Matcha tea from Japan is traditionally produced from high-quality tea leaves. Several weeks before picking, the fields are covered with straw or black plastic fabric to shade the plants from the sun. This intensifies the color and caffeine as well as other compounds within the leaf. The same method is also used to make gyokuro tea, a full-leaf style that is similar in appearance to sencha.
Why Matcha Is Stone Ground
Grinding tea by stone was the method used in China when a Japanese Zen priest, Myoan Eisai, brought the tradition back to Japan in 1191. Eisai carried with him tea seeds and the knowledge of how to grow, process, and drink the tea. By the thirteenth century tea was being cultivated in Uji, Japan, where our matcha grows today. It is still ground using stone wheels that have been specially chiseled for this express purpose, made by craftsmen whose families have been making these grinders for generations.
Thick Tea (Koicha)
The Japanese refined drinking the powdered tea so that it became a elaborate manifestation of Zen buddhism. The more superficial aspects are the physical acts of the tea ceremony and exchanges of hospitality and appreciation whereas the spiritual side (cha-no-yu) concerns Zen practice and quest for a pure state of mind.
A full tea ceremony can take four hours and includes a meal, sweets, and tea served two times. Thick tea is made with three bamboo spoonfuls (chashaku), or about 3.5 grams of tea which then has the hot water added to it. The bamboo whisk (chasen) is moved back and forth slowly, only enough to blend the tea into a smooth, thick liquid. The exact temperature of the water varies according to the season and and can range from nearly boiling down to about 190 degrees. The exact amount of water to make the perfect tea comes from experience.
Thin Tea (Usucha)
Thin tea is served after a sweet cake (kashi) and is prepared differently than the thick tea. Two bamboo scoops of tea are added to the bowl (after being sifted through a metal sieve to eliminate any lumps in the tea). The goal is to briskly whisk the tea into a froth (15-20 strokes). Too little doesn't blend the tea and it can be too watery and if you whisk it too much it becomes foamy. Practice of course is the best teacher.