There was a time when my wife (The Tyrant) and I didn’t like coffee. We’re not sure when or why, but that all changed. Over the past few years, we began to really LOVE good coffee.
Chris, one of our friends up in Asheville, NC, who is an environmental engineer by day, started a side business selling organically grown coffee that he roasted by hand. We then purchased his divine beans and turned them into our morning cup of joe using a French press. It was delicious and something we looked forward to each morning. Even the acrid smell of each other’s coffee breath was something we were willing to look past in pursuit of our delicious morning dose of caffeine.
Then something terrible happened: one day Chris told us he needed to focus more on work and less on his coffee roasting side business, so he sold his roasting equipment and “retired.” We tried a few of the other coffee companies he recommended, but they just weren’t quite the same.
One morning as we were sipping our coffee and emitting dragon breath on each other, The Tyrant asked, “what would you think about drinking tea instead of coffee in the morning?”
We’re not particularly wed to any habit/ritual and we enjoy trying new things, so I acknowledged that I was willing to give morning tea a shot.
“What kind of tea?” I asked. “How about matcha,” replied the Tyrant. I couldn’t recall ever drinking matcha, but once she assured me that matcha had comparable levels of caffeine as coffee, I had no further objections.
What Is Matcha?
In Japanese, the word “matcha” translates into “powdered tea” (“ma” means powder and “cha” means tea). Rather than steeping whole or chopped leaves in hot water, powdered teas are ground into a fine powder and mixed into water, so you’re actually ingesting the whole leaf when you drink the tea, not just its essence.
In the case of matcha, that powdered tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a beautiful little shrub whose leaves are used to make most teas you’re familiar with: green, white, yellow, black, oolong tea, etc – all are made from the same plant, just grown and/or processed differently after harvest. (We also grow Camellia sinensis plants and can attest to the fact that they make a nice edible landscape plant whose flowers are adored by bees.)
Unlike other teas grown from the same plant, matcha is made exclusively from tender new leaves and buds that have been grown under shade for three weeks before harvesting (using shade cloths or other techniques). The shade causes the plants to pump higher concentrations of theanine and caffeine into the leaves, and also changes the flavor profile.
Ceremonial Grade Vs Culinary Grade Matcha
The highest grade matcha, “ceremonial grade,” is made from the choicest, shade-grown leaves and buds harvested in the spring. Good ceremonial grade matcha is bright green and the tea has amazingly complex flavors: notes of sweet, baby greens/wheatgrass, “umami” (a rich meatiness), and just a slight hint of bitter – but not an unpleasant bitter.
“Culinary grade” matcha is often sold as tea in the west to people who don’t know any better, but later complain about not liking matcha; it’s bitter and lacks the sweet, nuanced flavor of good matcha, but it’s perfectly fine for baking and cooking.
Matcha’s Ancient Journey From 2500 BCE
In Chinese folklore, it’s believed that teas made from Camellia sinensis plants date back to at least 2500 BCE to Yunnan Province, where they were cultivated and spread by the “god-farmer” emperor Shennong.
The reason the globally popularized word “matcha” is derived from Japanese and not Mandarin (or one of the many other Chinese languages) is that matcha was introduced to Japan by the famous Zen Monk Eisai in 1191 A.D.
Eisai brought Zen (Mahayana Buddhism) to Japan from mainland China along with Camellia sinensis seeds which he immediately planted. Matcha tea and zen meditation were soon inextricably linked… and modern science sheds some light on why the two practices (drinking matcha and meditating) corresponded so well together, as we’ll highlight next.
What’s In Matcha Tea?
The typical 8 oz cup of coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine. The caffeine in coffee tends to hit The Tyrant and me like a punch. It’s powerful, comes on all at once, and if we have too much, we feel jittery.
A cup of matcha tea (1 teaspoon matcha powder in 8 oz water) offers about 70 milligrams of caffeine, but the stimulating sensation is totally different. It’s leveling, serene even. No jitters.
They both contain caffeine, so what’s the difference?
As mentioned earlier, in addition to caffeine, matcha is chock full of theanine. The two work rather well together, synergistically. Caffeine by itself, gives you a jittery punch, but theanine levels out that sensation, while reducing stress levels, improving cognitive performance, and boosting mood. An elegant example of food synergy, one that produces a relaxed but alert mental state… perfect if you plan to engage in focused meditation for hours on end like a Zen monk or if you just want to be a highly productive, but calm version of yourself.
Matcha offers lots of other beneficial compounds as well, perhaps most notably Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG). This 2012 study concluded that EGCG is the most potent anticancer polyphenol found in green tea, so you can add cancer-fighting to the checklist of matcha benefits!
How to Make Matcha At Home
Watch the video down below for exact matcha making instructions, but three points we want to highlight first:
- There’s far more to making good tea than pouring boiling water onto some leaves. Each type of tea is different and unique, and boiling water actually ruins many types of tea. Matcha is no different. The ideal water temperature range for making good matcha is 170-180°F (76-82°C). If you want to make the perfect cup of tea, you’ll want to have a candy thermometer (like this one) to know when the water is in the ideal temperature range.
- We recommend buying certified organic, ceremonial grade matcha. We don’t see any benefit in consuming synthetic pesticides, and healthier biologically active soils (typical of organic practices) produce higher quality teas. You’ll also only want to get ceremonial grade matcha – it’s made from the choicest leaves and has the best flavor. The best matcha teas we’ve found so far are: Imperial (*our favorite* – comes in a ziplock pouch) and Viva Naturals (comes in blue glass jar). We store our matcha in the fridge until we’re ready to use it.
- You’ll also want to have a bamboo matcha whisk. This isn’t just for show, I actually tried a standard metal kitchen whisk at first and it was totally inadequate at frothing the matcha. The Tyrant had pity on me and got me this whisk so I’m better able to present an acceptable, perfectly-frothed ceremonial matcha to her alongside her breakfast.
No More Coffee Breath!
We’ve already been over the many health benefits of matcha above. We’ve also explained why the caffeine-theanine combination in matcha provides a superior mental output compared to coffee. But perhaps the best benefit of drinking matcha is NO MORE COFFEE BREATH! Until we switched to matcha from coffee, we didn’t realize how nice it was not to have to deal with dragon breath for half of the day.
We hope you enjoyed this article!
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