Matcha: the History, Tea Ceremony, 5 Things You Need

Matcha has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries- and now the world is catching on.  Filled with antioxidents, the tea has shot up in pop culture as word has spread.  Now that you're able to find matcha in everything from your morning croissant and coffee to kit-kats and quinoa bowls, traditional matcha has lost some of it's reverence.  

In Japanese culture, every part of matcha, from planting to buying to consuming, has importance.  Matcha is an art.  It's ownership has even won battles!

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The History:

Matcha can first be traced to Japanese culture when it was brought to the country by Buddhist monks in the 11th century.  Powdered tea was popular in China for centuries previous, but when the traveling monks planted seeds in Kyoto, popularity in Japan quickly spread.  The tea was made from the sencha plant, and was shaded by reed roofs during growth to maximize the benefits of the tea.  Because it required so much care to make, matcha was only produced in very limited quantities, and as such, was a very luxurious product.  Only the very rich and the royals had access to such high quality tea.  The amount of matcha you owned, along with the instruments used to make the blend became a status symbol in itself. 

We now know that the special way of raising and harvesting matcha preserves antioxidents, caffeine, and amino acids but even in the 12th century the tea was revered for the concentration it brought drinkers in their afternoon meditations and other practices, and slowly an intricate and beautiful tea ceremony emerged.  The tea ceremony (Chado) is meant to be a peaceful break from the day in the afternoon, and was even observed by the royal soldiers. 

As matcha became more affordable to produce, people of different classes were able to enjoy it, and now everyone has access to this special powder.  What used to be highly revered and only touched by the wealthy is now purchasable at Donqi (Japan's massive convenience store) or in kit-kats and Starbucks drinks.  Though matcha today is not the status symbol it once was, the tea ceremony is still a ritual observed in temples across Japan.


The Ceremony: "Chado"- The Way of Tea

Zen master Sen-no-Rikyu structured the Chado in the 1500s as we know it today.  Built around the principles of harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku), the ceremony is defined to the letter.  Even the room must be a particular size to accurately perform the ceremony!  Tea master spend their whole lives understanding and perfecting the ritual.

The movements in the tea ceremony are very important, everything from the push of a kimono sleeve to the turn of the chawan (matcha bowl) are meant to give reverence.  Click here for a video of a traditional ceremony.  

The tea is accompanied with a variety of sweet treats, from sugar crisps to the more traditional wagashi.  These are meant not to take away from the tea, but to serve as a counterbalance to the strong, bitter flavor.

Though there are different types of ceremonies, they all follow the same thread of peacefulness and reverence of the tea.  Prayers must be made before entering, as well as during the making of the tea.  The first sip you take is to give thanks from a different section of the bowl. Only certain things are allowed to touch the tea, which is why all of the tools used to prepare it are made from bamboo.

How to make it at home:

As you can tell from the video above, there is no way to bring the entire tea ceremony to your living room, but there are some staples that every Japanese person has in their kitchen to make a more proper matcha.

Chawan (matcha bowl)- while a cup might do, the experience of drinking this special tea with two hands certainly enhances both your concentration and enjoyment.  They are made in all sizes for all types of use. (the thinner, deeper bowls keep tea hot longer, while the more shallow cool it down quickly for the summer)


Whisk- these delicate whisks are made from a single piece of bamboo, and are carefully carved and manipulated into the correct shape.  This special design ensures the powder is completely integrated with the water without scratching the bowl or departing any flavor to the tea.


Matcha holder- while in a traditional ceremony, the matcha is kept in a silk bag, many use light and air tight containers to store their matcha when it is not in use.  This keeps the matcha from oxidizing and loosing flavor and benefits over time. 


Tea scoop- The correct scoops are made from bamboo like the whisk.



Matcha- there are three types of matcha available to buy: ceremonial grade, premium grade, and culinary grade, and they range considerably in price.  The last is meant for baking or sauces, not meant for tea.  While ceremonial grade is considered the most desirable and is characterized by a deeper "umami" flavor and color, most drinkers will not notice much difference.  It important to buy at least premium grade, however.  Also, be careful to only buy matcha that has been tested for radiation, but most sellers advertise this.  


We hope this post taught you a little something and makes you stop for a second before you enjoy your next cup!  Our experience of a tea ceremony certainly illustrated the cultural significance of the tea leaf to Japan, and the ability to make small gestures and pleasures significant.


Sarah EngellandComment