Matcha green tea has grown in popularity amongst American consumers in recent years, thanks to its extensive antioxidant profile and incredible health benefits. Though its adoption in the west is contemporary, the importance of matcha dates back nearly one thousand years. Matcha holds significant relevance in nutrition, spirituality, and history within Chinese and Japanese cultures.
This is the (brief) history of matcha tea from initiation through to modern-day trends. Reading this history will ground you in the physically and spiritually nourishing benefits you’ll find with matcha!
Origins of Matcha
The earliest records of matcha green tea date back to the Chinese Tang Dynasty between the 7th to 10th centuries A.D. Tea harvesters during the Tang Dynasty were looking for ways to grow their businesses, hoping to make it easier to transport and trade their goods. In doing so they changed their traditional method of tea preparation to instead roast and pulverize the tea leaves into a powder form. They would then mix it with water and salt to create a “brick” of tea that was easier to carry and haul, especially across Chinese trade lines.
The following era of the Song Dynasty, from the 10th to 13th centuries, was when matcha tea became more widely accepted and utilized. Harvesters were utilizing a powdered form of tea to make it easy to trade and consume. More Chinese homemakers were adopting this tea into their daily routines.
The powdered green tea form also became incredibly popular among Buddhist monks for spiritual practices and natural homeopathic remedies. This would prove important for the spread of matcha to Japan (and later to the west).
Matcha Goes to Japan
Eisai, a highly regarded monk from 12th century Japan, was the first to truly bring matcha to the Japanese. After a majority of his life studying Zen (“Chan”) Buddhism in China, he returned home with customs and goods to share. After becoming a certified practitioner in China, he wanted to bring back the teachings to his home country.
In 1191, Eisai packed up the Zen Buddhist scriptures and the green tea seeds he gathered while leaving in China. When he returned home to Japan, he began replicating the production of powdered green tea he’d learn from the Buddhist monks.
Eisai was a strong believer in the use of tea as an herbal and medicinal tonic. He also regarded the cultivation and consumption of green tea as an important religious and spiritual act. To share and spread this belief, he composed the Kissayōjōki, which was his “Record on Drinking Tea and Nurturing Life.”
Shade of Tencha
Several years later, in 1271, a Zen Buddhist monk named Kohken began to plant tea trees around the Uji region of Japan. There, the Japanese Buddhists began to develop a new way to cultivate potent green tea. They invented a shading device made of a straw roof that was perched over the green tea bushes. This would limit the sunlight able to reach the tea plants, which has recently been shown to be the cause of the preservation of many of the health benefits of matcha.
These shaded tea plant leaves are referred to as “tencha,” which is what matcha powder is typically made from. Today’s matcha is exclusively cultivated from tea leaves that begin in shaded areas, so they will develop and retain more of their vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Luxury of Matcha
In the 12th and 13th centuries, matcha was grown in very limited quantities. It was considered a luxury and regarded a status symbol among the elite.
In fact, matcha green tea was considered a drink for two classes of people: nobility and Buddhist priests. This had a unique impact on society. These two classes were linked through tea, essentially elevating the spiritual leaders to an equal footing with economic and political leaders. This would have a passive, yet profound, impact on Japanese society moving forward.
Japanese Tea Ritual
In the 1500s, Zen Buddhist Murata Juko created a tea ritual based on various practices picked up from different areas of the tea community in Japan. He formularized the cultivation, ceremony, and consumption of green tea to transform it into a spiritual and foundational ritual.
He created four basic principles of the Japanese tea ceremony that still persist today:
- Harmony (wa)
- Respect (kei)
- Purity (sei)
- Tranquility (jaku)
It was Juko’s student, Sen-no Rikyu, who made this ceremony more popular and widespread. He also made the process more approachable and accessible, which has brought us the Japanese tea ceremony we know today. He took the principles of his predecessor and the idea of simplicity and minimalism to create “The Way of the Tea” (Chado or Sado).
Rikyu is still regarded and admired for how he disseminated the usage of green tea and the tea ceremony. He was the personal tea master for the daimyo or leader of the Sengoku period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
His legacy has lived on in the ceremony of the tea—and in the Matcha we indulge in today.
Matcha Goes West
Matcha has become increasingly popular in the last decade, quickly making its way over from Japan to North America. While some of the ceremonies surrounding matcha have been lost to ease and convenience of use, the beauty of its history still remains.
When you’re eating your matcha gummies, sipping on a delicious green smoothie, or enjoying matcha muffins, you may want to take time to consider how this incredible matcha has made its way to your plate or glass. As part of a long-standing meditative tradition, matcha is the perfect way to cleanse your mind, body, and soul while indulging in one of nature’s healthiest boosts of antioxidants and natural energy.
How do you treat yourself to the health and wellness benefits of matcha? Tell us your favorite matcha foods, drinks, and treats in the comments below!