Not All Powdered Green Tea is Matcha

As matcha has grown in popularity, some confusion has set in as to the difference between matcha and green tea powder. Here is some clarification.

Matcha tea and whisk, photo credit: ThinkStockPhotos.com

“There has been a lot of confusion in the industry that green tea powder is matcha and this is not true,” said tea expert Scott Svihula, owner of Hula Consulting.

Matcha and green tea powder originate from the Camellia sinensis plant and are processed as green tea, but that is where their similarities end. Each has its own characteristics in terms of growing origins, texture, color, flavor and purposes.

David Manelbaum, owner of PANATEA, sums it up this way: “All matcha is powdered green tea, but not all powdered green tea is matcha.”

Origin and Cultivation

Green tea originated in China. China still produces about 80 percent of the world’s green tea even as the cultivation of green tea has spread to India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and other parts of the world.

However, matcha is only grown in Japan. In fact, in Japanese, “ma” means powder and “cha” means tea. The Kyoto and Aichi prefectures are the main matcha-growing regions in Japan.

“There are two basic categories of Japanese green teas: one is sun-grown and one is shade-grown,” said Donna Fellman, online education director of the World Tea Academy. “Matcha is always made from shade-grown plants.”

Tea leaves that will be used for making matcha are shaded during their last month of cultivation. Doing so lowers the rate of photosynthesis and produces high levels of L-theanine, which creates matcha’s distinct full-bodied and less astringent flavor. Shading the tea plants also causes them to produce more chlorophyll and antioxidants because the plant has to work harder to live and grow. The leaves are plucked during springtime; then steamed and air dried, sorted by texture, then de-stemmed and de-veined, then refrigerated. At this stage, the tea is called tencha.

Worldwide, green tea is usually not grown in the shade.

Tea plantation in Kyoto Japan, photo credit: ThinkStockPhotos.com

Processing

In China, green tea is processed by being harvested and then promptly pan fired to halt oxidation. Then, the leaves are cooled, rolled and dried.

Matcha, photo credit: Mighty Leaf Tea

“In Japan, the stage of removing the veins and stems to create tencha is very unique,” Fellman said. “Then it is stored for a few months to allow the flavor of the leaves to develop.” Then the leaves are placed in cooled rooms where they are slowly stone ground in into a fine powder with granite stones to make matcha.

“If the leaves are ground fast, they’ll oxidize and become brown.”  Fellman added.

Matcha’s intricate processing is one of the reasons it is pricier than other teas, she noted

Green tea powder is gritty by comparison because it has not had the stems and veins removed. Another difference is the tea leaves are ground with metal blades instead of stones.

Matcha is sold in different grades, with ceremonial being the highest grade and culinary being the lowest grade. “You might use a younger leaf for ceremonial grade, but an older leaf for a culinary or ingredient grade matcha; it’s a little more bitter,” Mandelbaum said.

Color

Green tea powder, photo credit: Starwest Botanicals

Green tea powder and matcha differ in color. Matcha is bright green because it contains a high amount of chlorophyll. Green tea powder is more of a dull olive green.

Preparation

Matcha is prepared by putting a teaspoon of matcha into a bowl or cup and 2 to 4 ounces of hot water. Then, a bamboo whisk is used to agitate the matcha into suspension.

Green tea powder can be either ground leaves or instant powder. Ground green tea leaves must be agitated like matcha. However, instant powder, which is made by dehydrating concentrated tea liquor, is water soluble.

Purposes

The Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, which means “hot water for tea,” involves preparing and drinking matcha in a ritualistically choreographed process. Zen Buddhist monks brought the ceremony to Japan from China during the ninth century after studying there.

Green tea powder is not associated with a ceremony but is often used in restaurants. “It is often used for cooking and baking purposes, or sprinkled on top of different foods,” Fellman said.