Matcha ─ you’ve read about its health benefits, you’ve seen it in chic cafes sold as bright green lattes and iridescent bubble teas. Consumed in Japan since the 12th century, it’s suddenly trending in America. So what is it and where does it come from? In Serious Eats, food writer Matthew Amster-Burton provides a rare look inside matcha’s complex, multi-step production process. With his usual good humor, Burton takes readers through a factory in southern Japan and details the stages of production, from the tea fields to the leaves’ drying to the creation of tencha, the shaded leaf that eventually gets pulverized between stones. It’s a fascinating look inside one of the world’s most rarified and ancient beverages, and an education for those who just know matcha as that stuff in green ice cream.

I asked if I could taste a leaf. “Go ahead,” said Toshimi Nishi. I pulled one off and stuffed it into my mouth. It was tough and fibrous and tasted like, well, a leaf. How does anyone taste this and decide it’ll make good tea?

Toshimi Nishi can. He’s more like a chef than a corporate suit. He’s the man in charge, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of tea. And he can learn a lot by tasting a raw leaf: the variety of tea bush, the quality, the time of year. Spring-harvested tea is considered higher quality than late-season tea. It was now July, hot and humid even in the mountains. Specialized tractors with spindly legs and deadly blades on the underside stood by, ready to give the rows of tea a haircut during the next harvest.

We got back in the car and headed for the factory. “Do people at the factory drink tea all day?” I asked Takahashi.

“Nah, they mostly drink coffee.”

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