What is Matcha? The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Most Famous Tea

By Ashley Owen
Updated: July 31, 2023

From frothy bowls of vibrant green tea drunk in traditional ceremonies to its delicious modern incarnation in lattes and cakes, matcha has become something of a cult phenomenon. It’s not only praised for its wealth of health benefits, it’s also an integral part of Japanese culture. So exactly what is matcha, and does it live up to the hype? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about Japan’s most famous type of tea.

A frothy bowl of green matcha tea on a wooden table, next to a bamboo chasen whisk and a pot of bright green matcha tea powder

What is matcha tea? 

Matcha is a powdered green tea, which is made by grinding up whole tea leaves. The resulting fine powder is then whisked with hot water to make a drink. This is different to most other varieties of tea, which are made by steeping the leaves in hot water and then removing them before drinking.

What truly makes matcha special is the leaves it’s made from. Although all tea comes from the same plant – camellia sinensis – matcha is created from high-grade leaves that have been shaded before harvesting to boost their production of chlorophyll. This is what gives the drink its vivid green color, unique umami flavor, and high nutritional content. Only fresh young leaves are used to make matcha, and farmers pick them by hand to ensure good quality. After being steamed and dried, the leaves are ground into a powder using either a traditional grinding stone or more modern equipment. If you'd like to try harvesting fresh tea yourself, sign up for our Nishio Matcha Tea Tour in Aichi!

A close up image of green tea bushes in a plantation

The origin of matcha

Although now a quintessentially Japanese tea, matcha actually originated in China. Japanese Buddhist monks who had been studying in the country found it helped them to achieve a state of calm alertness that assists with meditation. They then brought the tea back to Japan with them in around the 8th century, where it later became popular among the nobility too. This led to the development of the Japanese tea ceremony, which remains a significant part of the country’s culture to this day.

A woman in a kimono kneeling down and preparing a bowl for matcha

What does matcha taste like?

Matcha has its own rich characteristic flavor, because the entire tea leaf is dissolved into the water rather than being steeped in it and then taken out. The resulting drink is smooth and creamy, with a complex grassy taste that strikes the perfect balance between sweet and umami. Like all green teas, it also has a hint of bitterness, which is why it pairs so well with traditional Japanese wagashi sweets.

A frothy bowl of green matcha in the foreground, with a white sweet in the background a blue flower between them

Different types of matcha

Matcha can be divided into several grades, which have distinctive characteristics and are designed for different uses:

Ceremonial grade

This is the highest quality of matcha, and is intended purely for drinking. As the name implies, it’s the type of matcha that’s used in Japanese tea ceremonies. It has a fine texture, vibrant green color, and delicate sweet flavor. The resulting tea is rich and thick, with a smooth feel and grassy scent.

Premium grade

Sometimes included as a type of culinary grade, premium grade matcha is usually made from the second tea harvest rather than the first. This gives it a slightly more intense and bitter flavor, but the same rich green color and nutritional benefits. As it’s cheaper than ceremonial grade matcha, it’s an ideal choice for everyday drinking at home.

Culinary grade

Culinary-grade matcha is intended for use in baking and cooking, whether that’s adding it to smoothies, ice cream, cakes or lattes. The leaves used to make it are a little older than those in ceremonial and premium grade matcha, giving it a stronger taste, higher astringency, and darker color. This category can be further subdivided into:

  • Cafe grade – ideal for blended drinks such as smoothies and lattes
  • Ingredient grade – ideal for ice cream and other desserts
  • Kitchen grade – commonly used for large-scale production of baked goods
  • Classic grade – the most economical option, which can be used in all sorts of recipes
A cup of matcha latte on a saucer, with a green and white artistic pattern on top

How to prepare matcha

So now that we’ve covered what matcha is, let’s look at how you can enjoy it. There’s a definite art to preparing the tea, however, it’s easy to make at home with just a few tools by following these simple steps:

  1. Use hot water to warm up a chawan tea bowl (or a mug if you don’t have one), then empty it out
  2. Sift 1-2 teaspoons of matcha powder into the bowl (this helps to ensure there are no clumps of tea)
  3. Add a small amount of hot water (about 176℉/80℃ is ideal – boiling water will scorch the powder and make the tea more astringent) 
  4. Whisk the mixture using a bamboo chasen. If you don’t have one, you can use a wire whisk or a spoon, however, you won’t get as much of a frothy texture. Start with a circular motion to dissolve the powder, then whisk vigorously in a zigzag pattern to froth up the tea
  5. Top the tea off with more hot water, and whisk again to get a foamy layer on top
  6. Enjoy!

While the above method is perfect for everyday drinking, to truly experience the cultural significance of matcha you can’t beat taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Kyoto and Uji are some of the best places to attend one, and there are plenty of ceremonies conducted in English at temples and teahouses across Japan. Don’t worry if you’re not able to travel to Japan though, because with our Online Interactive Tea Ceremony you can join in from the comfort of your own home!

A close up image of a bamboo chasen in a frothy bowl of matcha

The health benefits of matcha 

One of the main reasons matcha has become so popular in recent years is because of the many health benefits it’s purported to have. So, is matcha good for you or is this just clever marketing?

Well, green tea of all kinds is known to be healthy thanks to its high levels of antioxidants called catechins and the presence of L-theanine. Matcha in particular offers even greater nutritional value because the powder is completely dissolved in the water. That means when you drink it, you’re consuming the entire tea leaf and not just the infusion. 

An overhead image of a bowl of green matcha powder and a bowl of matcha tea, with tea leaves and a bamboo whisk

What is matcha good for?

Research suggests that matcha may provide a whole wealth of different health benefits. These include:

  • Reducing damage to your cells from free radicals
  • Keeping your heart healthy
  • Protecting your liver
  • Helping to prevent cancer
  • Enhancing weight loss
  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Maintaining healthy skin

One of the biggest benefits of drinking matcha is improving your mental health and cognitive functions. Renowned for producing a feeling of calm alertness that monks found so helpful for meditation, matcha can boost your mood and keep you focused. This makes it the perfect choice for days when you want to be both relaxed and productive!

A white bowl full of green matcha powder next to a glass of iced matcha latte

Does matcha have caffeine?

Because it’s shaded for a few weeks before being harvested and you’re ingesting the entire tea leaf, matcha contains higher levels of caffeine than other types of green tea. Compared to brewed coffee, however, it has lower amounts of caffeine. Bear in mind that the amount of caffeine in any one cup of matcha will depend on factors such as the amount of powder you use and how concentrated you make the drink.

Matcha’s big advantage when it comes to caffeine is that the L-theanine it contains alters the effects of the stimulant, causing your body to absorb it more slowly. This keeps you alert while avoiding the crash in energy levels that some coffee drinkers experience.

A slice of matcha cake with powdered matcha around it and a chasen whisk in the foreground

Whether you enjoy matcha the traditional way or in a latte or dessert, it can be a delicious and healthy addition to your diet. Not to mention, taking part in a tea ceremony either in Japan or from home is a fantastic way to discover more about Japanese culture. Time to put the kettle on!

Craving some desserts featuring this unique flavor? Check out these Matcha Dessert Cafes in Tokyo!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Ashley Owen
Ashley is a freelance travel writer from the UK who spent the last two years living in Japan, and is about to embark on her next adventure to New Zealand. She's always on the lookout for exciting new vegan treats wherever she goes!
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