What is matcha? A guide to the traditional green tea and how to make it

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What is matcha? A guide to the traditional green tea and how to make it
Matcha is an energizing drink with a low caffeine content. Lazhko Svetlana
  • Matcha is a beverage made from grinding whole, partially shade-grown green tea leaves into powder.
  • It has been used for centuries by Buddhist monks to keep focus during long hours of meditation.
  • Matcha powder can be used in a variety of beverage recipes, from lattes to cocktails and more.

For hundreds of years, many people across Asia have enjoyed the rich green tea concoction known as matcha. Created in China during the Tang Dynasty, it was brought to feudal Japan by Buddhist monks who used it to keep alert during long hours of meditation. It remains a big part of Japanese culture, as it is still used in the ritual tea ceremony called temae.

Today, matcha has found popularity across the globe, not just with tea connoisseurs and gourmands, but with health-conscious individuals who enjoy its purported wellness benefits and lower caffeine content.

Translated to "powdered tea," matcha is made from partially shade-grown tea leaves that are then steamed, deveined, and destemmed (then called tencha). Stone-ground into the fine powder known as matcha, it is traditionally prepared by whisking it with hot water, resulting in a slightly bitter, uniquely vegetal drink.

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"Since matcha is a powder, it is a suspension rather than an infusion," says tea educator Nicole Wilson of Tea For Me Please. "We consume the entire tea leaf instead of steeping like you would with loose leaf or tea bags." Packed with antioxidants, it has the nutritional equivalent of 10 cups of regular brewed green tea.

And though a simple cup of matcha is its purest iteration, matcha can be used to make other drinks - from lattes to cocktails - in addition to desserts and other gourmet recipes. With centuries of history behind it and its proliferation on drink menus everywhere, it's safe to say matcha is not just a passing fad.

Quick tip: Matcha delivers a calm alertness instead of the caffeinated jolt of coffee, with only about 70 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup (30 percent less than coffee). "Matcha is energizing, but the buzz is different because of tea's secret weapon: L-theanine," says Wilson. "It's known to reduce stress and slow the absorption of caffeine, giving sustained energy rather than the rush and crash normally associated with coffee."

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What you need

  • Matcha powder: For the best drinking experience, pick a "ceremonial grade" matcha, which tends to have a more refined taste than its "culinary grade" counterpart, which is stronger, more bitter, and meant to withstand being combined with other flavors.
  • Hot water: Use water heated between 160 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit. "Water that is too hot can make the tea bitter," says Wilson.
  • Bamboo whisk (chasen): Wilson suggests investing in a chasen if you're going to make matcha a regular part of your routine; if you have a small wire whisk or a hand-held frother, you can still mix the tea that way but might not achieve its signature foamy texture.
  • Matcha bowl (chawan): If you don't have a matcha mixing bowl (chawan), any wide, deep bowl can work.

Quick Tip: While you can certainly buy pre-ground matcha powder, you can also try to make it at home. Matcha is typically gently stone-ground to a very fine powder, but you can use a spice grinder or powerful blender to pulverize dried, whole tencha leaves by using short pulses. If the matcha is still too coarse, you can grind it further by using a mortar and pestle.

How to prepare matcha

What is matcha? A guide to the traditional green tea and how to make it
Matcha is traditionally mixed using bamboo whisk, or chasen. Ekaterina Markelova/Shutterstock

  1. Prepare your matcha powder. Using your whisk, press the matcha powder against the sides of the bowl to remove any clumps.
  2. Add water. For every ¾ teaspoon of matcha you are using, use 4 to 6 ounces of hot water. "This method of making matcha is called usucha, or thin tea," says Wilson. It is possible to increase the ratio of powder to water for a thicker, more concentrated tea.
  3. Start whisking. Using a back-and-forth motion, quickly whisk the water and powder together in a straight line for about 20 to 30 seconds. It should start to bubble.
  4. Finish by making foam. Continue whisking in a zigzag pattern for another 10 to 15 seconds, until it creates tiny froth bubbles on its surface. It is then ready to drink.

Other interpretations of matcha to try

What is matcha? A guide to the traditional green tea and how to make it
You can also make your matcha into a latte or even lemonade. Marharyta M/Shutterstock

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  • Add ice to make it iced matcha. You may opt to make a stronger version to compensate for the dilution due to the ice.
  • Make a latte. Make matcha as normal (or slightly stronger), then add the milk of your choice - either hot or cold - and an optional sweetener.
  • Add it to lemonade. Prepare matcha as above, then mix it with an equal amount of lemonade, and add ice.
  • Slip it into a smoothie. Add matcha powder to smoothies for a boost of antioxidants. It goes well with chocolate, but also complements peach, mango, citrus, and other bright fruit flavors.

Storing matcha

Matcha is more delicate than other teas and can lose its freshness quickly. "Once a container has been opened it should be consumed within 30 days, preferably sooner," says Wilson. "Refrigerating your matcha can help keep it as fresh as possible." Be aware that tea might absorb odors easily, so Wilson advises against storing it near anything with a strong smell.

Once you've made a matcha drink, be sure to enjoy it right away. Wilson notes that matcha can clump and settle on the bottom of the cup if it sits too long, or it can oxidize and start to turn brown.

Insider's takeaway

Matcha is an easy-to-prepare beverage that offers a plethora of antioxidants and the alertness of caffeine without the jitters. Its earthy, slightly umami flavor works well when mixed into a variety of drinks, from sweetened matcha lattes to green tea margaritas.

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