matcha - the machine behind the curtain

A story of the little slab of rock that could.

If there is one tea craze that has people talking, it's matcha. But what is it? Where does it come from? How does one make it? Is it as healthy as some claim? And why the steep cost?

Matcha (抹茶), or powdered tea, is made from shaded green tea leaves that have been ground down into a fine powder. For the best results you're likely to procure your matcha from Japan. Although China currently does manufacture quite a bit. The Japanese terrain, weather, and especially the cultivars used (which is responsible in-part for the taste of the matcha) have all been taken into consideration and perfected. All matcha is green tea, but not all green tea can become a matcha.

Now shaded is key. The short story: powdered tea is not matcha unless the leaves were shaded. What if they weren't shaded? Then you have funmatsucha. My Japanese Green Tea wrote a great article about it on his site. 

Today I want to explore the actual machine used to grind tencha (the name for shaded green tea leaves that have been de-veined and dried) into matcha.

Ah! Here it is! A Matcha Stone Mill in all her glory.

Now this is only a small grinder, but it does the job. Those in factories are much larger.

Now this is only a small grinder, but it does the job. Those in factories are much larger.

It's a combination of the grooves and the weight that allows for the the powdering process. As the tencha moves down the hole and into the grooves, the weight of the granite rock (~25lbs) crushes the leaves. They are then scraped and twisted around between the two slabs, eventually making their way out to the edge of the stone's circumference where they fall to the wayside, ready to be whisked into a frothy drink.

Notice the pattern of the cuts and how fine the matcha is. It's very similar to baby powder.

Notice the pattern of the cuts and how fine the matcha is. It's very similar to baby powder.

This process, when done manually, takes a long time. Over the course of 40 minutes I averaged 0.75g of matcha per minute of grinding. In the end, after grinding 30g worth of tencha, I was left with 24g of Matcha. Spillage, leaves bouncing around, dust scattering into the wind, and powder getting left in the grooves amounted to a loss of 20%. You can start to understand now, why the cost of Matcha can be very high.

Of course large factories are better at quality control, being in a tightly monitored facility serves to improve this. However, the fine green powder still flies away. This is why if you ever visit a matcha grinding facility in Japan, you will be asked to wear protective gloves, goggles, face mask, and suit. Unbeknownst to me at the time, such fine powder is also subject to ignition given the right conditions. The safety precautions are strict, nobody wants to be breathing in the stuff. It'll wreck havoc on your lungs. Best to keep it in your bowl.

A matcha mill in Wazuka, Kyoto. Found in the local tea store, you can grind your own leaves.

A matcha mill in Wazuka, Kyoto. Found in the local tea store, you can grind your own leaves.

What I have shown you here is a typical manual mill. You'll find these throughout Japan in tea shops and for a price you can grind your own tea. The town of Uji also has a plethora of tea houses with these machines milling away. Automatic and mechanical operations are now the norm however. Much larger grinders are used, though the output is still minimal at best. Sure you can opt to grind your matcha with ball bearings in a huge metal tube (as is the case for large scale production) but the friction increases and the flavour is prone to burn away. You may not have aching arms, but your quality is impaired. Great taste comes at a cost. And for matcha, that cost is time. If you want to know more detail about these manual mills, click here for one of our detailed videos showcasing our very own matcha stone grinder.

What I'm trying to get at is there are reasons why good, quality matcha is expensive. The shading, processing, and grinding all take their toll. It's a difficult process, but in the end it is very much worth the effort for a tea that is so unique in taste. As for being healthy, there is something to be said for consuming the entire leaf where you ingest all the fiber, nutrients, and vitamins present in the leaf. Just be aware that the caffeine is sure to pack a punch.