If you have ever had green tea ice cream, green tea candy, or green tea health bars, you’re already somewhat familiar with Matcha, the powdered green tea from Japan. What you may not have experienced is how it is served traditionally, nor how deep its roots permeate and reflect most of Japanese culture. I hate to say this but I’m NOT a matcha fan – to me its liquid grass in a cup. I realize that I’ve just probably alienated a lot of people with that statement but, remember the old adage – Honesty is the Best Policy – so I’m just being very honest with you.
The story of Matcha tea…
Begins thousands of years ago in Song Dynasty China, a time of ceremony and performance taken to its extreme, at least among the nobility. This was prior to the invention of steeped tea as we know it today. At that time, tea was prepared by crushing the dried leaves into a powder using special tools made with expensive metals; the powdered tea was then whisked with water in fine porcelain bowls with a bamboo whisk until a broth was created. A fascination with this (rather complex) ceremony of tea preparation began to spread from the elite to other classes of Chinese culture, including the evolving Buddhist priesthood. As Buddhism expanded its influence, many of its monks headed across the sea to the island of Japan, where their philosophy was intertwining with the established Shinto religion. As they went, these monks brought the tea ceremony with them, which was fortunate because it was nearly wiped out as the Song Dynasty fell around 1279. Preserved in Japan, the ceremonial preparation of tea with all its accoutrements was quickly associated with the upper class (the only ones who could afford tea leaves) and began transforming into something uniquely Japanese.
Just what is it?
Most people don’t even know that there are two distinct styles of matcha tea—usucha (thin) and koicha (thick). Usucha is a thin, weak tea made from the powdery tea called Matcha in Japanese. Usucha and Koicha are the two traditional Japanese styles of Ceremonial Matcha preparation. Usucha is the thinner variation of matcha tea, and accordingly, uses more water—about 70ml (2.3 oz)—and is made with less matcha powder. It is instantly recognizable by its thick frothy head and resulting crema. This comes from vigorously whisking the tea during preparation—the more head the better. The major difference between thick and thin matcha is the rich viscosity. Koicha tea doesn’t have any cream or frothy head, and the thick consistency is created by “massaging” the tea with the bamboo whisk and slowly adding water until it’s the desired thickness. However, the main difference between thick and thin tea comes down to the quality of the matcha powder. Most usucha powder is made from “young” tea plants (under 30 years old), meaning usucha tea is typically made from lower quality “culinary grade” matcha powder. The quality and rich taste of the tea is still high, but nowhere near as strictly regulated as koicha tea.
A clarifying point…
Usucha, is not really “thin” per se, only when compared against the thick type – koicha. Many confuse “thin” with meaning weaker, however just the opposite is true – thin matcha is more strongly astringent than koicha.
Next… Frances Virginia