7 Matcha Secrets & Tips from a Student of Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
When I was growing up, matcha was not as popular as it is today. The first time I tried it was when I traveled to Japan with my family as an eight year old and we visited a tea garden. It was served alongside traditional Japanese candies, and I did not appreciate the acquired taste of hot water mixed with bitter matcha. Later, on the special occasions when my family went to dinner at Japanese restaurants, matcha was served in the form of mochi ice cream or a single scoop of ice cream to finish the meal.
When I stopped drinking coffee five years ago, a matcha craze was beginning to brew. I rediscovered matcha (like many of you) in the form of matcha lattes. I welcomed the hyper-focused, calm energy that matcha gave me, instead of the frenetic energy and crash that coffee and sugar often give me. It wasn’t until later when I started taking traditional Japanese tea ceremony lessons that I learned that samurai would drink matcha before battle, and that Zen Buddhist monks have enjoyed it for 900 years. Like the samurai and Zen monks before me, I love the mental clarity, expanded awareness, relaxation, and heightened focus that drinking matcha gives me.
There are so many companies making matcha these days and so many Instagram influencers touting this magical drink. Being Japanese American and a student of the way of tea, I wanted to share my own perspective and knowledge about matcha, as well as share some of my tips, tricks and favorite, reputable matcha brands and products with you. So here you go:
HOW MATCHA IS GROWN AND HARVESTED
Green tea leaves are shaded for three weeks, then only the finest, most soft and supple buds (the ones that are just developing at the very top) are hand-plucked. The leaves are laid to dry, then the stems and veins are removed. The dried leaves are ground extremely slowly, so as not to heat the mill stones too much, which can burn and ruin the batch. It can take one hour to grind one ounce of matcha! Most matcha comes from Uji, the tea capital of Japan near Kyoto, or in the Yame district of Fukuoka, Japan on the southern island of Kyushu.
In addition to the benefits I just mentioned, matcha has a myriad of health benefits. While green tea leaves are steeped in water and discarded, matcha allows the drinker to consume the tea leaves whole. This means that drinking a bowl of matcha is equivalent to the health benefits of drinking 10 cups of green tea. The reason why the health benefits of green tea are so highly touted is because of the shading process. By shading the tea leaves, growers are able to maximize the amount of chlorophyll (which gives matcha it’s brilliant green color), amino acids and anti-oxidants. Matcha has been known since ancient times to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, detoxify (especially of heavy metals), counteract free radicals, support weight loss, and has been a powerful anti-aging skincare ritual for generations of Japanese women.
GRADES OF MATCHA
This is the highest grade of matcha. It is used in Japanese tea ceremonies and in Buddhist temples. I’ve noticed many American brands using this term as a marketing strategy, which I feel is damaging to the matcha industry. I rarely purchase ceremonial grade matcha and only really enjoy it in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies in usucha (thin tea) and koicha (thick tea, almost like a paste). Since only tea and water are used, it’s understandable why only the highest quality tea is used. When purchased through a reputable matcha company, this can go for anywhere between $50-140/3.5 ounces of matcha.
Premium grade matcha is a lower grade than ceremonial, but it’s still very high quality and a bit more accessible. I keep premium grade matcha in the freezer to serve to guests with a sweet. Occasionally, I’ll whisk myself a cup of premium grade matcha as a treat. When I serve it, I just use hot water and matcha powder (no other additional ingredients). This type of matcha is sold for about $30-80/3.5 ounces.
Since culinary matcha is a lower grade matcha, it’s made from tea leaves that are slightly more bitter and is often ground a bit coarsely than ceremonial and premium grade matcha. However, this is desired when cooking or blending with other ingredients, because you are able to taste the flavor of the matcha more. Milk and other ingredients can really mask the flavor of more delicate matcha, so it would be a shame to spend a bunch of money on super high quality matcha! This type of matcha is sold for about $12-$30/3.5 ounces.
As with all of my ingredients, I try my best to purchase organic. Also as with all my ingredients, I try to understand the nuances between organic and conventional, to discern what the best choice is for me. So here’s what I found based on my own research on organic matcha…
Many people in the industry have said that organic matcha is often inferior in flavor to conventional matcha. Here’s why: Since matcha leaves are shade-grown (to increase the amino acid, chlorophyll and antioxidant properties), the plant needs to get energy from something other than sunlight, so many farmers use fertilizers. I’ve heard that organic fertilizers don’t provide the plants with enough energy as conventional fertilizers, and that most use naturally occurring fertilizers. On the other hand, I’ve lived in the Japanese country and have seen household pets die of poisoning from toxic fertilizers used in the fields. Given that these cases were commercial agriculture operations and not matcha, I’m still wary.
So here’s what I do: I only purchase from companies I know well and really trust. And if I were pregnant or breastfeeding, I’d definitely stick to organic matcha, since with matcha there is no peel to protect it from pesticides- you are consuming the entire leaf. Organic matcha is what I use for my daily lattes. My go-to daily matcha is Mizuba’s organic matcha.
