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How Matcha Went From Ancient Ceremonial Tea to Health Drink Du Jour

Green matcha tea
Green matcha tea is loaded with beneficial antioxidants — and caffeine. Andrew T. White/Getty Images

If it seems like matcha green tea is everywhere, that's because it is. The powdered green tea is the cool kid in the tea aisle, lauded for everything from its shamrock color and herbal flavor to a dazzling spectrum of health benefits.

Drinking matcha became popular with 11th century Zen Buddhist monks trying to stay awake for all-night prayers. Then the samurai started sipping it before battle. World-class matcha grows in Uji, Japan, near Kyoto, so matcha is that city's unofficial flavor. You'll find it in the serene traditional tea service at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and in the green tea Kit Kats at the train station.

Matcha is ubiquitous in the U.S. too. Hipster Brooklyn pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds is whipping Japanese Ippodo matcha into a $42 verdant custard pie. And even Dunkin' Donuts now serves hot and cold matcha lattes.

So how did Americans come to embrace this ancient green tea? And is it truly a wonder drink that can help us think more clearly, lose weight and fight off cancer?

The matcha craze started simmering in 2015, and we have actress, wellness influencer and goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow to thank. It really exploded in the U.S. when Paltrow posted a picture on her Instagram, says Anna Kavaliunas, a health coach and co-author of "Matcha: A Lifestyle Guide". Paltrow called her Chalait matcha latte a "dreamy new discovery."

The post sparked 21,000 likes — and a lot of curiosity. The Kermit the Frog color made it "so Instagrammable," says Kavaliunas. "It was the peak of the wellness craze with powders and tonics and meditation. All this stuff was booming."

Soon, lots of people were trying matcha. Some were just being trendy. But others, who can't tolerate coffee's taste or caffeine jolt, tried matcha and liked it.

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What Is Matcha?

All tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant, which was first cultivated for tea in China around 2737 B.C.E. Zen Buddhist monks there developed a preference for powdered tea, and followers took the practice to Japan. In Japanese, mat means "powdered" and cha means "tea."

The finest matcha starts with gyokuro, the young leaves that come from shade-grown tea bushes, says James Norwood Pratt, a tea expert and author based in San Francisco.

"Deprived of sunlight, the plant has to struggle to make chlorophyll. So it produces much more chlorophyll than it would otherwise," Pratt says. "It also develops a sweeter and milder taste."

The dark green leaves are plucked, steamed and carefully dried. Then they're chopped and stored. The veins in the leaves are removed before they are ground, so the matcha is delicate, like jade-green talcum.

The highest quality matcha, called ceremonial grade, once was reserved for royalty. Villages sent matcha cakes to the emperor as a tribute. Most modern Japanese only saw it during the Zen-inspired ritual tea ceremony known as the chado.

Rona Tison, who grew up in Japan, was sent to study chado as a teenager. Girls learn how to whisk matcha until it has a perfect foam, along with etiquette and flower arranging, says Tison, who is now executive vice president of corporate relations with Ito En, the largest green tea distributor in Japan.

"I was very moved by the ritual ... and, of course, the matcha and so much attention and thought surrounding this beautiful, bright bowl," she says. Tison is an international tea authority and educator who has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, the James Beard Foundation and international tea festivals.

The Tea Association of the USA insists that matcha labeled ceremonial must be grown in Japan. But there's no international authority regulating the use of the term "matcha," so any powdered tea grown anywhere in the world can be called matcha.

Everyday matcha is called culinary grade. Like it sounds, it's used for cooking, so that's likely what's used in the tapioca Uji matcha milk served at Tokyo's Doutor (coffee) shops and the famous gion matcha fondue you'll find in Kyoto. Culinary matcha is less expensive, and it's lighter green.

"There's faux matcha out there," Tison says. Matcha is perishable, so she recommends only buying a small amount from a reputable seller, and storing it in a cool, airtight container.

matcha tea powder
The dark green leaves of the tea are dried, chopped and ground into a fine powder — almost like jade-green talcum.
Lorenzo Antonucci/Getty Images/Image Source

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Does Matcha Have Health Benefits?

Like all green tea, matcha is loaded with beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols. But since you're drinking the ground-up tea leaves, matcha has more — more caffeine, and many times more active compounds including L-theanine and EGCG, short for epigallocatechin gallate, which are both good for brain health. Studies supporting green tea's health benefits abound.

Regularly drinking green tea can reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other causes, cut inflammation and slay viruses. Green tea can lower the risk of liver disease. Two separate studies show drinking five cups or more than seven cups of green tea daily can lower the risk of prostate cancer. And in men who do get prostate cancer, green tea can slow the disease.

If you feel like you're in the zone after a cup of matcha, that's not your imagination. A 2017 review of 21 green tea studies found that green tea is good for the brain: it reduced anxiety, improved ability to pay attention and stimulated memory. The combo of L-theanine and caffeine helps the brain easily switch tasks, and green tea leaves you alert yet relaxed. "Tea is the only substance found in nature that we know of that both stimulates and calms or soothes the human nervous system. It does both at the same time," Pratt says.

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How Does Matcha Taste?

The flavor of matcha is hard to define. "It's like wine. Every matcha you taste is going to have a different profile," says Kavaliunas. Common descriptors are "sweet-smelling summer grass, good bitterness, vibrant and floral," she says.

The enigma is part of matcha's essence. The Zen ritual way to drink a bowl of matcha is in three slurps, says Pratt. Turning the bowl up to capture the last sip, you can't see anything else. Instead of thinking, you become one with the tea.

"Matcha should be indefinable," says Pratt. "The taste is bitter, but that's not the thing you notice. The bitterness is part of a great beauty."

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