As an antidote to morning drowsiness and afternoon doldrums, coffee has long been king in America. Over half of all Americans drink coffee daily, turning to the ebony brew for a reliable caffeine punch that's anything but subtle. This stimulant jolt may help keep the American workforce productive and alert, but undoubtedly it has turned us into a nation with the jitters.
The New Java
On the heels of our collective caffeine burnout has come a new trend from an ancient source: matcha. This powdered form of delicate green tea leaves has been a part of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies for centuries. Now, matcha's made its way into the café culture of North America, showing up in lattes in hip tea lounges and even on the menu of the ubiquitous coffee emporium Starbucks.
How did a beverage first introduced by Zen Buddhist monks to Japan in the 1200s make its way onto the same marquee as Americans' caffeine jolt of choice? Chalk it up to the jitters. American aficionados of matcha have discovered what the Zen masters have known for nearly 1,000 years: that the jade-colored infusion delivers sustained energy without coffee-induced jumpiness or the notorious crash that typically follows.
A Relaxing Stimulant
Matcha is a singular beverage in that it is both a stimulant and a relaxant. While it does contain caffeine, it is a different type of caffeine than that found in coffee. Coffee's caffeine zooms immediately into the bloodstream, but the caffeine in matcha—called theophylline—releases in small amounts over a number of hours, so energy and concentration are continuously increased with no jittery side effects or sudden drop into lethargy. At the same time, matcha contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has relaxing effects on the brain, muscles, and blood vessels. This combination of alertness from theophylline and calmness from L-theanine is what has made matcha so treasured as a partner in meditation in Japan's Zen monasteries and what's driving its growing popularity among health-conscious and coffee-weary North Americans.
What makes matcha different from standard green tea is that it's made from finely ground whole leaves whisked together with water, so you consume the whole leaf rather than just brewed water passed over a tea bag. For this reason, matcha has a higher concentration of nutrients and antioxidants than its much-celebrated green tea cousin. Research has shown that Japanese matcha has 137 times more EGCG—a cancer-fighting antioxidant—than American green tea. It is higher in anti-aging antioxidants than nutritional powerhouses like blueberries and spinach and has four times the beta carotene of carrots. Sourced from carefully cultivated dark green tea leaves, matcha is also rich in chlorophyll, which is believed to detoxify the blood of heavy metals and chemical toxins.
While matcha is clearly a healing elixir for the body, it's also a salve for the mind. Aside from its calming amino acids, just the act of preparing matcha is a ritual that inspires repose. In traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, the finely ground green tea leaves are carefully measured with a chashaku (bamboo spoon), then frothed with hot water by a chasen (bamboo whisk) in achawan (ceramic tea bowl). Typically, this detailed preparation is performed in a serene setting that references nature—quite a contrast to the instant, gulp-it-down-in-the-car coffee culture of America!
Because matcha is grown only in Japan, and because it is so labor intensive to cultivate and then steam, dry, and grind the leaves, prices for matcha have historically been high. As manufacturing processes have changed, premium matcha is now available at lower prices, making it accessible and affordable overseas. Matcha's taste may seem bitter and vegetal to the uninitiated; it's often subdued for Western palates in sweet, milky lattes and the like. But because of its unique flavor profile and health benefits, it's now popping up in everything from smoothies and cakes to energy bars. As matcha continues to win over new devotees, we have to ask: has coffee finally met its match?