The Complete Guide to Matcha: How to Buy, Store, Prepare, and Appreciate Green Tea Powder
Matcha is everywhere now: in our lattes, our ice cream, our doughnuts. With its striking color and refreshing flavor, who’s to say where matcha can’t go? But for all the novel ways Americans are enjoying this distinctive Japanese tea, very little matcha is making its way into traditional tea bowls, to be drunk the way aficionados have for hundreds of years. In other words, we in the West need work on our matcha fundamentals.
This guide cuts through the Instagram clutter and hazy health claims to provide a solid introduction to all things matcha. Whether it’s your first time picking up a tea whisk or you’re a seasoned matcha drinker, here are the essentials.
What is matcha exactly?
Traditional matcha is a neon-green powder made from tencha, a specific style of Japanese green tea in which the leaf is partially shaded for three weeks before harvest. This shading alters the tea plant’s chemical content as it struggles for light, bringing out intense sweetness and umami.
Since whole tea leaves in cold storage will keep longer than powdered tea, it is kept refrigerated, as tencha, until it’s ready to be packaged. Typically, only when an order is placed for matcha does a processor begin the arduous work of removing the tencha’s stems and veins, and then grinding the tender leaf into a fine powder. A hand-carved granite wheel is used, at a relatively slow speed, so as to not heat the leaves and diminish their flavor. The matcha is then packaged, nitrogen-flushed to remove any oxygen, and sealed.
Today, matcha is the only tea that we consume in powdered form. But this was not always the case: in China’s Song Dynasty (960–1279), all tea was hand-ground and whipped into a creamy, frothy drink. During the subsequent Ming Dynasty, in 1391, the Hongwu emperor prohibited the practice of grinding tea and promoted the brewing style of whole-leaf infusion we now all know—but not before powdered, whipped tea had migrated to Japan. Here, matcha was refined and blossomed into chanoyu, or the way of tea. This intricate, choreographed practice of drinking matcha has its roots in Zen Buddhism, and was codified in Japan about five hundred years ago.
Over the past decade or so, increased global demand for matcha has led many processors to modify the traditional methods. Much of the “green tea powder” marketed as matcha is actually grown outside Japan (in China or Argentina, for instance) from inferior root stock. Even Japanese producers may swap out the traditional granite mills for stainless steel grinders to accelerate the process: these work faster than stone, but they spin so fast that friction from the grind can heat up the tea, affecting its volatile compounds.
None of which is to say these shortcuts—such as non-Japanese “matcha,” or steel-ground matcha, or tencha shaded for less time to speed up processing—yield fraudulent products, if they’re labeled properly. Matcha is a precious tea, and less-expensive versions certainly have their uses.
What’s the difference between “ceremonial” and ingredient grade matcha?
This is the single most common question about matcha, and one of the most difficult to answer—mainly because in Japan, distinctions prevalent in the U.S. tea market such as “ceremonial grade” are not used.
Matcha does come in a wide range of quality, which can be measured by flavor, particle size, color, and amino acid content. But with little regulation in the West on grading terms, tea vendors are free to label matcha as whatever grade they think will sell.
We carry three different matchas, all from Marukyu-Koyamaen, a renowned Japanese producer that started in the Genroku period (1688–1704) in Ogura, Uji. These three grades are proprietary to Koyamaen, and are not standardized across Japanese producers. However, knowing how each is best used can be helpful:
The Unkaku Thick Tea Grade is our highest quality matcha. Its extra-fine particle size, exceptional sweetness and low bitterness make for an unforgettable tea that shines as koicha, a thick, intense matcha preparation—with the consistency of paint—traditionally reserved for more formal chanoyu occasions.
The Wako Thin Tea Grade is also very high quality, but its slight touch of bittersweet renders it perfect for usucha, the thinner, frothy-headed bowl of matcha that is much more common (and often more palatable). While Unkaku can also be used to make a sweet and heady usucha, Wako provides a well-balanced, creamy, fresh green flavor.
