famous Japanese tea ceremony and Japan’s production and consumption of this powdered green tea support this association. However, the history of green tea Matcha has origins elsewhere: China. But It is not widely known that grinding tea into a fine powder is a practice that originated in China.
Back in China’s Tang Dynasty (7th – 10th Century), as tea gained increasing popularity, methods of better preservation, more efficient storage and easier transportation over distance were sought. This culminated in the process of ‘pressing’ tea cakes. These were forms of tea leaves molded into cakes after traditional production, pressed firmly and then baked or fired for preservation. When preparing tea from pressed cakes, one must break off pieces then crumble the pressed tea leaves to enable infusion. In the past tea preparation methods involved pounding and roasting the tea until it was powdered before infusing with hot water. From these beginnings, the process slowly evolved whereby the grinding of green tea leaves into tea powder produced by normal methods (unpressed) by monks became popular in the Song Dynasty (10th – 13th Century). By this time the monks had ritualized the process of whisking the tea powder in a bowl with hot water, a practice that still is the basis of green tea Matcha preparation today.
It was until the 12th Century when a traveling monk finally brought this green tea powder to Japan. Then, over time as this form of tea drinking was declining from common practice in China, it was gaining popularity in Japan. The process of whisking green tea powder with hot water has remained to this day, although the Japanese have engendered their own complex cultural and ritualistic practices to form what is now referred to as the Japanese tea ceremony.
Since its introduction to Japanese shores in that distant past, one geographical area, in particular, has become famous for its production of Matcha tea. As with any type of tea factors such as climate, geology, soil and altitude comprise growing conditions that impact upon the quality of the Matcha which can be produced. Uji in Kyoto prefecture is an area in which these conditions are ideal due to its rich soil, sloping mist-shrouded hills and a healthy temperature differentiation of warm days and cool nights. These inherent environmental conditions alongside production methods following careful tradition and high standards have lead to this area gaining respect as the premier green tea Matcha cultivation region in Japan today.
Typical green tea Matcha production methods follow standard tea farming techniques until the final three weeks or 20 days of the Camellia Sinensis (the green tea plants) growth. Traditionally at this stage, the green tea plants farm is shaded by reed or straw screens. In modern large-scale green tea plants farming, reed or straw screens shading is often replaced by black tarpaulin sheeting. This serves to limit the sunlight reaching the green tea leaves which has several effects. Most obvious is that the green tea leaves turn a brighter vivid shade of green due to increased chlorophyll production. Levels of a particular amino acid called L-Theanine which is unique to green tea are also increased. This leads to both a sweeter Matcha taste and a higher value for one of the health benefits for the consumers. This is the compound which is recognized as giving green tea Matcha its stress-reducing effects that translates to a calm yet focused alertness. After this shading period is complete, the best quality green tea Matcha will be produced from the highest part of the tea plant, the unopened tip and two topmost green tea leaves. The hand plucked tips are then steamed to arrest oxidation, retaining the fresh quality and nutrients rich content.
At this stage, the tea now qualifies as Tencha both a finished tea in its own right and the precursor to both the best Gyokuro and Matcha teas. For Matcha production, the fibrous stem and vein structure are then stripped from the green tea leaves leaving small irregularly shaped parts of the tea leaf which can finally be stone ground into the final product. Some maintain that hand milled green tea Matcha is still the best and it is certainly more authentic. These days industrial methods can also guarantee greater consistency due to stringent temperature regulation, grinding precision and greater grinding power and speed all thanks to mechanization. Personally, I believe each method has something to offer today’s tea enthusiasts.