Have You Met Your Matcha?

Move over white, green, oolong and black—there’s a new tea in town. Matcha is quickly becoming a hot trend. What is it, and why is it suddenly such a popular alternative to coffee and conventional teas?

With traditionally brewed tea, hot water is poured, or "steeped," over tea leaves to infuse the flavor into the liquid. With matcha, the leaves are steamed, stemmed and de-vined, then ground into a bright green powder and mixed with water.

"Because you are ingesting the actual leaf, you are getting a more concentrated delivery of flavor, compounds and caffeine," Angela Pryce, a tea expert and consultant based in southern England, notes.

Pryce says that matcha is harvested differently, too: the tea bushes are grown under shade, which packs the leaves with higher levels of chlorophyll and amino acids, resulting in the vibrant green coloring.

The History of Matcha

Matcha may be a novelty to modern tea drinkers, but it is far from new. Chinese monks were enjoying the tea as far back as the eighth century, relying on its caffeine content to stay serene and alert during extended periods of meditation.

In the late 1180s, a Japanese Buddhist monk named Eisai Myoan discovered the tea while visiting China. Back in Japan, Eisai spread the matcha word far and wide. From the 14th to 16th centuries, matcha was popular among affluent circles, becoming synonymous with wealth and prestige. Matcha was prepared and served in special tea ceremonies, called chanoyu. These elegant, choreographed rituals became ingrained in Japanese culture.

Matcha is relatively new to the western tea world, where demand is typically highest for black tea, although green tea and herbal infusions are rising in popularity. "There is a growing interest in provenance," Pryce says. "Consumers are interested in exploring regional flavors and want to know where their food and drink comes from."

Brewing for Better Health

Matcha has more than just a pretty color and a sweet taste. Its health benefits are a big factor in its growing popularity. "Consumers are interested in health, and are looking for products that can deliver health benefits," Pryce says.

According to a report from ConsumerLab.com, the tea contains two to three times more of a beneficial antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). And it leaves other superfoods in the dust, boasting up to 60 times more antioxidants than spinach and 17 times more than wild blueberries.

Some claim that EGCG, the super-antioxidant found in matcha, has been shown to prevent or lessen the severity of several types of cancers. Matcha is also rich in dietary fiber, which helps to regulate digestion and balance blood sugar levels.

Going greener may also help to boost weight loss. EGCG has been found to stimulate metabolism, increase fat-burning capabilities and reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to belly fat and food cravings.

An All-Natural Pick-Me-Up

Looking for a safe energy boost? Matcha has the same stimulating properties of coffee, without the undesirable side effects. While coffee’s caffeine blast makes some people jittery, matcha delivers a calm alertness that won’t end in the typical post-java crash.

Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Danville, Kentucky, relies on matcha for a healthy energy boost. "If I'm feeling a bit lethargic during the day, I often shake a teaspoon of matcha with a bottle of water for a quick pick-me-up. This potent tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which combines with caffeine to keep me focused and alert," he says.

How to Enjoy Matcha

As Richardson points out, matcha is attracting a broader audience not only for its high antioxidant content, but also its versatility as an ingredient in other drinks and dishes. In addition to drinking it in hot or cold tea, the green powder can be sprinkled on top of your favorite foods, mixed into other beverages or even added to ice cream. In addition to infusing a sweet, grassy flavor, the matcha powder also lends a brilliant emerald hue to any food or drink.

Pryce usually prepares matcha the traditional way—using a bamboo whisk to mix the powder with warm water in a matcha bowl—but she also adds the powder to smoothies, yogurts, cake or biscuits.

Whether you grab a cup at the local café or prepare it yourself, you may find matcha to be a relaxing, health-boosting alternative to traditional tea and coffee.