Maccha (or matcha) is the superfood on everyone’s lips — probably because its versatility stems beyond that of just a cup of tea. Used in a number of delicious and creative drinks, desserts, and health food recipes, maccha is the ingredient that has piqued an interest from tea drinkers and non-tea drinkers alike. This traditional Japanese powdered green tea is produced in nearly the same way as Gyokuro — a premium green tea derived from specialised cultivars of the tea plant. Just before being harvested, the leaves are shaded for three weeks. This method encourages an increase in chlorophyll content, creating a more vibrant green colour. Caffeine and l-theanine levels also increase as a result of the leaves being shielded from the sun. L-theanine is what gives the tea a sweet, mellow, and smoother taste, as well as its distinct aroma.
The leaves that are ground into maccha are called tencha. Where the process for producing gyokuro tea includes steaming, rolling/kneading, shaping, and drying, producing tencha only involves steaming, cooling down, and drying. Gyokuro needs to be rolled (also known as kneading) to break down the cell walls in order for the flavour and nutrients to be readily infused into water. Because tencha is produced for the purpose of being ground into maccha, the cell walls of these leaves do not need to be broken down.
Consequently, maccha is more concentrated in nutrients, compared to gyokuro, as the leaves are consumed in their entirety rather than just the infusion of the leaves. Therefore the benefits of the elevated chlorophyll, l-theanine, and caffeine levels are fully reaped. Besides offering a visual and palatable appeal, these components are plentiful in health-giving properties.
Rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and other minerals, chlorophyll is a powerhouse of health benefits. As an effective detoxifier, it helps with cleansing the blood and encouraging oxygen flow through the body, as well as helping with digestive health. Studies have demonstrated its effectiveness as a protective agent from environmental carcinogens and restraining the absorption of toxins. The abundance of antioxidants and presence of magnesium also gives chlorophyll its anti-aging properties by maintaining healthy tissue and encouraging youthful looking skin.
Found almost exclusively in green tea, this amino acid is what gives matcha its sweet and smooth flavour. L-theanine is especially regarded for its remarkable cognitive effects. Measurements have shown it to increase brain activity in the alpha frequency, which indicates relaxation, relaxed focus, and increased serotonin production (a chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance). While L-Theanine may generate a sense of tranquillity, it does not cause drowsiness and is conducive to improved concentration. Furthermore, it is also good for reducing elevated blood pressure, thus supporting its ability to reduce mental and physical stress.
Maccha contains more caffeine than standard green teas because, as previously mentioned, the leaves as a whole are consumed, not just an infusion of the leaves. There is about 25% more caffeine in a serving of maccha than a serving of black tea, making it about two thirds of that of a standard cup of coffee. However, drinking maccha does not produce the same kind of jitteriness that is associated with drinking coffee as it does not stimulate the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Nor does maccha leave drinkers “crashing”. This is because the caffeine molecules in maccha bind to larger and more stable molecules, especially catechins — our favourite green tea antioxidant. As a result, the caffeine is released over time, instead of all at once as is the case with coffee. Because the release of caffeine is drawn out, there is no sudden insulin increase, thus no subsequent quick drops in blood sugar, which is the “crash” that coffee drinkers tend to experience an hour or so after drinking a cup.
Generally higher quality maccha comes from Japan and is produced in several regions. Within Japan, however, Nishio City in Aishi prefecture and Uji City in Kyoto prefecture are widely considered to produce the best maccha (The Tea Centre’s own maccha is produced in Uji). While China and Taiwan also produce maccha, Japan remains the favourite amongst enthusiasts.
As a whole there are varying grades of maccha but these can usually be divided into two categories: culinary and sipping. Culinary grade macchas tend to be less vibrant in colour and more astringent in taste. These are intended for use as an ingredient to be mixed into sweet and savoury recipes, or drinks like lattes or smoothies.
Higher sipping grades, like The Tea Centre’s premium maccha, should be a fine and silky powder that exhibits a brighter shade of green, with a sweet, vegetal aroma and flavour when made into tea. A high quality maccha will also leave a rich and creamy mouth feel and should be enjoyed exclusively as a tea.
The differences in grades can be the result of a number of factors including:
- Age of the leaves — young leaves produce more delicate flavours whereas mature leaves produce coarser, more astringent flavours. (Conversely, the older the plant the higher the perceived quality. Tea teachers believe that maccha used in ceremony should be produced from the first harvest of tea plants that are at least 30 years old. On the other hand, lower grade teas are typically made from tea plants less than 30 years old.
- Length of time the leaves have been shaded before harvest — the longer the period of shading, the more time the chlorophyll and amino acids are given to be released. If the leaves have not been shaded for very long, they are not as bright green in colour or as sweet on the palate.
- How much of the tea plant has been used — are just the tips utilised or have stems also been ground in the mix? This relates back to the age of the leaves where mature leaves won’t be as finely de-veined or de-stemmed creating a coarser, more astringent product.
- How the leaves have been ground — ceremonial/sipping grade macchas are stone ground, which creates a finer texture but is also a more costly and time intensive procedure. Culinary grade macchas will usually just be machine ground.
History and Tradition
Powdered tea actually originated in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279) where it was pressed into tea bricks for storage purposes with small chunks broken off to prepare tea. Zen Buddhists eventually brought the Chinese methods of cultivation and preparing powdered tea to Japan. While initially consumed for medicinal purposes, the tea soon came to be enjoyed by aristocracy and the ruling warrior elite. In earlier times, the ceremony of preparing tea was an ostentatious display of flaunting precious utensils. Eventually Zen Buddhist monks influenced the ceremony into a spiritual experience intended to focus the senses. This practice is known as The Way of Tea or sado/chado and is a ritual that is studied, even these days, to achieve attention to detail and self-realisation for the purpose of serenity and inner peace. A tea ceremony can vary depending on the season or the utensils used but is generally dictated by particular motions between the host and guests. Preparation is usually performed in contemplative silence; however, as the atmosphere lightens towards the end of a ceremony, casual conversation focused on the appreciation of the utensils may ensue.
Evidently, maccha has evolved from a means of practising Zen Buddhism philosophy to becoming a health junkie’s staple. While it seems there is lot to consider when it comes to consuming maccha, just knowing that it offers an absolute plethora of nutrients is enough to satisfy anyone. And if there’s any tea that can offer peace of mind, in every sense of the phrase, then it is definitely maccha.
1. Take between 1/2 - 1 teaspoons of maccha powder per cup (it depends on your personal preference on how strong you like your maccha, it's best to experiment!).
2. Add about 50ml of water just below boiling point (around 80 degrees) – this is important, you must not burn the powder or it will taste bitter. If you’re not sure, too cool is better than too hot! If you don't have a temperature controlled kettle and your water has boiled then leave it for a couple of minutes to cool a little.
3. Mix with a bamboo whisk or if you don't have one of those then whisk in a W shape, using an aerated frother whisk, a kitchen whisk or a fork. Make sure you whisk well and get rid of all the lumps and get all the maccha from around the side of the cup or any that might be stuck at the bottom. This is important - if you don’t mix well your matcha will taste chalky or lumpy.
4. Once you have a liquid paste texture you can now top up your cup with 80 degree water, making sure to stir as you do.
Tip: If you're not a fan of the strong flavour then you might prefer to use cold orange juice instead of water for step 4! Alternatively you could add it to a healthy smoothie.