The history of matcha green tea, much like many teas, is affected by cultural and political shifts. Its popularity in Japan and virtual absence in China comes from an interesting intersection of political needs, cultures converging and influencing each other, and a side effect of isolationist policies.
Foundations of Matcha Green Tea and the Japanese Tea Ceremony
All things tea, regardless of current association, start in China. Starting in the Tang Dynasty, somewhere between 690-705C.E., tea became democratized in China at the same time as the golden age of Chinese culture hit its full height. During this period Buddhism thrived along side Daoism in China. Buddhist monasteries were everywhere and multiple religions were allowed to flourish side by side and acknowledged by the Emperors during this dynasty. During this period, tea was still packed into bricks for easier transport in trading. It was consumed by being broken off and pulverized into powder and then whisked into hot water. It was not called matcha by the Chinese, that name would come later in Japan.
Buddhist monks were heavy tea drinkers, as it assisted them in staying alert during long periods of meditation. So it was a natural evolution for the preparation of the tea for meditation become a ritual in-and-of itself. This ritual would be taught to the visiting Japanese monks several centuries later, in 1191 C.E., when the monk Eisai would introduce the Japanese Buddhists to the powdered preparation of tea. The term matcha is a combination of word ma, meaning powder, and cha, which means tea. At this point in Japanese history, Buddhism was making its way from the privileged classes to the common people of Japan. Recent military upheavals in Japan lead to a resurgence in spiritual practice and the establishment of Buddhist schools throughout the country. Eisai headed the Zen Buddhist school, which used meditation to bring forth the inner Buddha in each individual. It is at these schools that the Japanese Tea Ceremony was created and eventually formalized some four hundred years later.
Producing Matcha Green Tea
Matcha typically is made from the Saemidori cultivar of camellia sinensis. These tea plants are grown under shade, which adds additional complexity to flavor as well as to the plucking of the tea. The shade slows down growth, so fewer leaves are produced by the plant and those leaves that are produced got more of their nutrients from the ground than through photosynthesis. This gives the leaves a very complex taste. Tea leaves plucked for Matcha are sorted by size to help in the removal of stems from the leaves. Matcha green tea production is much more labor intensive than the other teas in Japan, which have been heavily automated in past forty years. The tea is plucked, sorted and then sent into steaming for anywhere between 40-80 seconds given the size of the leaves. The leaves are then laid flat to dry, which will cause the leaves to crumble and the stems to be more easily removed. The tea is fully dried and sorted again with the hopes of removing more veins and missed stems. It is then ground down between two large granite stones, much like an old fashion grain mill. The grinding process is heavily monitored and the consistency of the powder is measured. A finer powder, makes for a stronger and more complex tea generally. In the United States, generally there are two types of matcha green tea available, ceremonial and cooking grade. Ceremonial matcha is generally from the first picking and highest quality leaves. Cooking matcha comes from follow up picking and sometimes larger leaves. There is a difference in taste, but that is rarely distinguishable to those of us not growing up drinking it daily. Cooking matcha is generally more vegetal in taste while ceremonial matcha will have a more complex fruit/vegetable flavor. Neither is overly sweet, which is why it is generally served with sweet treats.
Modern Day Matcha
Matcha green tea is still in high demand in Japan. It has grown in demand in the United States, since it does a great job coloring other foods, like cookies, ice cream, and even salad dressing, green. Matcha has not been embraced by the US as a tea because of its flavor profile and bright green color. What most Americans have not figured out is that they have been drinking matcha in their bottled green teas for some time now (it dissolves beautifully for bottled tea). There are Japanese gardens, museums and Buddhist monasteries where the general public can witness a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and try some of the matcha in its traditional form. I encourage you to give it a try.