If you have ever had green tea ice cream, green tea candy, or green tea health bars, you’re already somewhat familiar with Matcha, the powdered green tea from Japan. What you may not have experienced is how it is served traditionally, nor how deep its roots permeate and reflect most of Japanese culture.
The story of Matcha tea begins thousands of years ago in Song Dynasty China, a time of ceremony and performance taken to its extreme, at least among the nobility. This was prior to the invention of steeped tea as we know it today. At that time, tea was prepared by crushing the dried leaves into a powder using special tools made with expensive metals; the powdered tea was then whisked with water in fine porcelain bowls with a bamboo whisk until a broth was created. A fascination with this (rather complex) ceremony of tea preparation began to spread from the elite to other classes of Chinese culture, including the evolving Buddhist priesthood.
As Buddhism expanded its influence, many of its monks headed across the sea to the island of Japan, where their philosophy was intertwining with the established Shinto religion. As they went, these monks brought the tea ceremony with them, which was fortunate because it was nearly wiped out as the Song Dynasty fell around 1279. Preserved in Japan, the ceremonial preparation of tea with all its accoutrements was quickly associated with the upper class (the only ones who could afford tea leaves) and began transforming into something uniquely Japanese.
Many years later, during the time of the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a tea master by the name of Rikyu brought several revolutionary changes to the tea ceremony. It was Rikyu’s opinion that the tea ceremony should not be something reserved for the nobility. Zen Buddhism in Japan had embraced tea drinking as a meditative art and Rikyu was wholly in favor of the humility and equality that the tea ceremony could support. To this end he did away with the imported Chinese pottery and fancy metal decorated tools of his predecessors and encouraged the use of simple, imperfect, and natural materials for his tea. Common pieces of bamboo became the scoop and ladle, while the bright porcelain gave way to dark and asymmetrical hand shaped bowls called Raku. Perhaps Rikyu’s most audacious philosophy was to make any single tea ceremony inclusive of all social ranks and occupations. The nobility could sit and share a sincere activity with the wood cutter and the merchant.
The tea itself was beginning to be sourced locally from Japan rather than entirely imported from the mainland, and this too presented a radical shift in the culture of tea. Powdering the tea was now done using rotating stone wheels. Today Matcha is still made using the same process of grinding leaves in a stone mill. Due to the cultural significance of the tea ceremony in Japan, only the finest shade-grown tea, called Tencha, is used to produce Matcha powder. Even so, the demand for powdered tea domestically in Japan and internationally has made for quite a range in qualities of tea available.
At the tearoom we have traditionally offered two grades of Matcha, a common grade (our Matcha Natural) for use in cooking and blending applications, and our high grade (Matcha Kyoto) that we recommend for whisking and drinking directly. We also offer a small tea ceremony (which can be ordered from our regular menu) to better acquaint you with the experience of drinking tea in Rikyu’s philosophy.
Thanks to assistance from Takada-san, our Japanese tea supplier, we are now able to offer two higher grades of Matcha: our Dobra Usucha and Koicha. These teas represent two versions of the tea ceremony as it is experienced in Japan. Usucha is “thin tea”, meaning a beverage made with more water and whisked to a careful froth. Koicha is “thick tea”, which is honored most in Japan, and usually prepared with quite a lot more respect and procedure than its somewhat more common counterpart. Thick tea is whisked gently using very little water until it resembles a soft paste or cream.
Please ask a tea Devotee if you would like to experience these teas yourself. We are excited to share them with you!