Sunday, May 11, 2014

Teaology 101: Matcha Whatcha?

Matcha is a pretty big topic so I'm going to dedicate a few articles to it. I'm going to talk about its origins and how it’s produced first. Matcha is a wonderful tea that has a unique look and feel unlike many other teas. In its dry form, it comes as a bright green powder that feels like baby powder or flour. Matcha literally means "ground tea" and it has many uses:

  • Drink it as a tea
  • Use it as an ingredient in cooking recipes both savory and sweet
  • Dye foods for its brilliant green colour
  • Add it to your daily beauty routine

Though it’s best known as a Japanese tea with a history dating back to the 12th century, Matcha’s origins are actually Chinese going back even further to the 8th century. At that time in China, tea was often picked, steamed, dried, and then formed into bricks for easy storage and transportation. The tea was broken off bit by bit as required, ground into a bowl and then mixed with water ready to be consumed.

Powder Power!

You may remember Eisai, a monk I had mentioned in an earlier post. He is credited with bringing the Chinese methodology of tea preparation along with Zen Buddhism to Japan. Zen is known as Chan in China. The monks in Japan took to Matcha quickly for its health benefits and for keeping them alert during their long periods of meditation. Something Bodhidharma learned after his gruesome idea!

Over time, Matcha’s popularity soared in Japan while it began to wane in China. Enjoyed mainly by the upper class society of Japan, Matcha eventually became the central part of Japanese Tea Ceremonies known as chanoyu. Today, anyone can enjoy Matcha regardless of class and without the need for an elaborate ceremony.

As always, tea production comes from using the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The main tea growing regions in Japan with the ideal conditions for producing Matcha are Uji and Nishio. About 6 weeks prior to harvesting, the tea plants are covered with bamboo or straw mats or even vinyl tarp with the aid of scaffolding. By shading the plants, the amount of sunlight reaching the leaves is reduced. As a result, the chlorophyll content increases turning the leaves much darker green. This also increases the amount of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, providing Matcha with its unique flavour profile.

Matcha is harvested in the Spring usually around May. The two youngest leaves at the tip are delicately hand-picked. Shortly afterwards, the plucked leaves are steamed, stopping oxidation, before going through a long steady process producing different teas along the way. If the leaves are rolled after steaming and before drying, you will get a tea called Gyokuro. If the leaves are spread out evenly and allowed to dry in the shade after steaming, they will begin to crack and break apart into pieces on their own. At this stage, you will get a tea called Tencha. This Tencha is the base for Matcha. Tencha is removed of their stems and veins, and then placed on a stone mill that rotates very slowly and gently. The Tencha is ground into a fine powder making Matcha. It takes more than an hour to grind the Tencha to produce 30 - 40 grams of the powder. Only ground Tencha qualifies as Matcha. The entire process of producing Matcha makes it one of the most expensive teas on the market.

Next time, I’ll prepare a bowl of Matcha for eating! That's right. Matcha is not steeped. You are eating the leaves!

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