Matcha, Matcha, Matcha!
Let’s draw our attention to a new and very old style of green tea that doesn’t neatly fit into tea as most people know it; matcha. Matcha is that brilliant emerald green tea powder that has had a lot of mainstream success in recent years. Its associated today exclusivly with Japan but had its start in China. Matcha is the surviving style of tea’s middle period during the Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), a time where tea had taken off in the culture of scholars, artists, and Buddhist monasteries. This was steamed green tea that was milled into a fine powder and whisked with hot water to create a suspension of tea with beautiful foam on the top. Doing this well was a way to signal your status as a cultured elite and it was fashionable to hold tea making competitions after an evening of tea poetry recitation. This is the era of tea culture when Japan received tea and cultivation by Buddhist monasteries began.
The Song era tea culture ended in China with the arrival of the Mongols, but it has continued to be part of Japan’s tea culture to this day. Modern matcha is finely milled gyokuro, a very delicate style of Japanese green tea that is deliberately shaded before being plucked to promote the production of chlorophyll by limiting its available light. Genuine matcha is a brilliantly vibrant dark green powder and the best of its class are used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Portrait of Sen no Rikyu
The Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony, also called cha do or cha no yu, is an artifact of the transformation tea went through after arriving in Japan. The initial wave of popularity tea had in Japan came when it was adopted by the warrior aristocracy of the Kamakura shogunate (1185 – 1333 CE). This was a raucous and competitive tea party culture. Skill in making or tasting matcha in this period was appropriated from the Buddhist monasteries that cultivated tea but their philosophy wasn’t yet a major influence on secular tea culture. It wouldn’t be until the life of Murata Jukou (1423-1502 CE) and his famous successor Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591 CE ) that Zen Buddhist philosophy would be fused into the aesthetic practice we know as cha no yu. Jukou, a Zen priest, is credited with the reintegration of philosophy in the practice of tea making. The values expressed in tea gatherings would be reoriented as a spiritual and artistic tool.
Sen no Rikyu would introduce the value of Ichigo ichie 一期一会, “one time, one meeting” or “once in a lifetime”. This idea stresses that every tea gathering, like all moments, is fundamentally unique and impermanent. It can never happen again in this lifetime. Much of the underlying values in cha no yu are built around sabi 寂 the metaphysics of impermanence and the beauty in objects that reflect their age and weathering by time. Cha no yu integrates this by providing instructions and an account of every aspect of tea presentation. From the smallest detail of how to handle bowls to constructing an entire dedicated tea building with precise architecture to reflect these ideas. The result is a detailed engagement that integrates the seemingly contradictory values of rigid detailed ritual with a minimalist simplicity. It is going through great forethought to perform a fundamentally simple and mundane act of mixing tea powder and water, as though it is the only time in your life it will happen. Ichigo ichie.
Matcha has seen a huge surge in interest internationally in recent years both in the health food sector and as a flavoring for everything from Kit-Kats to matcha “lattes”. Colloquial English use of the word matcha has come to mean powdered green tea, and sellers have adopted terms like “ceremonial grade” or “culinary grade” to signal consumers whether this tea is best served whisked in a Japanese style chawan or mixed into cake batter.
A final word of advice; many companies in and out of Japan now sell matcha and other Japanese tea that was grown overseas. These places could produce great tea, but don’t because they have established these operations to make matcha that scales to meet growing global demand and lower their costs. Like we mentioned above, large scale operations aren’t going to provide the same level of quality, craftsmanship, or environmental stewardship as smaller operations. We advise you avoid matcha made with these practices.
Shade grown tea plants a few weeks before harvest.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
Founded in San Diego, each tea purchased supports organic and regenerative farmers around the globe.