Kyoto, the late 12th century. Another place, another time. But some things don’t change, like the role of tea in our well-being. The famous Zen priest Eisai, for one, knew that matcha benefits mind, body and soul.
In his time, Eisai was in demand as a healer, a restorer of well-being. He would administer matcha to hungover samurai. Eisai understood, as we understand today, that matcha benefits more than just the palate. Matcha had the ability to restore his patients’ mood.
Matcha had been a luxury only enjoyed by Japan’s well-connected, but this was slowly changing. Tea drinking (including matcha drinking) was beginning to spread to other levels of Japanese society.
Okay, so the samurai have passed into legend, and what they did and didn’t do is open to creative licence. But we know why they drank matcha. And thanks to science, we know why matcha benefits the mind, body and soul.
Tea’s flavour comes from its combination of:
- the amino acid theanine, and
Apart from being a stimulant, caffeine provides bitterness on the palate, but this is balanced out by theanine (specifically L-theanine), which gives tea its sweetness.
Catechins, meanwhile, are the reason for tea’s astringency or “dry” mouth feel. Catechins are part of the polyphenol class of compounds. Another name for them is tannins.
Gram for gram, matcha is higher in caffeine than other teas. And when you drink matcha, you ingest 100% of the leaves, with all the benefits that offers (a big dose of L-theanine, which promotes memory and concentration, plus a huge anti-oxidant boost). Many fans know that matcha benefits you more than other teas. In fact matcha has been shown to have up to 137 times the anti-oxidants of other teas.
At its best, matcha is creamy, mildly grassy and savoury (umami) all at once. Three and a half slurps of nicely frothed matcha and you’re on your way to calm focus and a sense of well-being.
Matcha benefits us, but how do they make it?
It’s a labour-intensive process. In a nutshell, over several weeks farmers shade the leaves that will become matcha. The goal is to develop the flavour of the leaves. After the harvest comes steaming and drying, and removal of the stems and veins. This mix, known as tencha, is then ground and milled between granite plates. To grind and mill thirty grams can take as long as one hour.
Ceremonial matcha is prepared as either usucha (“thin tea”) or the very thick koicha (reserved for chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony). Koicha is virtually a paste.
There is also confectioner’s grade, which is cheaper and of a lower quality than ceremonial-grade matcha.
At Cloud Nine Teas we recommend and stock ceremonial-grade matcha from the Uji Valley.
Helen Saberi, Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.
Linda Gaylard, The Tea Book. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2015.
Hosen-in tea ceremony image reproduced with the written permission of Moyan Brenn.