Next to water, tea is undeniably the most popular beverage on earth. A favourite in Asia for over 5,000 years, this ubiquitous product is now encroaching upon consumer markets perpetually dominated by coffee and even soft drinks.

[From guest author Chris O’Brien]

Healthy tea captures new markets

Next to water, tea is undeniably the most popular beverage on earth. A favourite in Asia for over 5,000 years, this ubiquitous product is now encroaching upon consumer markets perpetually dominated by coffee and even soft drinks.

matcha tea 300x136 Has coffee met its “matcha?”

According to the U.S. Tea Association, overall tea sales in the USA have nearly

quadrupled since 1990, much of it driven by increased demand for healthier green and herbal teas. In Canada, consumption of green tea soared 22 per cent in 2005 and, according to the Tea Council of Canada, ballooned by a whopping 60 per cent in less than four years.

Analysts claim North America’s new preoccupation with tea is being led by baby-boomers seeking soothing alternatives to coffee, but also by twenty-somethings drawn to the fireside ambience of trendy new teahouses and specialty shops, many featuring such perky concoctions as green tea lattes, frappes and smoothies.

With what today must be considered fabulous foresight, Brendan Waye, founder of Steeps Tea Inc. in Calgary, opened the city’s first specialty teahouse in 1999. The “tea only” concept, he says, was unheard of at the time. “Today people are tuning in, there’s an overall awareness of tea.”

Waye notes tremendous growth in premium teas like chai, rooibos, and matcha. Of these it is matcha, first concocted by Zen monks in Japan nearly 800 years ago, that is capturing the hearts and minds of health conscious consumers.

Antioxidant Analysis

Matcha tea is widely recognized as one of the richest sources of natural antioxidants on earth. Antioxidants are food compounds that help neutralize chronic and age-related diseases.

As a category, green tea contains large amounts of the antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) considered by researchers as the key to its health promoting properties.

Powdered matcha tea practically overflows with the stuff. Lab analysis shows the concentration of this multi-purpose antioxidant a whopping 137 times higher in matcha than in regular steeped green tea.

Collectively, the antioxidant power of matcha tea is reportedly 100 times greater than Vitamin C and 70 times greater than orange juice. Matcha also contains nearly 10 times more beta-carotene than spinach.

The contemporary appreciation of matcha’s “miracle” properties began in 1949 when Japanese scientists first discovered green tea beverages uniquely contain huge amounts of the amino acid L-theanine.

Subsequent research by Dr. Jack Bukowski of the Nutritional Science Research Institute in Maryland determined L-theanine in green tea yields huge quantities of a T-cell activator which not only helps kill cancer cells but also speeds the elimination of viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause colds, flu, pneumonia, diarrhea, and the plaque that forms around teeth and gums.

“Matcha tea is one of the healthiest natural beverages ever produced,” says Vancouver based tea specialist Calli O’Brien. “One cup of a good quality matcha is equivalent to 8-10 cups of regular green tea. Studies show we should drink at least five cups of green tea every day. Why not just one cup of matcha instead?”

Caffeine wary tea drinkers can relax, literally.

Matcha caffeine, theine, is absorbed slowly thereby mitigating the rush of caffeine jitters. Matcha also produces the unique calming affects of concentrated L-theanine — proven to elevate the production of dopamine and the “happiness molecule” serotonin in the brain — as well as the natural muscle relaxant theophylline.

In combination these matcha compounds produce a relaxed awareness unlike any other beverage. It was this dichotomous blend of alert relaxation and sustainable energy that so captivated matcha’s 13th century proponents.

Ancient Harvest

Unlike most teas today, traditional Japanese matcha is still grown and harvested much as it was hundreds of years ago.

In the scenic rolling mountains of Uji near Kyoto, tea plants are shaded beneath wooden scaffolds draped with bamboo mats and rice straw prior to harvest. Deprived of sunlight, emerging new leaves infuse themselves with a high concentration of healthy chlorophyll.

Extreme chlorophyll is one of the two incontestable differences between authentic Japanese matcha and basic green tea. The other is the way it is processed. From crop to cup, traditional matcha producers obsess over freshness, without which their precious product would simply degenerate into the oxidized impotence of common tea.

The youngest, emerald green matcha leaves near the tip of the tea plant are handpicked, lightly steamed to prevent oxidation, and air-dried. These so-called “tencha” leaves are then placed in vacuum-sealed packages, and stored at controlled temperatures slightly above freezing.

When buyers call, the leaves are cleansed of stems and veins then slowly stone-ground into an ultra-fine, bright green powder.

Prepared at home, matcha tea is mixed with hot water and whisked to a frothy blend. Aware of its ceremonial Zen heritage, purists often bestow a spiritual significance to this preparatory ritual.

Rather than simply steeped and discarded, the entire matcha tealeaf is ingested, producing an extremely high health promoting potency. The best and sweetest matcha comes from the tea crop’s spring harvest.

Today, authentic Japanese matcha is generally more expensive. It also demonstrates a relatively short shelf life, though the best brands are packaged to retain freshness for up to a full year.

By contrast, matcha crops mass-produced in China and Korea are typically more resilient and less expensive. Many, however, are sprayed with chemical herbicides and pesticides, “exploded” off the stem, and heat processed.

The result is a readily available, though notably lower quality, matcha tea. Most matcha sold in North America today is a blend of these less potent varietals.

New Niche

The good news for health conscious consumers is that increasing demand for green tea means retailers are now finding lucrative new niches in high-end matcha products.

Whole Foods Markets, a popular U.S. retailer of natural and organic foods, recently added premium DōMatcha brand to its shelves in 22 states and 9 Canadian provinces.

“DōMatcha makes a marvelous blended smoothie!” says Dave Chavez, Whole Foods’ regional tea buyer in Northern California. “Our sales exploded when we started sampling out cold matcha smoothies in the summer.”

“I’ve tasted a lot of matcha teas in the last two years, and I can say with confidence that DōMatcha has the best flavour and consistency of any I’ve tried.”

Whether or not green tea ever replaces coffee in the “cuppa joe” hearts of North American consumers, specialty products like Japanese matcha are definitely gaining ground.

For a product that’s been around for 800 years, it’s probably about time.

Chris O’Brien

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