Tea Stories: Kyoto Uji Matcha
We’ll be covering the arts and mysteries of tea ceremonies on the Ocha and Co. blog soon. But, in the meantime, ahead of your own personal Matcha moment, we thought you might be interested to find out a little about Kyoto Uji Matcha powder’s historic bright green journey to the center of Japanese tea culture.
What does Kyoto Uji matcha taste like?
Kyoto Uji Matcha is packed with umami flavours and contrasting sweetness and, importantly, there’s none of the bitterness that betrays lower-quality matcha.
A single bowl of Kyoto Uji Matcha packs in at least ten times the amount of antioxidants of an equivalent cup of normal green tea. That’s because, when you drink matcha, you’re consuming the entire leaf in powder form, not the liquor produced by steeping
leaves in hot water.
Kyoto Uji Matcha - What's in a name?
The clue’s in the title - our matcha is grown and then processed in Uji, a small city close to the ancient cultural metropolis of Kyoto.
The countryside around Uji is a verdant landscape of slopes and undulations planted with row upon row upon orderly row of Camellia sinensis tea plants in various stages of their growth cycles.
Three weeks before each cultivation, huge black curtains are drawn over the bushes to shield them from the sun and encourage them to produce the chlorophyll essential to creating all those anti-oxidants and sweet/umami end-taste.
The chemical changes that take place under the shades before harvesting also contribute to the vivid green color of the Kyoto Uji matcha tea when it’s been powdered.
The shoots of the now chlorophyll-rich tea are hand-picked, steamed, dried, and then ground on granite mills, slowly and at a precise rate to keep the temperature low and preserve the valuable nutrients found in Kyoto Uji Matcha.
Kyoto Uji Matcha: Now...And Zen
The matcha-making process in Uji has largely gone unchanged since the 12th Century. A Zen monk called Myoan Eisai who introduced Matcha to Japan in the late 1100s. Eisai had left Japan to study his branch of Buddhism in China. He returned to Japan not just enlightened by zen practice but also by the wonders and art of growing and making tea.
In China, Eisai had learned from fellow monks the art of slowly grinding whole tea leaves (after they had been steamed and dried) and then tightly packing the resulting dust into molds. Once impacted, the ‘cakes’ of tea could be easily transported by the monks whose faith dictated they spent a fair amount of their time wandering the lands. Whenever a cup of tea was required the monks would simply break off a small chunk, smash it back down into dust with a mortar and pestle and, in a process still familiar to matcha drinkers everywhere, use a whisk or chasen to mix the powder with hot water in a wide shallow bowl until the powder has all but dissolved and a froth has formed.
The benefits of Matcha (Ma - to grind, cha-tea) were immediately clear to the young Japanese monk who would have been expected to join his fellow Chinese adherents in hours-long meditation sessions. The tea helped him stay awake and
alert. The monks, working out there was a connection between drinking the tea and their energy levels, revered the brew without knowing what we know today.
Matcha is very high in caffeine. But, unlike the quick buzz followed by the crash of strong coffee, the caffeine in Matcha releases slowly and steadily. That’s because it reacts with the amino acid L-theanine - of which Matcha also contains large amounts. In turn, L-theanine is a mood-booster that also has good claims to aid cognitive ability.
When Eisai returned to Japan with prepared cakes of matcha he also had the foresight to bring the tea-plant seeds that would grow to become an incredibly important mainstay of Japanese culture.
Some of those seeds were gifted to a fellow monk Myoue Shounen who grew plants from them at Kozanji temple in Kyoto. By dint of close geography and favorable geology, tea agriculture was soon established in the hills surrounding nearby Uji where tea has continued to be cultivated ever since.
Eisai founded Japan’s first Zen temple and wrote the two-volume book Kissayojoki in 1214 - to this day considered a definitive homage to green teas (and, it's worth mentioning, mulberries).
Master of ceremonies