What is the difference between green tea and matcha?

Matcha is a type of green tea. Both come from the same plant, “camilla sinesis”, but matcha is a specific type of green tea. Because of how it is produced, it has quite different characteristics from other types of green tea such as “sencha” or “genmaicha”. Here are some of those differences.

1. Differences in the manufacturing process

One key difference between green tea and matcha is that for matcha production, tea plants are grown in the shade for 3-4 weeks prior to harvest. There is no shading process for regular green tea. Shading completely alters the chemical composition of matcha as each tea plant has to produce more chlorophyll in order to generate enough nutrients to survive while deprived of sunlight. As a result, shaded tea leaves are full of antioxidants and amino acids.

After the tea plants are harvested, the tea leaves that will be made into matcha are cut into tiny pieces after processing. The tiny pieces are then ground into powder. In contrast, most Japanese green tea leaves are rolled into thin needle-like shapes.

This is where things get slightly confusing. The defining trait of matcha is that it is grown under shade before harvest, not that it is in powder form. If you have visited a casual Japanese restaurant, you may have seen the servers prepare hot green tea by dissolving some green powder with hot water. You may even have done this yourself at a conveyor sushi restaurant. This is not matcha – it is powdered green tea.

They may look similar, but will taste very different. Due to the shading process, matcha usually tastes much sweeter and less bitter. Powdered green tea is spray dried green tea or ground sencha leaves that dissolve in water.

2. Matcha and green tea have different nutritional profiles

We mentioned above that a key difference between green tea and matcha is the shading process in the final weeks before the harvest. But this has an even bigger impact on the nutritional composition and taste.

The shading process of matcha gives it a much higher antioxidant content than regular green tea. It also increases the presence of L-theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid that “accelerates” the healthy properties of matcha. It works with caffeine naturally present in tea to enhance focus, cognitive function and energy levels.

Even though a cup of tea and matcha may have similar levels of caffeine, L-theanine acts slowly in releasing the caffeine over a period of time. This gives you a longer lasting energy boost. Because L- theanine also has its own calming properties, what you get is a measured, gentle lift without a corresponding crash. This is much unlike regular tea and even coffee. It goes without saying that this also makes matcha a lot better than drinking sugary energy drinks (like Red Bull or Dr. Pepper, for example).

Now, all of these compounds are also present in regular green tea. However, unlike regular green tea, the antioxidants and energy boost you get from matcha is magnified because matcha is made from grinding the entire tea leaf. When you drink matcha, you ingest the whole leaf instead of just drinking a beverage steeped in tea leaves. Matcha has easily 3-5 times the concentration of antioxidants than regular green tea.

3. Different methods of preparation – matcha vs sencha

Sencha green tea is an infusion made from steeping sencha tea leaves in hot water, but matcha is a suspension of water and matcha powder that is agitated using a whisk or similar tool. Matcha powder does not dissolve.

As it is a suspension, the powder will usually sink to the bottom of the bowl if not drunk quickly. This is also why matcha is usually served in small bowls or cups.

In terms of texture, matcha will be thicker than regular green tea and will have a brighter, earthier taste. This concentrated taste allows it to be combined with fat and sugar to make lattes, ice creams and baked goods. When people refer to green tea flavored cookies or cakes, it’s usually matcha. Using actual green tea leaves is very challenging as the flavors are far too mild.

4. Price difference between green tea and matcha

Perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between matcha and green tea is price. Gram for gram, matcha is significantly more expensive than regular green tea. This is because the shading process takes much more time and effort to perform, resulting in higher costs. Some plots of land are also grown specifically for matcha, with only one harvest conducted per year. Consumers in Japan accepted these higher costs because Japanese matcha is usually only reserved for special occasions. 

Unless it is used for culinary needs or as an ingredient, it is not unusual to see a small tin of matcha going for $30 to $40 even in Japan. When used as a flavor or ingredient, the costs rapidly go down – but this is matcha that you probably would not want to drink if mixed with water only.

Closing thoughts

The key takeaway from this article is that matcha and green tea are different because matcha tea plants are grown under the shade for a period of time but regular green tea plants are not. This is the crucial distinction because it leads to all the knock-on effects like better energy boost, more antioxidants and sweeter taste.

Next in this series

Matcha Health Benefits

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