How to whip matcha
“Making the tea is the least of it”
Mette Marie Kjær, owner of Sing Tehus, decided 6 years ago that it was time to live out a dream of living in the country. She googled ‘rent a house in the country’ and stumbled upon Gjorslev Manor near Stevns – built in 1396 by Bishop of Roskilde Peder Jensen Lodehat. Here she has moved into the south wing with her boyfriend, three cats and a creative mix of antiques, Japanese minimalism, and a lot of color, ceramics and art. Sunday Edit went for a tea ceremony at the manor to learn how to whip up a foaming, creamy matcha.
Learn what we learned in the interview below.
How did you become interested in tea ceremonies?
Before I started working with tea, I was an artist and worked in photography and film. About 16 years ago, I had a skiing accident which meant that I was confined to bed for a few months. One of my friends came by with tea to cheer me up and told me a bit about tea ceremonies. I found this fascinating and started to read more about it and discovered the tea space – particularly the Japanese tea house.
The tea house is a place where you cultivate the soul and spirit – both on an individual level and with others. It is a free space – although you have to follow a set of rules which are: do not bring trivial everyday problems into the teahouse and keep your mind open so that you can take in the emotions and spiritual experiences that come to you. The entrance to the tea room is a small opening where you crawl in. This way of arriving to the space is of great symbolic significance, as one enters there with a certain humility and prepares you to be brought into a higher mental state. It is all about making a cup of tea and about sharing. Making the tea is the least of it. It’s the whole process that’s associated with a tea-making ritual.
I just think it made so much sense, and I knew that this was something I would be working with for many years. Understanding the complexity and depth of Japanese culture will take me the rest of my life – the more I dive down into it, the bigger it becomes.
The Japanese tea ceremony is in a way very aesthetic and sophisticated, but also simple. Everything looks as it did when this ceremony and culture were developed 300 years ago. It is identical, and it makes me feel connected both to the past and the present. Although I have been doing this for 15 years now, I forget everything around me. I’ve taken the liberty of producing my own version inspired by everything I’ve learned. In Japan, they would say that there’s only one version that you have to have studied for many years in order to be able to perform it. I’m very humble about this, and it can still make me a little nervous, but all I want to do is to share it.
Why is it that Japan is world champion when it comes to green tea and matcha?
I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily world champions when it comes to green tea. In India and China, they also make fantastic tea, but when it comes to matcha, yes.
In Japan they were inspired by a type of matcha that they encountered in China 500 years ago when the monks were traveling around China on a Zen Buddhist mission. They found a type of powdered tea that they brought back to Japan. They wanted to take the tea home – because they knew it was very healthy and because they could feel its effects. It’s refreshing and calming, but also enhances concentration which was particularly useful to the monks during their hour-long meditations.
Over many years, the Japanese have refined matcha to the point where no one is able to copy them. They cover the tea bushes with bamboo mats so that the plants are not exposed to direct sunlight which results in a very high content of amino acids – the element in the tea that produces the relaxing effect and has a direct impact on the nervous system. When the leaves are hand-picked, they need to be refrigerated within 20 minutes of picking in order to retain the nutrients in the leaves as well as possible. This is a super-tight deadline, and there is really a great deal of work involved in the whole process.
Is it true that different teas have different properties? That you have to choose different types based on the effect you are looking for?
That’s the Chinese way of viewing tea and herbs as medicine. What tea will benefit you most depends on a wide range of different factors, including your immune system and the energies of your body, but they say that green tea is a cold tea because it releases your energy. It’s a cooling tea. Whereas the oxidizing teas such as the black teas and Pu erh (fermented black tea – ed.) warm and retain energy. Imagine coming home from a cold, windy and rainy bike ride – I would always prefer making a pot of warm, black tea. Green tea is also warm, but it doesn’t produce the same sensation of heat.
What are the benefits of drinking green tea and matcha believed to be?
With green tea, we generally get between 30 and 40 percent of the active ingredients or elements, but with the Japanese green teas the percentage is even higher because it’s so potent. When you drink matcha, you get 100 percent of the active ingredients because you consume all the stone-ground leaf. This makes a big difference. What we consume is amino acids, vitamins and minerals, a very high dose of Vitamins A, E and C as well as minerals and polyphenols – plus a lot of active ingredients that our bodies immediately welcome and start to work with. For example, there’s a substance that works in the same way as fluoride which starts to cleanse the mouth and stimulate the digestive system – that’s also why you always get served a small snack of dried fruit or nuts with your tea. This may also be a mochi, a small cake made from rice flour with a red bean paste which is slightly sweet and gives you a feeling of having eaten something, so that the active ingredients have something to work on.
But the most important thing about the tea ceremony is perhaps that you have to take your time with it. You have to make an effort. Breathe, open your mind, feel – and be right there, present in the tea bowl. This can give you a feeling of being connected – you connect with yourself and the wider community, but also with nature. Modern human beings have forgotten that we’re also part of nature.
If you have never been a great tea drinker, what would you advise someone to do to get started?
There are many people who find it difficult to give themselves over to being a tea drinker because the choice can be complex to navigate. When you serve a cup of green tea or matcha to a novice, they are often surprised and say: well, wow, this really tastes nice. Yes, because you can taste when something is fresh.
This is actually one of the most important points. You have to find a tea that is fresh and has an appealing taste. It’s about the quality of what you’re drinking – as is the case with so many other things. I always recommend that you smell your way into it as it’s important that you find a tea that speaks to you. If you buy a tea that doesn’t appeal to you, you won’t drink it, and it’s only healthy if you drink it. Take it home, breathe and enjoy the process of brewing the tea. Look at the tea leaves, look at their color, sit down and take time to drink the tea. That is the healthiest tea you can drink. I won’t be able to sell you anything on the basis that this one has more antioxidants than this one and so on because it’s all about you giving yourself time to feel your body and enjoy and value the moment – and the product. This is something we can all do.
Making tea is so simple. All it is is dried leaves that need some hot water. A little knowledge takes you a long way, and it’s not difficult. If you ask me, I think that this simple ritual can bring so much joy.
How to whip up a matcha
For your matcha, you need a bowl. The bowl has to be warm because if you serve the tea in a cold bowl, the bowl sucks out the first 30 degrees and the temperature will fall rapidly. It will also become harder to work with than at 80 degrees which is the optimum water temperature. Preparing your bowl for a tea ceremony feels cleansing. In the original tea ceremonies, they used the feathers of a crane and swept them across the equipment. This is done several times in case spirits have attached themselves – and they don’t have to be evil spirits. The fact that we live in a spiritual world is just accepted. There are other things in this world besides us. We are surrounded by small helpers and, with the feathers, we just ask them to go away and find somewhere else to be.
When the bowl is clean and warm, I can begin. The tea is finely ground like flour and to avoid clumping, you pour it through a small sieve. You use approximately two grams for a bowl. Then the tea sits there in the bowl, newly sieved and ready. Then we take the chase, which is what the small bamboo whisk is called. It was designed back in 1640 by the Zen monk Sen no Rikoy, who introduced the tea ceremony as a present for the emperor.
The whisk has become dry so it needs a bit of water to be woken up. Then I pour about one deciliter of water into the bowl. I hold the bowl carefully, try to experience a relaxed feeling in my body because I transmit that to the tea. Then I whisk and concentrate. I begin at the bottom and quietly and carefully move upwards. I reduce the vigor of my whisking and close the holes until the matcha is soft and creamy.