Next to water, tea is and has always been the most popular beverage on the planet. 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.

Tea Trends in the 21st Century

Market studies show tea sales in this part of the world have skyrocketed since the turn of the 21st century, much of it driven by increased demand for healthier green teas. In 2016, Americans consumed almost 84 billion servings of tea. Amazingly, green tea including matcha was the second most popular tea in America behind only black tea.

Overall, the USA is the third largest importer of tea in the world. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., four of five American consumers drink tea regularly including 87% of millennials (born 1981-1997). In recent years, the U.S. tea market has expanded rapidly; an unprecedented quintupling of the total value from $2 billion to $10 billion from 1990 to 2014.

In Canada, consumption of green tea alone soared 22 percent in 2005 and, according to the Tea Council of Canada, ballooned by a whopping 60 percent in less than four years.

Analysts claim North America’s growing preoccupation with tea, in general, is being led by baby boomers seeking soothing alternatives to coffee, but also by twenty-somethings drawn to the fireside ambience of trendy new tea houses 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 tea house back 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, he says, it’s matcha – first concocted by Zen monks in Japan nearly 800 years ago – that is capturing the hearts and minds of health-conscious consumers.

Matcha Health

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 in matcha far surpasses that 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 large quantities of a T-cell activator that 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 we have,” says Vancouver-based matcha 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 (5) cups of green tea every day. Why not just one cup of matcha instead?”

Matcha vs Coffee

Unlike coffee, the caffeine found in matcha is absorbed slowly thereby mitigating the rush of caffeine jitters that coffee drinkers know so well. 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 noticeably relaxed sense of awareness, unlike any other beverage including coffee. It was this blend of alert relaxation and sustainable energy that captivated matcha’s earliest proponents. It’s also what prompts modern consumers and scientists alike to compare: matcha vs coffee.

Japanese Matcha

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 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 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 on this preparatory ritual.

Rather than simply steeped and discarded, the entire matcha tea leaf is ingested, producing an extremely high health-promoting potency. The best and sweetest matcha comes from the tea crop’s spring harvest. The best matcha brands, packed in air-tight containers, can retain their shelf-life freshness for up to two (2) years, just like their matcha vs coffee counterparts.

Buyer Beware: There are Dangers

Today, authentic Japanese matcha is generally more expensive, but possibly for a good reason. Matcha tea grown in places like China and Korea is often subject to poorly enforced quality control and consumer safety standards. Many of these crops are actually grown in lead-polluted soil: China, for example, didn’t outlaw leaded gasoline until the year 2000.

These same crops are often sprayed with chemicals, “exploded” from their stems and heat processed. Not surprisingly, the result is a low quality, or even unsafe, matcha tea product. Sadly, much of the matcha sold in North America today is, in fact, a blend of these low-grade varietals.

The good news for consumers is that increasing demand for green tea means retailers are now finding lucrative new niches in high-end matcha products. From the largest chains to corner stores and cozy tea shops, retailers everywhere are taking advantage of matcha’s new consumer popularity.

“New matcha markets are opening faster today than ever before,” says O’Brien. “People are actually looking for healthier products, it’s a good sign.”

Whether or not matcha tea ever replaces “a cuppa joe” in the matcha vs coffee marketing melee, specialty items like Japanese matcha are definitely gaining ground. For a product that’s been around for nearly a millennium, it’s probably about time.

Article by Guest Contributor – Chris O’Brien