Tea leaves were first steamed and formed into tea bricks for storage and trade in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The tea would be prepared by roasting and then pulverizing it. The resulting tea powder was then prepared in hot water with added salt.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), production methods changed and the making of powdered tea from steam-prepared dried tea leaves became the preferred method. In order to preserve color and freshness, tea leaves were steamed first then dried and ground into a fine powder called ‘tea mud’. The tea mud was then placed in molds where it was pressed and left to harden at which point it was dried in the sun and then baked. This method of production made it easier to store and transport the tea. It was also at this time that preparing the tea by whipping the powder together with hot water in a bowl became popular.
Tea was first introduced to Japan by priests and envoys sent to China to learn about its culture in the early 9th century. Although powdered tea was slowly forgotten in China, in Japan it continued to form an important part of rituals in Zen monasteries. The priests brought seeds back with them and started growing tea plants in Japan. Soon the Japanese Zen priests began their own tradition of cultivating, processing and preparing powdered green tea. These were the very early beginnings of would be known today as matcha.
In the 12th century, the Zen priest Eisai was highly influential to the development of Japanese tea culture. The oldest tea specialty book in Japan, Kissa Yōjōki (“How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea”) was written by Eisai. The first sentence states, “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete”.
Eisai was also instrumental in introducing tea consumption to the Samurai class. Eisai learned that the Shogun had a habit of drinking too much every night and so he presented the book he had written to the general, lauding the health benefits of tea drinking. The custom of tea drinking soon became popular not only among the warrior class, but it was also a staple among all cultured people in Japan. It was a drink for the nobility and the Buddhist priesthood alike.
Later, in the 16th century another Zen-master, Sen-no-Rikyu, further shaped the culture of tea in Japan and is considered one of the key figures in the development of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Many of the aspects of the ceremony that he placed emphasis on persist today, such as, rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. He is also associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in the tea ceremony.
As the tea ceremony became more desirable an art form, matcha continued to become more popular among the powerful classes in Japan and for centuries, matcha remained the secret tea of Japan’s elite. It was extremely valuable with only a handful of merchants approved to process and create it. By contrast, the general population could only drink what was called, Bancha, which has a browner color than the bright green of matcha and a much more bitter tasteIn the mid 18th century, however, the uji green tea processing method was invented. This method, still in practice today, revolutionized the production of matcha and allowed for a much more efficient process, which finally brought this highly revered tea to the people. Along with this development, tea plantation owners in Japan continued to perfect the process for developing and maximizing the most potent and therapeutically beneficial matcha.
Today, matcha is not only a highly treasured specialty green tea but also frequently used in Japanese cooking and baking as well as in health foods and western style drinks such as matcha lattes and smoothies.