Tea Origins: Is Matcha Chinese or Japanese?

Matcha tea has become a household favourite in recent years, with unique flavour profiles packed with nutrients. Each variety offers its own sweet or bitter notes, depending how it’s made and even where it’s made. Matcha tea’s origins stem back hundreds of years, so let’s explore how this can impact the flavours of matcha powders today.

Where did matcha come from?

Matcha originated from China, hundreds of years ago. Back in the Tang Dynasty (7-10 AD), the Chinese—looking for an easier way to transport green tea—came up with the clever workaround of a powdered version mixed with salt water and turned into ‘bricks’. This new method of powdered green tea caught on, and by the time the Song Dynasty rolled around (10-13 AD), drinking green tea like this was common amongst Buddhist Monks and householders.

Eisai, a travelling Japanese monk studying Zen Buddhism in China, brought this green powder back to Japan, calling it ‘the elixir of the immortals’. By 1271, the Japanese had developed a new method of cultivation using shade to create the distinct bright green colour we know today.

It was grown in limited quantities, making it a rare drink available only to nobility and Buddhist monks for quite some time.

In the 1500s, Zen Buddhist Murata Juko created the Japanese tea ritual with matcha at the centre, based on 4 principles:

  • Harmony (wa)
  • Respect (kei)
  • Purity (sei)
  • Tranquillity (jaku)

His student, Sen-no Rikyu, made it more widespread and popular, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So although green tea origins and invention of matcha powder point to China, the process was refined and perfected in Japan.

What is matcha made from?

Matcha is the ground form of camellia sinensis leaves, which is the plant that many teas are made from. Does that mean green tea powder and matcha powder are the same?

Technically, for a tea powder to be known as matcha, green tea leaves must adhere to the strict processes developed by the Japanese. So while matcha is a type of green tea powder, it is more refined and different to regular green tea.

Japanese Matcha Vs Chinese Matcha

To get a deeper understanding of just how different Japanese and Chinese matcha are, let’s compare their qualities side-by-side:

Flavour profile: Japanese matcha has a sweeter flavour and more umami, due to the quality of the soil it’s grown in and the process of shading prior to harvest. Chinese matcha is comparatively bitter, more earthy, and higher in tannins.

Tea process: Japanese matcha is finely stone-ground, with the stems and veins removed from the leaves beforehand. Chinese matcha is still processed by hand, which results in a gritty texture that doesn’t have the consistency and smoothness of Japanese matcha.

Colour: Chinese matcha has more yellow/brown hues than Japanese matcha, due to the plant remaining in the sun prior to harvest.

Nutrients: Chinese matcha still contains antioxidants, but is less concentrated than Japanese matcha. This is because the process of shading the plant for 3 weeks before harvest is largely when the amino acids are produced. Japanese matcha is also steamed to halt the oxidation process after harvest, while Chinese matcha is pan fried, which results in fewer of these nutrients being preserved.

Tea types: All matcha tea is graded from Ceremonial as the finest, down to Culinary as the lowest, depending on its colour, flavour, which leaves were harvested and when. This is independent of where it originates.

With its variety of nutrients and flavour profiles, matcha is a delicious brew with many flavour profiles, created and refined over hundreds of years.