HOW TO TELL IF MATCHA HAS GONE BAD
One of my early matcha mistakes was to purchase it from the bulk bin of my local natural foods store. I thought I was saving money by buying it in bulk and reducing my plastic waste. When I made my morning matcha latte (in which the flavors of the matcha should have been masked anyway) I found it so bitter I couldn’t stomach it. Before you make your matcha, take a look at it. It should be a VERY vibrant green color. If it’s a dull green or even a hay-like yellowish color, the matcha has gone bad and you should not drink it. This is why you should never purchase matcha from the bulk section, because matcha goes bad when it is exposed to air and oxidizes.
HOW TO STORE MATCHA
Most matcha is stored in airtight metal containers. Culinary matcha is often sold in resealable bags. I like to place my new matcha into a glass container (makes it easier to use daily) and store it in the fridge if I am planning to use it immediately. If you are not planning to use the matcha for a while, try not to open the container and store it in the freezer.
If you have never witnessed the sacred art of Japanese tea ceremony, I highly encourage you to attend one. I respectfully request that consumers make an effort to understand some of the history and artistry behind it. There are many non-Japanese companies that have capitalized on matcha in recent years, to the detriment of matcha families in Japan, who have been running their businesses for more than eight generations.
By no means am I saying all matcha companies need to be Japanese or master the way of tea. Many of us care about the provenance of ingredients and want to be as respectful as possible, especially when using ingredients from other countries. My only request is to educate yourself on the basics and treat it with the thoughtfulness and respect of a 900-year-old tradition.
There are several different schools of Japanese tea ceremony. I study tea from the Urasenke lineage of tea, and there are schools all over the world where tea ceremony is performed in large cities and smaller towns. I’ve even heard of an Urasenke school in Dubai and in Hawaii, where students wear mumus instead of kimono! Individual tea teachers also perform public tea ceremonies. Just Google Urasenke and your city, and a list of tea events is sure to come up! Omotesenke is another popular tea school.
Japanese tea ceremony is a very spiritual experience, and it’s taught me so much about humility, and how to be a thoughtful and kind host, guest, and person. I’ve also learned so much about Japanese craftsmanship in the tools used for tea. For me, tea ceremony is a type of meditation, and provides a moment of respite from our fast-paced, polarized, modern society.
The tools I use for my everyday matcha ritual are: A chasen (bamboo whisk hand-carved from one piece of bamboo), a recycled glass jar for storage, a chashaku (a bamboo scoop), a ceramic matcha bowl, a small fine mesh metal strainer, and a blender for lattes. Here are links to some my favorite matcha tools:
MY FAVORITE ENTRY-LEVEL EVERYDAY MATCHA
Kodemari House Blend from Spirit Tea $30 (for 40grams or 26 servings)- This Chicago-based company has one of the best-tasting matchas available in the US that I’ve tried. I’ve gotten to know them and am comforted to know that they have a high level of respect and knowledge of Japanese tea ceremony. I love that they acknowledge on their site where each matcha is down to the name of the village, the name of the family who produced the matcha, cultivar (like a varietal in wine), and the harvest date. I consider this a good premium grade matcha. I rotate between matcha lattes and a more traditional cup of hand-whisked matcha in the mornings, depending on how I am feeling.
Culinary Organic Matcha from Mizuba Tea Co. $30 (for 100 grams or 65 servings)- Mizuba Tea Co. is a woman-owned, Portland-based company that sources from a single-source farm in Uji, Japan. The reason why this is graded “culinary” is because the leaves harvested for this matcha are a little lower on the stem (rather than the top buds used for ceremonial matcha). They are still shade-grown and traditionally stone-ground. I use culinary grade matcha for baking, because the delicate flavors of matcha get masked by milky ingredients. Good culinary grade matcha has a slight bitterness, which is ideal because you can really taste the matcha through the other ingredients.
House Organic Matcha from Mizuba Tea Co. $25 (for 40 grams or 26 servings)- This is my go-to everyday matcha, and the matcha I recommend to friends without access to Aoarashi (below). While people have debated over the flavor of organic matcha (vs. conventional), I think they are referring to ceremonial-style matcha where it’s consumed mixed only with hot water. Since I blend my matcha with various ingredients, the flavor gets masked anyway. I always try to buy organic for everyday items and matcha is no different.
Aoarashi from Maru-kyu Koyama-en $7 (for 40 grams or 26 servings)- This is the preferred matcha company of the local tea shop here in San Francisco, where many tea teachers shop for their tea. The company was established in 1688 and is still being run by the same family (8th generation) in Uji, the capital of tea in Japan near Kyoto. They’ve won first place in almost all nationwide tea appraisal contests in Japan, except for the years when they were judging! The Aoarashi is the lowest quality of their premium matcha, and is the best tasting of all the more cost-effective matcha I have tasted. You can purchase this tea through Asakichi tea shop in San Francisco’s Japantown or likely at other traditional Japanese tea shops selling ceremonial grade matcha. This is my other go-to everyday matcha for lattes.
*Please note that the thoughts in this post are my own, and that there are various ways of preparing traditional tea depending on the school and specific teacher.
Thank you so much for reading this post! I hope you found it helpful, and that it demystified matcha a bit more for you!
If you’re interested in Japanese cooking, I created a Japanese Pantry Essentials Guide just for you! It is an accumulation of the 20+ years I have spent cooking alongside my Japanese Mom and Aunt. It also includes all my secrets to Japanese cooking: The best recipes and my sources for the best ingredients.