It depends not only on the processing method the tea producers use, but also on the cultivation practices the tea growers use. What time of year is the tea plucked? How is the plant pruned? What parts of the plant are plucked? Are the plants treated with chemicals or are they organically grown? What kind of heat is applied to the tea leaves to stop oxidation? How are the tea leaves shaped, rolled and dried? Are the leaves left whole or cut in smaller pieces?
Matcha comes in several grades that aren’t officially regulated, but the most important distinction is between ceremonial and culinary grade matcha. Ceremonial grade is made from the youngest, most tender tea leaves and is smooth and fine in texture. Use it when you’re planning to drink pure, unadulterated matcha or a top-notch latte. Culinary matcha is a less expensive and made from comparatively older leaves. It is best for baking, cooking, or making blended drinks where the matcha flavor is not imperative. (“Premium” or “select” matcha is somewhere in between the two major grades, and you can find organic versions of matcha in each category.)
Unlike traditional green tea, matcha preparation involves covering the tea plants with shade cloths before they’re harvested. This triggers the growth of leaves with better flavor and texture, which are hand selected, steamed briefly to stop fermentation, then dried and aged in cold storage, which deepens the flavor. The dried leaves are then stone-ground into a fine powder.
Steamed: Like most Japanese teas, the tea leaves destined for matcha are first steamed. The leaves are treated briefly with steam heat within hours of plucking to both halt the oxidation process and bring out the rich green color of the shade-grown tea leaves even more. The steaming process creates a unique flavor profile that is often described as sweet and vegetal.
Green tea has many health benefits. “It contains many nutrients, including antioxidants and anti-cancer and brain-healthy compounds,” Smith reminds us. One thing is for sure: regardless of whether or not you’ll shed pounds with green tea, drink it anyway. “All teas contain many healthful nutrients; it’s one of the healthier choices for a beverage!” Smith says.
To make red tea, combine 1 to 2 teaspoons of red tea leaves per cup of hot water, recommends the South African Rooibos Council. Steep the tea for 2 minutes or more, depending on how concentrated you want the flavor. To make iced red tea, use twice the amount of dry tea per cup of hot water and pour it over ice. Mix red tea with vanilla, fruit juice or other herbs for different flavor combinations.
Indigenous to the Western Cape of South Africa, rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) is a shrub with long, needle-shaped leaves that turn red upon fermentation. When you drive through the countryside north of Cape Town, you see rooibos everywhere. Rooibos is a traditional beverage of the native Khoi people of the Cape area, though it has become more popular in recent years due to word spreading about its high antioxidant value. Traditionally, the native people harvest the leaves, bruise them with hammers, ferment them and dry them. The result is a red, astringent tea that refreshes and does not cause jitters.
It’s become such a fashionable beverage that, last summer, the New York Post ran a story about how Victoria’s Secret models were flocking to Cha Cha Matcha, a hipster spot fluent in the preparation of various matcha-based miracle potions. A search for where to get “matcha” in New York, New York on Yelp yielded some 1400 plus results. Even mass market coffee purveyors like Starbucks have made matcha their mantra, with a vast range of offerings to cash in on the craze.