Wakatake Iced Tea Grade is best enjoyed cold, shaken vigorously with ice and water in a cocktail mixer. Its crisp flavor would turn too astringent with hot water, but it remains ideal for mixing into other iced beverages, lattes and milky drinks, or for cooking and baking.
How to select quality matcha
If you can’t rely on a packaged tea’s “grade” as a marker of quality, how do you pick out a great matcha?
First of all, look for origin information to confirm the matcha is a product of Japan; if you see the words “stone-ground,” so much the better. Do avoid vendors that throw around adjectives like “premium” or “ceremonial grade”: these are modern marketing terms, not subject to any industry-wide regulation.
You may see a maker tout their matcha as hand-picked or from an early spring harvest. Consider these likely indicators of quality, though not a guarantee. Hand-picking is generally preferable to machine-harvesting, but Japanese machine-harvesting techniques are fairly advanced, and spring is not the only season that can produce delicious matcha.
Other than that, forget about the packaging and inspect the tea itself.
Quality matcha should be a bright, lustrous green, like if Pantone made a color called Magical Forest. Dull olive or brown hues indicate low chlorophyll content or oxidation. Then smell the powder: You should detect rich vegetal and pine aromas, with hints of chocolate, nuts, and cream. If a matcha’s aroma is muted, its taste likely will be as well. The consistency should be fine, like cornstarch. Clumps are normal, a result of electrostatic charges that build up as the canister is agitated during shipping.
Ultimately, of course, it’s a matter of taste. Great matcha is intense, with layers of bitterness, sweetness, and umami. It will feel dense and rich on the tongue, which is partially a matter of whisking technique but more about particle size. And it should finish with a vibrant, verdant aftertaste. Good matcha can also make you feel good—gently energized, with a sense of clarity and focus.
By the time you’re able to inspect matcha this closely, you’ve probably already had to buy the tin. But the more you taste and learn about matcha, the more informed you’ll become for your next purchase.
What are matcha’s health benefits?
Matcha is popularly touted as a superfood with all kinds of purported health benefits, such as general heart health, reduced risk of diabetes, antioxidants that may help prevent cancer, and even weight loss. However, there is little concrete scientific data to support these ambitious claims. Most of the current research on green tea and health is based on correlational population studies, not controlled experiments. Further, experimental studies on compounds found in green tea don’t account for their bioavailability in natural forms, nor for natural nutrient variations in different production lots of tea.
So, consider any health claims with healthy skepticism.
That said, matcha is potent. Since you consume the entire leaf, you do ingest more nutrients than from brewed tea. This includes more caffeine, for a stimulating buzz, but also more theanine, a unique compound in tea associated with calming, but not sedative, effects.
How to make matcha
There are two traditional ways to make matcha: usucha, the thin, frothy style, and koicha, the thick style. In both methods, it’s important to pass the matcha through a fine sieve before preparation, to break up any dry clumps that could lead to gritty tea.
The hallmarks of a well-made bowl of usucha are a stable froth with small bubbles (for certain styles of chanoyu); a creamy body; and bright color and flavor. Preheat a chawan, or wide tea bowl, with boiling water; pour out the water, and dry the chawan. Sift in about 2 grams (2 chashaku scoops, or about 1 teaspoon) matcha; pour over ⅓ cup (3 oz) 190°F water. Whisk vigorously with a chasen, or bamboo tea whisk, for about 20 seconds, using zig-zag motions to dispense the matcha and evoke a healthy foam.
The more formal thick style of matcha involves at least twice the amount of matcha with half the amount of water, resulting in a viscous, intense experience designed to showcase only the highest quality of matcha. This is not matcha for beginners; however, it can be revelatory when prepared well. As with usucha, preheat your chawan, then sift in about 6-8 grams (3 to 4 teaspoons) matcha and add 1 ½ ounces (3 tablespoons) 190°F water. Unlike the usucha method, koicha should not have air bubbles, so slowly knead the chasen in a circular pattern to work the matcha and water into a paste, adding scant amounts of water as needed.
