Partly due to its highly photogenic, vibrant green color, matcha has skyrocketed to unprecedented popularity in western culture. It seems like you can find matcha just about everywhere, from Instagram posts to trendy cafes to your local grocery store. But the first use of matcha predates picturesque smoothie bowls and green lattes by hundreds of years.
Credit for matcha’s development generally goes to 7th-century Chinese Zen monks, who first developed the technique of brewing powdered tea as a daily ritual to aid their meditation. However, matcha’s modern popularity owes itself to a 12th-century Buddhist monk named Esai. After spending years studying Buddhism among Zen monks in China, Esai returned to his native Japan with some souvenirs: high-quality green tea seeds and the Chinese monks’ powdered tea technique. He planted the tea seeds in Kyoto and cultivated them into bushes which produced the fine leaves necessary to create small batches of green tea powder. Esai extolled matcha’s health benefits in a treatise and elevated it to a medicinal luxury. Over the following few centuries, matcha was only available in limited quantities to a few elite members of society.
In the 16th century, matcha’s history took a turn for the sensational as two key developments launched it to widespread popularity. First, the matcha tea ceremony of Chado (also known as Sado, meaning “the way of tea” or “the art of tea”) crystallized into a formal practice, with influences drawn from various related rituals practiced by Japanese monks. Second, Kyoto’s tea growers hit a major breakthrough when they began growing tea bushes in the shade. They discovered that this method produced a sweeter-flavored leaf that was more palatable than its bitter-tasting predecessors.
As tea cultivation further improved over the years and Chado saw greater participation, matcha became increasingly accessible. Having caught on with the upper echelons of Japanese society, it made its way onto the ships of global merchants. It eventually made its way into the cups of everyday Japanese folk, at that point well on its way to becoming the widely-consumed drink we know and love today.
Modern matcha comes in two varieties: ceremonial grade and culinary grade. Both have a delicate, slightly grassy flavor and a vibrant green pigment, though ceremonial grade tends to be sweeter and brighter in color. As you may have guessed, culinary grade matcha tends to be more affordable, and it’s what I use at home. Thanks to its potent mix of caffeine and L-theanine, matcha produces that paradoxical, wonderful mellow alertness that drew the attention of those Buddhist monks so many years ago. This makes it a great option for coffee-less mornings.
And the vibrant pigment is actually the source of matcha’s other health benefits. Because they grow in the shade, shielded from direct sunlight, matcha leaves overproduce chlorophyll, which is preserved in the grinding process and acts as a powerfulf antioxidant in our bodies. Population-based studies indicate that green tea drinkers experience lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Matcha in particular has been linked to lowered blood pressure and decreased cholesterol levels. While further research is needed to fully elucidate matcha’s medicinal value, you can feel good about stirring it into your morning smoothie.