Did you know that for almost 700 years since the first green tea seeds were planted in Japanese soil, only the kingdom’s privileged few got to enjoy matcha? Because of the laborious and time-consuming production involved, Zen Buddhist monks, the first matcha manufacturers, can only generate small amounts of the precious powder each harvest time. It was a highly prized commodity in those periods that it is consumed almost exclusively by royalties and nobilities, including priests, shoguns and samurais.
photo source: www.japanese-incense.com
The country’s general population contented themselves all those years with roasted bancha, which is brown in color, bitter and has a strong straw-like smell. Not only that the said tea class is made from foliage left over after the sencha grade leaves were already harvested for making high quality teas including matcha, they were also just left to dry out and lose most of its chlorophyll content. In spite of bancha’s poor quality back then, it was the only tea kind that is affordable and accessible for the common man.
It was only in this historical period that matcha became increasingly available to every Japanese household. How did this happen? Just before the end of the Edo Period, which precedes this era, a simple new technique was developed, which significantly increased the amount of available bright green sencha that qualifies for making matcha. It involves quickly steaming the buds and young leaves right after harvest, which preserves its rich chlorophyll content, thus maintaining its vibrant color and umami taste even after the drying and milling process.
photo source: www.japanese-tea-time.weebly.com
There are two other highly momentous developments in matcha production that precedes the aforementioned advancement. First, the start of using granite mills for pulverizing the leaves in the 1200s, and secondly, the advent of shade farming in the 1500s, which coincides with the same century when “Chado” (The Way of the Tea) or Tea Ceremonies entered Japanese culture.
Besides the discovery of green tea itself, those three techniques invented hundreds of years apart, made matcha for what it is today. Bright, almost fluorescent green in color, silky-smooth and superfine, and has a unique “umami” taste, the Japanese all-encompassing term for pleasant savory flavors. Moreover, those fundamental methods have maximized the preservation of green tea nutrients in every matcha particles, resulting to high concentration of chlorophyll, amino acids, antioxidants and other nutritional and medicinal properties.
In this day and age of globalization, citizens of every free and progressive country on Earth can enjoy matcha in various cafes, restaurants, bars, supermarkets, bakeshops and confectioneries, or even in the comfort of their own homes. Its delightful flavor, as well as its nutritional, therapeutic and mood-boosting effects can be acquired and relished from beverages such as hot tea drink, latte, smoothie and cocktail, as well as from a gamut of desserts, baked goods, savory entrees and many other treats.
Even international food conglomerates such as Nestle, Lindt, Royce, McDonald's, Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Co. have come up with their own matcha-infused products during the last decade or so. Countless cafes, restaurants and bars in major metropolises around the world have also created specialty drinks and dishes of their own, which feature the vibrant and flavorful green tea powder. There are even eateries and watering holes that were purposely conceptualized around matcha.
The increase in efficiency of e-commerce and international courier and logistics services has also opened new avenues for matcha powder to reach every quarters of the world. While it was virtually not acquirable for common people in Japan from the 1200s to the late 1800s, today, anyone with an Internet service and a credit card can order matcha online and have it delivered to their doorsteps.
Just like how some customs, rituals and protocols are continually observed and accorded to royalties to this day, there are certain treatments of matcha that cannot be completely compromised, no matter how far technologies will advance. For instance, even though harvesting machines are several times more efficient, manual picking was not obsoleted in matcha production. As it turns out, the method is essential for keeping the organic flavors of high-grade matcha uncompromised.
Although the milling process is now generally automated, matcha producers in Japan likewise never did away with granite grinders. But in spite of being machine-churned now, each mill’s spin cycle was kept at the same pace as in olden times. Albeit slow, with each grinder just yielding around 30 grams of powder per hour, it was determined that it’s the ideal speed for locking in all of green tea’s inherent nutrients, flavors and aroma.
photo source: www.teasnob.de
With all these meticulous practices and hardnosed adherences to centuries-old production and quality assurance principles, you would think that matcha is still being produced exclusively for royalties and nobilities. But in fact, matcha is now available to millions of people around the globe, and in all walks of life. Enjoy it world!