The History of Matcha
Although it is widely known that matcha is a green tea that has been pulverized and ground into a fine powder, the essence of what matcha truly is and how it comes about remains a mystery for most. The consumption of matcha is gradually declining in Japan, while its popularity is rapidly growing in the West. Significant health benefits have been attributed to matcha, making it a highly desired beverage for the more health-conscious consumer. This is in contradiction to the more traditional ways of imbibing matcha. Its use in the West has significantly shifted to alternative applications like cocktails, smoothies, sweets, ice cream, savory dishes, sauces, and more.
What's this green stuff?
Consuming powdered teas is nothing new. In the Chinese Tang Dynasty (7-10th century), tea was prepared by roasting and pulverizing tea and consumed by adding hot water and salt. Tea production evolved during the Chinese Song Dynasty (10-13th century). It was at this time that steamed green tea was developed. The popular way of preparing this new tea was by whipping a powdered version of this steamed green tea in a bowl with hot water. The Chinese later abandoned this tea preparation method for the traditional method we use today.
Japanese Buddhist monks in the 9th century were the first to drink tea in Japan, having learned about it during envoys to China. In 1191 Zen Priest Eisai brought seeds back to Kyoto, which became the basis for Uji tea. Soon after, tea cultivation spread throughout Japan’s prefectures. Eisai is famously quoted as saying that matcha was the “elixir of the immortals.”
Chanoyu (water for tea) is a ritualized Japanese tea ceremony using matcha. Customarily, during this time, tea was ground and whipped in a bowl with hot water. This type of method was later incorporated into the ritual of Chanoyu. Chanoyu can trace its heritage back to the 9th century; however, it has been changed and modified over the centuries. Today’s chanoyu comes from the 16th century.
Zen Buddhists were aware of the mediational benefits of consuming tea whipped in a bowl of hot water, which brought a greater sense of clarity and well-being. They found that consuming tea before their afternoon meditations enabled them to be much more focused and maintain their energy throughout the afternoon. This unique green tea eventually became known as matcha, the ceremonial tea of the temple high priests. The Shogun Warriors also saw the remarkable benefits of this ceremonial tea. The tea gave them sustained energy and mental acuity. This also became the ceremonial drink of the Shogun Warrior before going into battle.
"Elixir of the immortals.”
As tea production spread, tea plantation owners in Japan continued to perfect the process for developing and maximizing the most beneficial matcha. Matcha was extraordinarily precious and produced in tiny quantities, so only the Shogun Warrior and the Nobles could drink matcha. However, in 1738, Sohen Nagatani came onto the scene and invented the Uji green tea processing method. This method is still in practice and in use today. It enabled a much more efficient process to create high-quality matcha. Matcha now became more available to the public. Before this groundbreaking process of creating matcha tea, only a handful of merchants had been approved for processing and creating matcha. Until now, the general populace consumed Hojicha, a roasted green tea that produces a brown infusion that lacked the beautiful emerald green color of the coveted matcha tea.
Sohen Nagatani wanted the common people of Japan to be able to have access to this highly revered tea. Nagatani began to teach the farmers the secret of this Uji processing method which had a tremendous impact on the development of the entire Uji region of Kyoto, bringing this tea to the people. Some of the highest quality matchas come from tea fields of the Uji region.
After going through the normal processing steps, specific tea leaves are further sorted to go through the process of making matcha. First, the veins of the leaf are removed to produce tencha, which is then ground through special stone mills to produce a fine powder.
Leaf and All
Matcha is one of the few tea drinks where the leaf is consumed. Because of this, matcha is rich in antioxidants and vitamins, making it one of the more healthful drinks on the market. As consumers seek healthier alternative drinks, growth continues to increase each year, specifically in the United States.
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