Making matcha with cold water dilutes any bitter flavors and enhances sweetness. For a refreshing iced matcha topped with a frothy crema, set the traditional tea equipment aside and break out the cocktail shaker. Sift 3 grams of matcha over 4 to 5 ice cubes and pour in 8 ounces of cold filtered water. Seal, shake vigorously for about 15 seconds, then strain and serve over ice.
The best tools to make matcha
Matcha is a distinct form of tea and as such requires specific brewing equipment. A full traditional setup includes:
Chawan: A tea bowl, wide enough for both whisking and drinking matcha.
Chasen: A multi-tined bamboo whisk for suspending the fine particles of matcha in water. Chasen eventually wear out with use; make yours last by only rinsing with hot water and letting it dry, tines up, between uses.
Matcha whisk holder: A ceramic piece that helps maintain a chasen’s natural shape.
Chashaku: A slender bamboo spoon for measuring matcha. Each little scoop is about 1 gram; use about 2 scoops for usucha and 6-8 for koicha.
Fine mesh strainer: For sifting the matcha. Traditionally, a separate spoon is used to push the powder through the sieve.
Tea towel: For drying the chawan, and cleaning up any spills.
Of course, the most important part of making a good bowl of matcha is starting with quality tea. While having a complete setup adds aesthetic value to the experience, the only crucial elements are a chawan and chasen: the relatively large bowl to small amount of liquid provides enough space for the whisk to be used. And while there are plenty of similar-seeming options for the chasen, it is an essential tool for preparation. Wire balloon whisks or electric frothers aren’t designed specifically for matcha, and will often leave you with clumps.
If you’re digging into matcha for the first time, try our starter kit, which includes 20 grams of Wako thin-grade matcha, a chasen and chasen holder, and a chashaku. Our matcha gift set includes all those items, plus a white ceramic chawan.
How long does matcha last, and how should I store it?
All of our matcha canisters are nitrogen-flushed and sealed at origin, so there is no air in contact with the tea, and thus no oxidation. Kept in a cool place, the matcha can last for years with minimal loss in quality.
Once the canister is opened, the countdown begins. Matcha does not improve with age and is best consumed within six months of opening for optimal flavor. Store it in the refrigerator after opening to further slow oxidation.
How to cook and bake with matcha
Once you’ve gotten a handle on the matcha essentials, you’ll likely want to experiment. Here are some tips to making the most of matcha in food, drinks, and desserts.
In cookies and cakes: Add 1 to 4 tablespoons of matcha depending on batch size and desired intensity. Matcha acts as a dry ingredient in baked goods, so for every tablespoon of matcha you add, reduce the flour by the same amount. This matcha shortbread recipe is full of green tea flavor and not too sweet.
In ice cream and frozen desserts: As with baked goods, use 1 to 4 tablespoons depending on your target strength. Matcha will thicken the viscosity of ice cream bases and milk ice for Taiwanese-style shaved ice. Follow this matcha-ginger ice cream recipe for a basic formula.
In cooking: Matcha’s grassy-umami flavor works delightfully in a finishing salt. Combine 1 part matcha with 4 parts coarse sea salt, mix well, and sprinkle on toast with abandon.
In cocktails: Matcha mixes seamlessly into shaken cocktails, adding deep flavor and a creamy heft. Try this cocktail recipe from our forthcoming tea book.
Lost in Translation
In recent years, matcha has expanded from its traditional roots, such as with this delicious cocktail created by Marcie Anderson at Daniel in New York City.
Makes 1 cocktail
2 tablespoons Avua Prata Cachaca
2 tablespoons Mizu Shochu
1 tablespoon lime juice
1½ tablespoons simple syrup
1 gram matcha, plus more for garnish
1 egg white
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Dry shake, then shake with ice; strain into a wide clay bowl or preferred vessel without ice. Garnish with dusting of matcha.