Matcha: A history in the making

Matcha tea is something that is cropping up more and more in Western society, whether it’s replacing coffee or flavouring your ice cream, this fine green powder is more popular now than ever. Dating back thousands of years to a time when dynasties ruled China and Shogun clans ruled Japan, taking a trip back to where it all started lets us see how far the mighty matcha has come.

The origins

The origins of matcha can be traced all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in China which spanned the 5th-10th century. During this time, the Tang Dynasty used to steam tea leaves to form into bricks to make their tea harvests easier to transport and trade. These ‘tea bricks’ were individually prepared by roasting and pulverising the leaves before mixing the resulting tea powder with water and salt.

As time progressed and China shifted into the Song Dynasty from the 10th-13th century, it was largely credited for making this form of matcha tea preparation popular. A Japanese Buddhist Monk, who spent most of his life studying Buddhism in China, moved to Japan in 1191, bringing with him the matcha tea seeds as well as the Zen Buddhist methods of preparing traditional powdered green tea. These tea seeds that had been brought back from China were largely considered to create the highest quality tea leaves in the whole of Japan.

These matcha seeds were then planted on the temple grounds in Kyoto, the home of the Kamakura Shogun. During the period of the Kamakura Shogun, matcha was only produced in extremely limited quantities, giving it its auspicious and luxury status. Soon after the Japanese Monk’s return to Japan, Zen Buddhists developed new methods for cultivating the green tea plant. Tencha was developed by growing the green tea plant under shaded conditions, a process largely credited for maximising its health benefits.

The production

The production of matcha is quite a delicate and gentle process. It is made from shade-grown tea leaves that are used to make gyokuro. The preparation of matcha starts several weeks before harvest, where the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This slows down the growth until it is time to hand-pick only the finest tea buds. After harvesting, the leaves are rolled up before drying for the production sencha. However, lying the leaves out flat will allow them to somewhat crumble, known as tencha, which is de-vined, de-stemmed and stone-ground to produce a fine, bright green powder known as matcha. The grinding of the leaves is a slow process as the mills must not become warm and release the aroma of the leaves. The flavours of this tea is dominated by the amino acids, with the highest grades of matcha having more intense sweetness and deeper flavour than the standard or coarser grades of tea harvested later in the year. 

The rituals

Matcha is now highly associated with traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, but it was not until the 1500s that a Zen student brought together aspects of the tea ceremony into a more formalized ritual that included the cultivation, consumption and ceremony of matcha. Today, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony centres on the preparation, serving and drinking of matcha as a hot drink, embodying a meditative spiritual style.

Blends of matcha are often given poetic names known as chamei either by the producing plantation, shop or creator of the blend or by the grandmaster of a particular tea tradition. When a blend is named by the grandmaster of a tea ceremony, the tea becomes known as the master’s konomi. There are 3 main categories that this tea can be classified within. Ceremonial grade, the highest quality used mainly in tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples, Premium grade, high-quality matcha green tea that contains the full nutritional content, and Culinary grade, which is suitable mainly for cooking purposes due to its bitter taste.

At Atelier Japan, our collection features traditional matcha and Japanese tea from Marukyu-Koyamaen, expert makers that have been cultivating and manufacturing tea in the village of Uji and Ogura in Kyoto since the late 1600s. Over the last 400 years, Koyamaen have devoted themselves to producing the highest quality tea generation after generation. Browse Atelier Japan to discover their award-winning range of matcha and tea.

           Selected Matcha Green Tea by The Ura Senke SHOKANOMUKASHI