What's all the craze about matcha? - There seems to be a global rise in the amount of matcha tea being consumed in recent years. Though it’s been around for a very long time, people are drinking (and eating) more matcha these days as they're gaining knowledge of it’s many health benefits.
A little history - Zen Buddhists in China are credited with being the first to incorporate powdered teas into a ritual. In the late 1180's, a Japanese monk named Eisai returned to Japan following a Zen Buddhism exploration in China and brought the powdered green tea with him. He found that the tea helped him during meditation to stay awake and alert. Eisai then planted the first green tea plants in Kyoto, Japan and to this day, matcha from Kyoto is considered to be among the finest there is. Eisai went on to shape the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which is a very spiritual and meditative event centered around the preparation, serving and drinking of matcha tea.
How it's grown - Matcha is a finely ground green tea powder and can be consumed in simple tea form made with either water or milk, and also as an ingredient in recipes such as brownies, muffins and desserts. Nowadays, matcha is a popularly used in green tea lattes, as well as in health boosting smoothies. Growing and harvesting matcha is done by traditional methods that have in place for years. The highest quality matcha is only grown in Japan, where it grows in the shade for the last few weeks before harvesting, reducing the amount of sunlight the plants receives. This turns the leaves a very dark green and the process helps to increase the cholorophyll and L-theanine levels in the plant. When harvested, leaves are laid out to dry. The leaves now become tencha, the precursor to matcha. When dry, they are de-stemmed, deveined and are ground into the vibrant green powder.
Types and health benefits - There are two grades of Matcha. The grades are determined by the location on the plant where the leaves are harvest from. The first is culinary-grade, which is typically made from older green tea plant leaves. They have an acerbic taste and are used in food preparations such as green tea ice cream and mochi. Then there is the ceremonial-grade matcha, where the youngest leaf buds are harvested from the top of the plant and they have a clean, grassy, and sweet flavor. This is the grade of matcha that you want to use purely for drinking.
Studies have shown that matcha provides more nutrients than regular green tea. It’s rich in antioxidents called polyphenols, which could be beneficial in the fight against heart disease and cancer, and also aid in regulating blood sugar. EGCG is another polyphenol in matcha, and research has shown it could boost metabolism and help with weight loss.
Being that matcha does contain caffeine, many coffee drinkers are saying goodbye to their beloved java and have switched to making matcha a part of their morning ritual. Matcha has just about as much caffeine per cup as brewed coffee. Matcha enthusiasts report achieving the same amount of alertness that coffee would provide them - but without the extra feeling of anxiousness. This is due to matcha containing L-theanine, an amino acid known to promote relaxation. The feeling is described as an “alert calm”.
If you're thinking of trying matcha yourself, be cautious of low quality knock-off versions and powdered “mixes” of matcha. They could contain added sugar, as well as powdered milk. Stick with traditional pure Japanese matcha powder to ensure you’re getting excellence and all the benefits of this valuable beverage. High quality matcha (ceremonial grade) could be on the expensive side. Since it's become very popular recently, there are a lot of fakes being produced and companies throwing the word matcha on the label for marketing purposes. If you see matcha with a very low price tag, think twice – it's probably not the real thing and you may not get what you're looking for.