Matcha in its purest, most basic form is a finely ground powder made with shade-grown green tea leaves. While it’s been used in parts of Asia for centuries, it was only recently made popular in the west. Today, it is an ingredient used to flavour a variety of both savoury and sweet foods and is prized for its unique taste and texture. In this guide, we’ll discuss the different matcha tea grades as well as some of the different ways to prepare it as a beverage.
To make matcha, leaves are harvested from the Camellia sinensis shrubs that specially grown for the purpose. About twenty days before the tea is harvested, the plants are covered to minimise their exposure to direct sunlight. This makes them produce more chlorophyll, which lends matcha its distinctive deep green colour. After harvesting, the leaves are dried and then stripped of their veins and stems before being stone-ground into a fine powder.
Like other revered food products, matcha is classified according to grades that indicate its quality. Below are some of the designations you may come across when shopping:
Ceremonial-grade refers to matcha tea of such exceptional quality that it is the product of choice for Buddhist temples and establishments that hold traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Just 100 grams of it can command prices of between USD 100 and USD 140 (AUD 145 and AUD 204). It is made with the youngest leaves and is almost always ground with granite stone mills.
Premium-grade matcha is made with leaves from the top of the tea plant and is still considered high quality. Considered ideal for everyday use, it also goes well with blended beverages. One can expect to pay between USD 50 to USD 80 (AUD 73 to AUD 117) for 100 grams of premium-grade matcha.
Culinary-grade is the cheapest variety of matcha available, characterised by a slightly bitter taste that is caused by a variety of production factors. It is made with leaves from the lower part of the shrub and is meant to be used for cooking and baking. Its strong flavour also lends itself well to milk-based smoothies and beverages.
In Japan, good matcha is easily procured and “ceremonial grade” is not a recognised term. The matcha used for tea ceremonies should simply be of good enough quality to make the thick koicha that defines the ritual.
How to Prepare Matcha Tea the Traditional Way
Usucha or thin tea is the standard way that matcha tea is consumed daily. The thicker koicha is typically reserved for tea ceremonies and special events. For a refreshing usucha, you will need:
First, sift about 2 chashaku scoops or approximately a teaspoon of matcha into your tea bowl using the fine mesh strainer. This step ensures a smoother tea and mellower flavour.
Next, pour 70 millilitres of water into the tea bowl. Some drinkers prefer to put in a small amount of the water first and mixing it with the matcha before adding the rest.
After pouring the water, take hold of the chasen using your thumb and index finger and hold it upright, supporting it with your other fingers. Use your wrist to move the whisk around; a quick zig-zag, M or W motion is ideal for aerating the tea and creating froth. Try not to grind your whisk into the bowl, which will ruin its tips!
Once the froth has appeared, pop any large bubbles on top by pushing them to the side of the bowl with your whisk. Usucha should be enjoyed within three minutes of its preparation to enjoy the flavour at its fullest.
Preparing a cup of matcha tea even in a casual setting can be a meditative process that gives your mind some time to relax and recharge. Try it out today!