Tea has been a mainstay of Japanese culture for close to 3,000 years. Far more than just a beverage, tea is incorporated in the most solemn of Japanese rituals.
The Japanese tea ceremony, called the “Way of Tea,” is a formal event, scripted to the smallest detail. The tea ceremony and the tea used in it were brought to Japan by the Zen Buddhist monk Eisai in 1191 from China. Versions of the tea ceremony had been prevalent in China for centuries, but gradually died out there as it became widespread in Japan.
The special tea used for the ceremony is called “matcha.” Matcha is a finely milled, powdered green tea, rich in vitamin C and minerals, with a slightly more vegetal flavor than most teas.
For several weeks prior to harvest, the tea leaves used for matcha are kept covered to prevent direct sunlight. The result is slower growth, darker leaves, and greater amino acids. The leaves are examined carefully at harvest time, with only a select minority of the finest ones hand picked.
If these leaves are rolled up before being dried, they become gyokuro tea. If they are laid out flat to be dried, they become tencha. It is the tencha that is then deveined, destemmed, and meticulously ground to a fine powder with a millstone to become matcha, a process that produces just 30-45 grams per hour.
To make a cup of matcha tea, heat eight ounces of water to 165-175 F. So, keep it under the level of boiling. Add approximately half a teaspoon of matcha. Whisk rapidly until the tea is frothy. (There are even special matcha whisks made for the tea ceremony.) The powder is consumed with the tea.
A good host will tailor the matcha to the individual guests and their tastes. The cup size will be chosen according to the amount of tea preferred by each guest. A slightly greater or slightly lesser amount of matcha will be used to make the resulting tea stronger or weaker.
There are two main types of matcha tea. Usucha is a thin tea, with a slightly astringent, bitter taste. Koicha is a thick, souplike tea, with less of a noticeable bitterness.
Usucha is the more common of the two, but in a formal tea ceremony, both teas are served. There is a meal, called cha-kaiseki, followed by the thick koicha tea, and finally by the thin usucha tea.
In Japan, preparing and serving a fine cup of tea has truly been raised to the level of an art, or even a religious observance.
Veritas, “Making Matcha: Tea for the Japanese Tea Ceremony.” Heaven of Tea.
“Quintessential Kyoto-A Visit to the Roots of Green Tea.” Kateigaho.