What is the Difference Between Matcha and Green Tea in Japan?

by Nicola Spendlove
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Even if coffee is your usual poison, chances are when travelling in Japan you’ll become a green tea convert. The refreshing hot drink is consumed after meals, when socialising, as part of tea ceremonies – the list goes on. You can’t dodge green tea in Japan, nor will you want to – once you get used to its acquired earthy taste you’ll be hooked on the refreshing after-effects. Plus, the health benefits of consumption are many.

One thing that can be confusing is the terms “matcha” and “green tea” are often used interchangeably. While both are derived from the same plant sources, there are a number of differences between the two drinks – in both taste and nutritional content. What they have in common is both are delicious, and both are widely consumed in Japan – you’ll no doubt have many occasions to enjoy both delicacies on a Japanese trip.

Let’s pick apart the small but important differences between matcha and green tea, so that you can order your beverage of choice with confidence!

Camellia Sinensis

Camellia Sinensis is also known as the tea plant – because this is where virtually all teas we consume come from. Black teas and oolong teas are derived from withered and oxidated leaves and buds, whereas green teas and matcha are created while the plant is still green.

Legend has it that the tea plant was first discovered by a Chinese emperor when a Camellia Sinensis leaf accidentally fell into his cup of boiling water, brewing an unexpectedly delicious drink. Whether this story is strictly true or not, we do know that tea originated in China and soon spread worldwide. Camellia Sinensis does well in tropical and subtropical climates, such as Japan.

There are two main varieties of the tea plant – Camellia Sinensis Sinensis (known informally as “Chinese tea plant”, and grown in China and Japan), and Camellia Sinensis Assamica (known informally as “Indian tea plant”, and grown in India and Sri Lanka). Both the green tea and matcha you consume in Japan come from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis Sinensis.

Green Tea Production and Consumption

The term “green tea” refers to a family of teas, rather than a particular variety. There are a number of different types of green tea available in Japan.

To make green teas, the top two leaves or buds of Camellia Sinensis Sinensis are plucked and dried. These plants will have been grown in direct sunlight. The leaves are then steamed (the amount of time they are steamed for depends on what variety of tea is being produced) and shaped. Additional ingredients may be added to enhance flavour – such as jasmine or lemon.

The tea is either sold as free leaves, or packaged in tea bags. The tea is stewed in hot water to release the flavours, aromas and water-soluble vitamins – the leaves themselves are not consumed.

Matcha Production and Consumption

Matcha is a powder made by grinding a particular variety of green tea leaf, known as tencha. These plants will have been grown in shaded conditions. The production process of matcha is extremely slow – it can take a full hour to grind just 40 grams of matcha! For this reason, matcha is generally one of the more expensive tea varieties. Matcha has come very much into vogue in Western countries in recent times (it’s not new by the way – China and Japan have been drinking this stuff for over 800 years!) and as such there are a lot of cheap knock-offs on the market. If you see a suspiciously cheap matcha powder on a shelf, be aware that it’s probably too good to be true.

Because all the tea leaf is ground into an extremely fine powder and then consumed as part of a hot drink (similar to powdered instant coffee), it is nutritionally superior to the average green tea. You are consuming the leaf itself and all of its associated benefits, as opposed to taking in the flavour of the leaf and its water soluble vitamins and minerals.

Matcha is not just used as a tea drink – renowned as a “superfood” of sorts, powdered matcha is often used in food production as an ingredient for main dishes (think matcha curry) or healthy desserts (matcha cake, anyone?). The powder is also used as part of more elaborate hot drinks – health nuts worldwide can be seen carrying fancy matcha lattes whipped up by major coffee chains. Matcha’s high levels of antioxidants have also seen it being used as an ingredient in high-end skincare products designed to reduce inflammation and even out skin tone.

Beware – because you are consuming the leaf in its entirety, matcha packs a much higher caffeine kick than your average cup of tea. Fantastic if you’re starting off your day with an energising dose of matcha, less great if you thought you were choosing a healthy drink option before bedtime.

Differences in Colour

Green tea leaves and matcha are visually very different, firstly because matcha is a powder form. Despite coming from the same plant, matcha tends to be a much more vivid green colour than green tea leaves. This is because in matcha you are seeing the ground results of the leaf in its entirety (releasing chlorophyll), whereas in green tea you are seeing cut portions of the dried leaf. They are also grown in different conditions, as explained above.

The vibrant green of matcha makes it an excellent food colouring – and let’s be honest, is part of why a matcha latte is such a trendy drink to be seen with.

Differences in Texture

When you are drinking a green tea made from leaves, it is the consistency of water. Matcha powder thickens the water somewhat, and there is a slight grainy sensation to the drink. Matcha comes in two separate textures – usucha (thin) and koicha (thick). Usucha is the most popular by far, and if you’ve tried matcha tea in a Western country you can safely assume that it was usucha. Koicha is generally only served at tea ceremonies and has a thickness similar to paint.

Differences in Taste

As you might have guessed from the way it’s made, matcha is a much stronger tasting drink than traditional green tea. However, both come from the same plant, and as such the undertone of the flavour has that same initial sweetness and distinctive earthy aftertaste. They don’t taste at all similar to black teas, which are the varieties many foreigners are familiar with – and may take a little bit of getting used to. Once you do acclimatize yourself though, you’ll never go back!

Differences in Serving

In Japan, matcha is generally served in a bowl, along with a tiny whisk to allow the powder to fully mix in with the liquid. Traditional matcha tea sets also have a bowl for the powder, a small spoon to transfer the powder to the drinking bowl, and a plate on which to lay the whisk while you drink. Matcha tea is typically consumed quickly after preparation, in order to limit the gathering of powder residue at the bottom of the cup. Matcha tea can be served formally in tea ceremonies (usually in koicha form) but is commonly drank casually at home.

Green tea is generally poured from a tea pot (with strainer and clay filter) directly into a small cup.

So there you have it, the main differences between green tea and matcha in Japan. As always, I recommend that you try both – as often as possible on your trip. How else will you be able to tell folks at home which you prefer?

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