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TEA SCHOOL | Matcha Basics

Posted by Pedro Villalon on

What is matcha? 
Matcha (sometimes transliterated as ‘maccha’) is green tea (i.e. an unoxidized Camellia Sinensis leaf), micro-milled into a very fine powder. It is also the ‘core’ of the Japanese tea ceremony (more on that later).

What does ‘MATCHA’ (抹茶) mean? 
The first character, 抹 (mǒ in Chinese and ‘mat’ or ‘mac’ in Japanese) can be translated as wiping, rubbing or scrubbing. When talking about this type of tea, we should probably translate it as ‘whisking’. The second character, , means ‘tea’.

How did it start? 
Someone in China’s Song Dynasty (10th – 13th centuries) had the idea to pulverize green tea leaves (previously steamed and dried) and whisk them with hot water; it was a brilliant idea! Whisking tea became very popular not only in Song China but also in Korea and Japan. We thank Buddhist monks for spreading tea culture all over East Asia in this period. In Japan, a gentleman called Eisai (12th century) is often considered the father of Japanese tea culture. 

Cool facts:
  • Early Song Dynasty whisks were quite different. They started looking more like ‘little flat brooms’ and evolved into something reminiscent of a ‘bote bote’ chasen before looking like the whisks that we often see today. 
  • If you want to geek out, check out this article (in Chinese) about the evolution of Song Dynasty tea paraphernalia:  https://www.rujiazg.com/article/12143
  • If you want to experiment with an older style of tea whisk, please consider the bote bote chasen here.

How is matcha made? 

  • Farming: the better matcha is grown under the shade for several weeks.  This encourages the plant to create more chlorophyll (hence the insanely green colour) and boost the content of theanine. This also encourages the plant to give us MONSTER UMAMI.
    Competition grade matcha is made with multiple canopies of straw and is picked by hand.
  • Stopping the oxidization: tea leaves are carefully steamed and dried, preserving the intense green colour and delicate flavour. In higher grade matcha, the tea leaves’ pulp is carefully separated from stems and veins to create a smoother drink. In general, Yame producers favour a longer steaming process vs. Uji tea growers. The ‘tea flakes’ that result from this process are called tencha.
  • Micro-milling:  tencha is carefully preserved in airtight bags and micro-milled to order, aiming to offer the highest complexity of aromatics possible. A granite stone mill (see picture) can grind, on average, only 30g per hour! At O5, we also have a very old-school hand grinder (should you want to come over and mill your own tencha); we also have a modern, water-cooled, Japanese batch grinder that we love experimenting with. 

An optional step is briefly warming (finish firing) the tencha before milling (aiming to bring out some sweetness).


What about the Tea Ceremony? 
In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyū (Zen Priest and advisor of Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi) codified and taught ‘the Way of Tea’; in humble yet exquisitely designed settings, Rikyū and his disciples studied nature and humanity through pulverized tea leaves. 

  • Suggestion:  watch Hiroshi Tehigahara’s movie ‘Rikyū’ as soon as you can get hold of it. This is the trailer (https://youtu.be/ryzHusy2AMw). You may want to whisk some matcha and maybe grab a sword right afterward. 

Is matcha difficult or for special occasions? 
Matcha can be a most delicious everyday treat! Without getting into too many details, you are consuming unoxidized tea leaves, loaded with chlorophyll, theanine, some caffeine, and a bunch of celebrated ‘nutrients’ called catechins. Most importantly, whisking and sipping a bowl of matcha can very likely become a most enjoyable part of your day! Please consider:

  • Having hot water at hand, you can most likely whisk a delicious bowl of matcha in less than one minute. An easy point to start is using ~1g of tea with 30g of water at 70 Celsius, and whisking for 20 seconds.
  • We can’t stress enough (pun intended) the importance of being relaxed and focused while whisking matcha. Please carve a few minutes of the day for yourself; the more relaxed you are, the smoother and sweeter the tea.

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